When Debbie Gainsford checked into an Ibis hotel in Aldgate, London, to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 26, she was told by the front desk that if she had problems, she could scan a QR code in her room to get in touch. She did not think she needed it until she returned to her room at. 22.30 and wanted a shower – but realized there were no towels.
Without a phone in the room, Gainsford, 43, dutifully scanned the QR code. She read a note that said housekeeping services only ran for certain hours, and then clicked on a link to WhatsApp to send a message to the hotel reception. She sent a message asking for towels. An employee read it but did not respond.
She sent message again. “It was not something I wanted to do so late at night,” she says. Someone eventually responded and said she could pick up her towels at the front desk. She went down nine floors, picked up her towels and went back to her room. “When I paid £ 120 for the night, I did not expect to have that type of experience in a hotel,” she says. It was less room service, more “come and get it yourself.”
Gainsford is far from alone. Throughout the pandemic, personal and analogue services have rapidly declined to digital alternatives. Many restaurants and bars have left physical menus in favor of QR codes, apps and web forms. At Walt Disney World in Florida, an app-based chatbot tells people to visit long closed restaurants. While the digital divide has ruled out economically disadvantaged and elderly people for years, its rapid expansion creates a new problem: Technology is often terrible.
The frustrations are small, but legion: people in hotels who cannot get clean sheets without ordering them on an app; sports fans are asked to download a program on their phone as no physical copies are available; McDonald’s customers flummoxed by banks of self-service kiosks. For companies, such changes are often seen as more effective and an improvement – but the reality is more complicated.
The replacement of personal services with digital alternatives is becoming an ever-increasing disadvantage for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. An estimated 2.9 billion people-37 percent of the world’s population – have never used the Internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations IT agency.
On the one hand, greater convenience and cheaper prices for phones and the Internet help more people get online: 782 million people did so for the first time between 2019 and 2021, according to the ITU. But for many, it’s less about being lured online and more about being forced.
Take banking, for example. The number of bank branches in the United States has fell 6.5 per cent since 2012 according to the financial company Self. The number of branches in 2030 will be lower than they were in 1965, when the US population was 194 million. The trend is the same in the UK, where the number of bank and construction company branches fell by a third between 2012 and 2021.