Transport of not much delight

A new smart ticketing scheme may have the tech bells and whistles, but is new technology always an improvement?

Perhaps I missed a briefing. It happens. There must have been a press release I binned two paragraphs too early, a broadcast to the nation I slept through. I'm obviously not up to speed here: the plot has been lost, the clue not got and the barbeque under-catered to the tune of one or more prawns. For the past twenty years, I have been labouring under an enormous misapprehension -- that IT is supposed to make my life easier.

For example. This week, I signed up for a major IT-based initiative and bought an Oyster card. This is a brand new scheme for travel on London's public transport network -- a contactless smart card that holds all your details and gives you access to the underground and overground trains, buses and trams that hold the capital together. Before Oyster, you bought a season ticket that had a magnetic stripe on the back and printing on the front: bus drivers and ticket inspectors read the front bit, automatic entry gates scanned the back bit, and between them they let you on.

Now, you just wave your Oyster in the vicinity of a big yellow sensor on buses and at stations and off you go. The whole scheme is knitted together by computers: you can do clever things like pay for your journeys over the Internet, recharge your card at kiosks and, er, feel smug as you sail through ticket barriers without taking your card out of its holder. A great leap forward for commuterkind, or so it's been sold.

The trouble is, the card has no printing. Anyone who wants to know what's in the card and doesn't have a reader -- like a lot of people at train stations, or people you need to talk to about your lost card over the telephone -- is not going to be able to help you. So, whenever you buy or recharge an Oyster card, you also get a little printed slip the exact same size and shape as an old fashioned ticket which confirms what you've paid for. This you have to show or read out over the telephone when you're buying an extra journey or explaining that you've lost your card: obviously, if you need it to cope with a lost card, you mustn't keep it with the card itself. But if you need it to buy an extended journey, you must have it to hand together with the Oyster. So you have to have it about your person, just not in the same holder. Woe betide you if you lose it. And more woe if you lose the Oyster. That's two things to lose instead of one, for no noticeable benefit. You see why I'm a bit puzzled.

The same feeling of befuddlement hit me a few months back, when I upgraded my old-style driving licence for a brand-new computerised one. The old one was a large sheet of paper carrying all manner of information -- what I was allowed to drive, when the licence ran out, evidence of naughtiness concerning speeding, and all that sort of thing. The new one is a credit-card sized piece of plastic with my digitised picture on, but no room for much of the rest of the information. That comes on a separate piece of paper called the counterpart. Which -- ah, you're ahead of me here -- you must keep separately from the main licence, except for when you mustn't. Hiring a car? You need the counterpart, so the hirer can check you're not some manic speed freak just one breath away from disqualification. Need to prove to the police that you're duly authorised to operate the automobile in which you've just been stopped? The card will do. Two things to lose instead of one. And then there's my US visa; a sticker which sits resplendent in my UK passport. When I enter the States, a device of immense capability reads it, checks that I am who I say I am, and that I'm duly authorised to write stories about Intel or Microsoft and publish them through the devices of the foreign media. Heaven only knows what would happen if some evil miscreant got through and wrote something without such a visa: we can only be grateful that we are protected from such peril. But while they could and did run all manner of checks on a vast network of interlinked databases when I applied for that visa, they couldn't accept payment by bank or credit card. Cheques were similarly unacceptable. Even hard cash wasn't good enough at the embassy. No, I had to go beforehand to the right bank with a pile of used notes -- nothing else -- and the right bit of paper previously acquired from the right people, exchange both for another stamped piece of paper, and present that with my application. A bizarre ritual which would be incomprehensible in the 19th century -- let alone in the presence of some of the most sophisticated 21st century IT systems ever assembled in the name of Homeland Security.

I really must be missing something. Perhaps there's a clue in the fact that all three systems are the product of de facto monopolies: you do things their way or not at all. In the case of London Transport, they can do away with staff and keep a much closer eye on what you're doing and where you're going. With the driving licence, the picture card gives the police and other authority figures a semblance of the national ID card that they so dearly covet, without having to go through the tiresome business of legally creating one. In both cases, the schemes have been heavily promoted as being of great benefit to us hapless users thanks to IT: puncture that smokescreen, though, and the technology is there for quite a different purpose.

The only people to come out of this with any kudos are the Americans. They have the honesty not to pretend anything: if you're not prepared to jump through random hoops to get your visa, you're not motivated enough to get in. At least you know what you're dealing with -- that sort of open disdain for the individual lets you know where you stand. A bit more of that kind of truth in IT in general, and who knows? It might even end up being designed to help everyone, just like it says on the package.

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