The digital divide is coming for you

When Debbie Gainsford checked into the Ibis Hotel in Aldgate, London to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 26, she was told by reception that if she had any problems she could scan the QR code in her room to get in touch. She thought she wouldn’t need it until she got back to her room at 10:30 p.m. and wanted to take a shower — only to realize there were no towels.

With no phone in the room, Gainsford, 43, dutifully scanned the QR code. She read the note that said cleaning services only work during certain hours and then clicked on the WhatsApp link to send a message to the hotel reception. She sent a message asking for towels. A staff member read but did not respond.

She texted again. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do so late at night,” she says. Someone eventually answered saying he could pick up his towels at the front desk. She went down the nine floors, picked up the towels and returned to her room. “Paying £120 a night, I didn’t expect to have that kind of hotel experience,” she says. There was less room service, more “come and take it yourself”.

Gainsford is not alone. Throughout the pandemic, in-person and analog services quickly fell to digital alternatives. Many restaurants and bars have abandoned 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 excluded the economically disadvantaged and the elderly for years, its rapid expansion creates a new problem: the technology is often terrible.

The frustrations are few, but many: people in hotels who cannot get clean sheets without ordering in the app; sports fans were told to download the program on their phone since there are no physical copies available; McDonald’s customers confused by banks of self-service kiosks. For businesses, such changes are often seen as more efficient and an improvement—but the reality is more complex.

The replacement of in-person services with digital alternatives is becoming an increasing inconvenience 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 phone and internet prices are helping more people access the internet: 782 million people did so for the first time between 2019 and 2021, according to the ITU. For many, though, it’s less about online persuasion and more about coercion.

Take banking, for example. The number of bank branches in the United States has fallen 6.5 percent since 2012, according to financial services firm Self. By 2030, the number of branches will be smaller than in 1965, when the US population was 194 million. The trend is similar in the UK, where the number of bank and building society branches fell by a third between 2012 and 2021.

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