THE HUMAN TOUCH

A couple of days ago I walked into my local bank and saw a sign on the counter informing customers this particular branch would be closing in November. It’s been my ‘local’ for about fifteen years, and whilst I don’t use it as much as I once did (online banking, what can I say?), the fact it’s disappearing from a provincial high-street that, like most, would at one time have boasted perhaps half-a-dozen different banks says a good deal about…well…the here and now. The provincial high-street in question used to contain a variety of businesses that are now becoming increasingly rare sights – banks, post offices, gas showrooms, pubs, newsagents etc; but, as befitting a nation of fat bastards, there’s no shortage of places to eat there today. Every other shop seems to cater for the appetite.

Not so long ago, every financial transaction required interaction with another human being. If one needed to pay a bill or withdraw cash or receive some form of benefit, one had to visit a building and queue-up to enter into said transaction. There was no choice; everyone had to do it because that’s the way it was done. There wasn’t the generational divide that now exists – the one between those who are internet-literate and those over a certain age, who aren’t online and who are finding the transformation of every service into a virtual one a minefield of misunderstanding. Often, the latter are also reliant on public transport; the news that the closing branch of my local bank means any in-person dealings with it will now require a journey of several miles to the next nearest branch is symbolic of a change that arrogantly assumes everyone has one foot in cyberspace, when they don’t.

As far as banks go in the rapidly changing high-street landscape, the status of the branch’s top dog has been severely diminished. The bank manager, as with the GP or publican, was once a prominent figure within communities; he was the regular butt of jokes and a familiar presence on sitcoms, whereby characters would visit him in the hope of a loan, usually to be rebuffed. He was portrayed as pompous, somewhat self-important and authoritarian in a headmasterly manner. Lest we forget, Captain Mainwaring’s day-job was a bank manager. These days, the bank manager as a symbol of a certain kind of old-school British seniority has all-but vanished from the culture, along with the physical incarnation of the institution he represented.

When I started school at five, I recall every pupil being given a bank account and a little bankbook to go with it. This curious system wasn’t extended to any other school I attended, and there probably wasn’t much more than 50p in our respective accounts; but I remembered this quaint story the other day and realised the humble bankbook now seems poised to go the same way as the black & white TV set. I pay my rent at the bank and have my bankbook updated in the process, though ever since I started banking online I tend to check what’s gone in and what’s gone out that way rather than checking my bankbook. Yes, I’m as guilty as the next man.

The cash-machine has been with us far longer than we tend to imagine, with the first UK model appearing in 1967; ‘On the Buses’ star Reg Varney famously earned his place in history as the first person in this country to withdraw money from an ATM (at the Enfield branch of Barclays). But while this now commonplace sight may be fifty years old, it’s fair to say it didn’t acquire the omnipotence it possesses today until perhaps the 1990s, when it became far more abundant outside supermarkets as well as banks themselves; most still visited the bank to get their hands on their money. But the proliferation of cash-machines was the first pre-internet step in detaching customers from human contact.

There’s a mid-60s episode of ‘The Avengers’ in which a mad scientist played by Michael Gough is determined to make all businesses fully automated; the novelty of entering business premises in which human beings are absent and a card is required to open doors and access goods is evident in Steed’s reaction. But while Gough’s character may have been ahead of his time, the downside to his vision is that he has also created a race of robotic humanoids he calls Cybernauts to do the manual labour his business needs; this being ‘The Avengers’, these Cybernauts naturally do a good deal more than merely lifting boxes. However, when one bears in mind the episode aired at a time when the production lines of the nation’s motor industry were still dependent on men putting the hours in, it now looks extremely prescient.

The writing team on ‘The Avengers’ probably didn’t anticipate that automated industry would eventually stretch to so many areas of our future lives, but the onset of the internet has accelerated the transformation of society from the manual to the automated far more than even they could have guessed. Don’t get me wrong; cyber-shopping has made life a hell of a lot easier for me personally. I now buy the likes of CDs and DVDs more or less exclusively online, which is a Godsend because I hate shopping. When I think about it, though, it’s not so much shopping I detest as the places I’d have to do it in if I couldn’t do it online, such as ghastly malls. My aversion to crowds is a deterrent too; I now no longer have to enter that arena thanks to cyberspace, for which I am grateful.

For some transactions, however, the human touch remains something strangely reassuring, and the closure of a local bank branch is not dissimilar to another depressingly contemporary development, i.e. the closure of a local pub. The retirement of one’s GP, necessitating relocation to a ‘medical centre’ where one is shoved before a different doctor on each visit, thus preventing the development of a long-term relationship between GP and patient, is also characteristic of this trend. But, hey, that’s progress; we have to take the rough with the smooth. At the same time though, I can’t help but feel every replacement of a human with an anonymous internet transaction is reducing our contact with people even more and making us more isolated from each other in the process.

© The Editor