This month, I bought a car for the first time in ages, trading my faithful 13 year old Renault Clio in part exchange for an eco-friendly zero road tax three year old Peugeot 107. The whole process has in the meantime moved online, so there is no signing and posting off various coloured parts of the V5 logbook, no queuing at the Post Office clutching your MOT and insurance documents to buy a pretty paper tax disc to display on your windscreen, no real MOT certificate even, although you do still get a printed confirmation from the test station. You don't need any of the paper documents any more. It's all there on a computer somewhere in the vaults of the DVLA, and changes are done instantly online. You can even check the tax and MOT status of any car you fancy on the DVLA website by entering the registration and make... which could become quite a hobby if you live on the kind of road I do, with all sorts of vehicles passing up and down at every hour of the day and night.
It's undeniably simpler, quicker, no longer incorporates a delay of maybe several weeks when you're in limbo, wondering if your posted logbook changes ever reached the DVLA and what might happen if they don't. All well and good when you're at a dealership on the edge of town - and whoever had time for post office queues, anyway? Yet have I really sold one car and bought another? The car on my drive has changed colour and has a different number plate, but without the careful and slower paper-based process of the (not so distant) past, it all feels strangely insubstantial, as if those online records could be wiped out by a single strike of the delete key, unscheduled data crash, online terrorism, or - more likely - a mischievous teenage hacker with a laptop in their bedroom.
My parents are of the generation who coped very well for most of their lives without computers, and don't really see why they should get connected now they are retired. I can see their point, but I can also see them getting more and more frustrated by not being able to do essential day-to-day things on paper in the old fashioned way. I help them out whenever I can... booking airport parking, looking up information that is only on a website and therefore invisible to people like my parents. The car dealer does all the online stuff for you, so if my Dad buys a car he doesn't have to worry. He just needs to hand over the money and trust the dealer. The main banks still offer branch services... so far. We can still send in paper tax returns, but for how long? Cheques are no longer accepted in many places (including car dealerships, it seems). Real money - the coin sort - is being phased out in favour of contactless bank cards. We are not so far away from being totally reliant on a central computer in some vault somewhere not going wrong. And that's before you factor in other, more sinister, reasons why data can get corrupted or changed, or simply disappear. One of the scariest dystopian books I've read is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where financial freedom (and, as a result, physical freedom) is taken away from women at the single press of a key, and it all makes me rather paranoid. Maybe that particular scenario wouldn't happen today, but I can think of many others that might just as easily happen, and some that probably will, if we continue blithely down this virtual route into a totally online world where we have no choice but to trust the people who enter and look after our data. Will we even know when that delete key is pressed, supposedly for our own good?
Feel like going off grid yet? Well, if you enjoy a bit of irony and don't mind reading a book in e-format, here's your chance to escape for a few hours... in anticipation of the lo-o-ong awaited sequel to my Earthaven novel Spellfall (chosen for the "Children's 76" by American Independent Booksellers when it was published in 2001 by Chicken House/Scholastic), I am lowering the price of the Kindle edition of the first book until the second title Spellspring comes out. For just 99c/99p, from this weekend until Spellspring is published, readers aged 9+ can visit the enchanted world of Earthaven where technology does not work and magic takes over... magic being just as dangerous to the uninitiated, of course!
Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first novel Song Quest. She writes fantasy/legendary fiction for young readers, and historical fiction for older readers under the name Katherine A Roberts. Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk