Tackling technology

While certainly old-fashioned in outlook and instinctively suspicious of change, I am not opposed to progression.

Me. Several times

If it becomes evident that an advancement or development has improved a product or service without any obvious drawback, then I can usually be won around to its value quite easily. It is why I am such an enthusiastic supporter of seedless grapes.

Recently, I received a letter advising me that my driving licence would soon expire, and I needed to apply for a new one.

I tend to live my life by the motto ‘Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today – put it off until next week instead’. And so, I stuffed the letter underneath my computer keyboard and erased it from my mind.

But I knew that eventually the ordeal would have to be faced (not to mention paid for). Renewing a driving licence is not a task one undertakes often in life. I had vague recollections of it being an arduous process, involving having to go to the chemist to get a photo taken, filling out a long and difficult form and then waiting in a queue in a government building.

But the world has moved on. I noticed from the letter that the application could be completed online and, to make the process even easier, I could even upload my own photograph. This seemed to be remarkable progress and, feeling quite light at such a sure sign of societal advancement, I left the job to a later date than was surely wise.

With a few days to spare before the expiration date I sat at my computer and began the process of applying for a new driving licence. The correspondence provided the information which allowed me to get through most of the stages quite quickly. I was in fine form.

I came to the section in which I had to provide a photograph. I whisked out my mobile, snapped a quick selfie, emailed and uploaded it. My mind was already racing ahead, beginning to think about what I would have for dinner.

The website rejected my photo.

I was slightly surprised and, to be honest, a little stung. As both the skills of the photographer and the features contained within the image were my own, it was hard not to take it personally.

Clearly, I was going to have to give this a little more thought. I went to my wife, handed her my phone and asked her to take a picture of me. I emailed and uploaded it.

The website rejected my photo.

This time I paid closer attention. The advice said: ‘This photo has failed the automated checks for the following reason: The lighting is too dark or uneven.’

I went back to my wife and told her they needed more light. I stood closer to the window. She took another picture. I emailed and uploaded it.

The website rejected my photo.

The site repeated the advice about the photo being too dark, but it had also detected a new offence. It read: ‘It looks like your eyes are closed.’

I stared at the photo. It was clear that my eyes were open. I scratched my head and returned to my wife. Now she displayed some frustration but took another photo. I emailed and uploaded it.

The website rejected my photo.

The warnings about the lighting and my eyes persisted, but now a third flank had been opened. It read: ‘There are reflections on your face.’

I looked hard. Reflections of what exactly? A hand shadow of a rabbit? The silhouette of the Sydney Opera House? Whatever the reflections were, I could not detect them.

I returned to my wife, who was by now understandably irritated. She reeled off a series of photographs of me. One by one I emailed and uploaded them.

And one by one the website rejected them.

The previous offences of being too dark, having eyes closed and reflections on my face remained, but some new ones were thrown into the pot.

Now it said: ‘It looks like your mouth is open.’

I went through all the photos. My mouth was defiantly closed.

The website usefully added: ‘Sometimes this is caused by facial hair.’

I scratched my head once more. I’ve been driving for 30 years, I would like to continue doing so. Up to now having a beard has never been an issue.

The website provided more useful information. At one point it advised: ‘You must keep your head straight and in the centre of the photo.’ Later it advised me that I should inform them if there is a ‘medical condition why you can’t open your eyes’.

By the end of it all my wife had taken 28 photographs. All had been rejected, and I was facing up to the prospect of a future relying on public transport.

There was only one option left. The website stated that I could go ahead with the application if I believed there was a compelling reason why my photo should be accepted (‘eg, a medical condition’). But it warned that this could delay the process, effectively leaving me with no licence.

I am naturally cautious. This seemed a cavalier step. I had no other choice. I ploughed ahead.

It warned me once again why my photo was unacceptable, listing the offences like a charge sheet.

‘The lighting is too dark or uneven.

‘There are reflections on your face.

‘It looks like your eyes are closed.

‘It looks like your mouth is open.’

Then, as if in some grand legal drama, I was invited to respond. There was an empty box in which I had to argue why I believed the photo should be used.

I knew I had to come up with a compelling argument, something which would draw upon the deepest reserves of my creativity and linguistic flair. I thought for a few moments. Then I typed…

‘The lighting is not dark or uneven.

‘There are not reflections on my face.

‘My eyes are not closed.

‘My mouth is not open.’

I submitted the photo and my dazzling arguments. Another page popped up with a further question.

‘Do you have a plain expression? Your mouth must be closed, and you must not be smiling, frowning or raising your eyebrows.’

I was frowning and raising my eyebrows as I read it.

I was asked to pick one of two options.

‘Yes, I have a plain expression’ or ‘No, I have a slight smile or frown.’

I looked around just to check that Jeremy Beadle was not hiding somewhere in my kitchen before ticking the first box.

Then I submitted my application. I was asked for my payment details which the software seemed to have no difficulty at all in accepting.

I waited nervously for a few days. Had I acted rashly? Was I to face a future without ever driving again? I hauled my rusty old bicycle out of the shed.

And then an official looking envelope fell through my letterbox. I opened it and my new driving licence tumbled out. I examined the document and admired the printed photograph. My eyes were open, my mouth shut, fully bearded, no shadows and not a flicker of emotion.

I returned to the envelope and searched for the letter I was certain must be there to accompany it. The letter of apology for my ordeal. The letter of thanks for the efforts of one brave man in standing up against the machine, of exposing the flaws in the system, of overcoming overwhelming bureaucratic odds to succeed. Part of me even wondered if I ought not to be nominated for an award of some sort.

I looked deep into the envelope. There was no letter.

* This article first appeared in the News Letter

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