How Ryanair stole our souls

Thanks to Ryanair, Google and other products of our obsession with competition, individuality has become a luxury extra

In 2005, not long after the launch of its book search project, Google was reported to be working on a new product designed to solve the problem of information lying beyond its reach. Whether for reasons of illegibility or copyright protection, certain things seemed to evade the search engine's indexes. And so Google Purge was born. Under its aegis an army of robots would scour libraries, galleries and the wider world, destroying everything that could not be scanned and indexed, and making the world as "simple, clean, and accessible as the Google home page itself".

Thanks to Google Purge, you'll never have to worry that your search has missed some obscure book, because that book will no longer exist. And the same goes for movies, art, and music. Book burning is just the beginning …

The report, of course, came from The Onion, America's finest satirical newspaper. But like all the best satire, the Google Purge story had the satisfying combination of being absurd and prophetic. For, to the extent to which Google gains a monopoly on perceived access to information, we will be doing the Purge robots' work for them.

I was thinking about this while queuing at Stansted airport, waiting to reach someone I could ask about where to check in my bicycle. I was feeling confused because, following Ryanair's recent stipulation that those who fail to check in online will be required to pay £40 for the privilege of doing it in person, I had dealt with everything five days before. But now I was being told to check in again by the man zealously guarding the mysterious outsize baggage conveyor belt. I mention zeal, but his real value as a guard came from a combination of immensity, inertia and a squinting glare designed to transfer the awkwardness of the baggage to the person carrying it.

All around I was surrounded by states of confusion even more advanced than my own. Families, non-English speakers, the middle-aged – all kinds of non-standard persons were being sent from newly erected pillar to temporary post having been told they had got it wrong, were in the wrong queue, were the wrong kind of person and would have to pay. In the absence of any staff to ask, and listing from the weight of my bicycle bag, with a pedal digging into my waist, I found myself dispensing unofficial advice and commiseration to a host of individuals less fortunate than myself. I had only misqueued twice and, thanks to a freak gust of benevolence, was not required to pay more money.

Ryanair is one of a growing number of organisations who make their customers think they're getting value for money by making them feel cheap. Like numerous companies (most of whom take the spaces out of their titles, to save money on engraving costs one supposes) such as PayPal, TalkTalk, most high street banks and all parking enforcement agencies, Ryanair have pared down their customer service to email- or telephone-based wild-goose-chases, the purpose of which is either to require more money or to present the customer with problems more significant than the one which prompted him or her to establish contact. The customer almost always lets the matter go by using the "it wasn't much money anyway" psychological escape clause – except in the case of the banks, who will help themselves to the money in your account regardless of any circumnavigatory progress you may make through their various, hermetically sealed call centre divisions.

All this is in the interest of competition, the drive that makes us strong, and proud to be human, proud to be individuals fighting for a piece of the action. Ryanair deserve our custom, because they have played the hard game and won. They should be proud of their success, and we proud to fly under their banner.

And yet no one except its founder could possibly be proud of Ryanair. While its passengers are mostly either furious or ashamed, self-disgust is writ large in the behaviour of its staff, in their garish uniforms and the routine antics of the flight crews, the passing glint of satisfaction in the eyes of the check-in staff when customers are sent back for another try. Even Michael O'Leary, like Gerald Ratner before him, is probably secretly much more proud of himself than what he sells.

"Society is dead." The import of Mrs Thatcher's famous exclamation is well known. Pride and self-respect – the qualities that make life meaningful – come not from co-operation but success in competition, and not from common participation but from private ownership. Individual self-respect should derive solely from individual achievement.

And yet for the ordinary, would-be-classless warriors on whose account Thatcher believed she was fighting, it is clear that individuality has long since become a luxury item, an optional extra accessible only from business class, and then only rarely. If society is dead, individualism has at least one foot in the same grave.

Standing in my disorderly queue, issuing words of comfort to people whose behaviour displayed only the slightest traits of individuality, it struck me that Ryanair – together with other examples of the extreme commercial competitiveness of which it is a paradigm – is in fact operating at the front end of a Google-like purge of non-standard customer types. Any deviation from the standard profile – internet-active, credit-enabled, and with arms incapable of carrying more than 15kg – and you find yourself either humiliated and fined heavily, or forced to enter an altogether less affordable market; and even there, you'll find things much the same under the surface.

It seems that Google Purge's robots have long been hard at work scouring the earth's surface for signs of nonconformity. We just didn't imagine they would be dressed in royal blue polyester.

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