London, virtually

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The Independent Travel
London, virtually

The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Universe has become a reality. With the appearance last week of the first CD-Rom devoted to London, Douglas Adams's once fanciful notion about a massive electronic guidebook has come true. Armed with a £20 disc called Welcome to London, and several hundred pounds' worth of notebook computer, you can click your way around the capital.

Click: here's a selection of paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Click: here's a map of how to get there, with an option to zoom in. Click: tired and hungry? Here's the dining room of the Langham Hilton Hotel.

The British Tourist Authority is behind the concept, and is aiming squarely at the American market. Despite the dodgy dollar, plenty of surplus cash still sloshes around the States, and the BTA is hoping digital developments will haul some of it our way. Americans collectively own 17 million CD- Rom players. Last year, these computer accessories outsold TVs in the US.

The disc provides a selection of street maps showing hotels, galleries and shops at the touch of a fingertip. Details of individual attractions can be ordered up, laced with video clips and stereo music. And for those of us without the necessary hardware, the package can be accessed for free at the British Travel Centre in central London.

Technologically it is superb; editorially it is suspect. The organisations featured are almost all self-selected. You have to buy your way on to the disc, for a fee of £800. So only one pub gets a look-in: the Golden Lion in St James's, which does not look representative of pubs in the capital. (Also, all the staff appearing on the CD are smiling, which could be why my local failed to make an appearance.)

The British Museum felt that with 6 million visitors each year, it had no need to spend £800 of taxpayers' cash for a few megabytes of space. Realising that leaving it out would look silly, the makers have included the museum, but it only gets a still picture. In contrast, the Science Museum's entry is a dazzling video sequence. If I were planning an itinerary based on the CD alone, I know which I would choose.

When you look for somewhere to eat, you soon find the disc selection is aimed at diners wealthier than the average visitor. You can pinpoint the location of Quaglino's, and study a copy of the menu. But dozens of excellent places to eat, not to mention Douglas Adams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, come nowhere.

Sitting ugly

The march of technology is getting straggly, with every individual and nation at a different stage on the path to digital enlightenment.

The only kind of mouse you are likely to find at the airport terminal on the Colombian island of Providencia is the one chewing its way through the frayed telephone wire. The airport reservations system is an exercise book. Your flight booking is at risk of amendment from a host of threats: obliteration by a tropical downpour, or erasure in favour of a more powerful passenger. So you are duly grateful to get any kind of seat off the island at all.

Elsewhere, technology exists to guarantee a place on the plane when you hand over your money. Book a place on a train next week, and you know exactly where you will be sitting. Yet few airlines exploit the same technology to help keep their passengers happy. Why, when I commit myself to a particular flight, does the airline refuse to guarantee a particular seat? I understand that travellers on full-fare tickets often fail to turn up for flights, but the vast majority of us are locked into unchangeable tickets.

Mr LD Johnston of Brecon says this is a hangover from "the attitude of British Airways in the 1960s - you'll take the seat given you at check- in and like it!" As well as adding another uncertainty to a journey, Mr Johnston points out that "assigning seats at the gate must be more inefficient". Does anyone know why the developed world is not noticeably faster than an obscure Caribbean island?