Choosing our Internet shortcuts

Planning a Southwest trip, I fire up my computer, hit, and type in the departure and destination cities and the dates I want to fly.

That's it. I nab as good a deal as any that a travel agent could have found. (I asked one. He waved the white flag.) Soon I'll be picking up my e-ticket at the gate.

Self-service can work for small sellers, too. Decide to unload, say, your H.R. Pufnstuf lunchbox from the '70s, and you'd be well advised to post it on an auction site like eBay. You can specify a price below which you won't sell, then let the bidding begin.

No time wasted haggling.

So why not rely on the Web to simplify every type of transaction?

Middlemen have leverage. The Web hits the wall of a powerful lobby - dealers - when it comes to buying automobiles straight from the source, for example.

Dealers maintain they need to remain in the game because they're uniquely suited to handling vehicle recalls and performing warranty work.

That's debatable. It's likely that manufacturer-certified car care could be a lot less centralized.

But dealers are also useful for aggregating car shipments, and ensuring quality control. Do you want to go down to the docks and make sure your new car works?

Still, plenty of Web shortcuts work well. It comes down to how much we're willing to take on from the pile of tasks that have traditionally fallen to facilitators.

We have to choose carefully.

It may be easy in some cases to forgo the house-hunting services of a real estate agent. A lawyer? Many legal documents can now be prepared online. But many of us could quickly get out of our depth.

In some areas, we should still think of the Web as an informant.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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