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State of the Art: In a Self-Serve World, Start-Ups Find Value in Human Helpers

It’s unfashionable to admit this in the age of Expedia, Priceline and other do-it-yourself online tools, but here it is: I miss travel agents.

The Internet took off as a way to book travel because the human intermediaries were always a bit suspect — their expertise questionable, their methods opaque and their allegiances unclear. And at first, the machines seemed to improve everything. For uncomplicated trips, booking online is now much easier than in the past. Because we’ve replaced agents with computers whose sole purpose is to ferret out the best deal, and for lots of other reasons, airfares have plummeted over the last three decades.

Yet as you suffer through another holiday travel season, you might pause to consider how much we’ve really gained — and lost — in ditching human agents for machines. And you might welcome an emerging trend on the Internet: start-ups that are trying to put human agents, whether in travel, home services or shopping, back at the center of how we make decisions.


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