Time for a digital rethink

Image of Tyler Brûlé

When was the last time you sat down for a long, engaging dinner with a friend and, after several exceptional courses, a couple of bottles of wine and a comprehensive catch-up, you suddenly realise that you’re seated beside the most thoroughly modern person in the world?

On Tuesday evening I had the good fortune to catch up with a friend (we see each other about twice a year) at a tiny Italian restaurant in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Hiroo. After hearing about his assorted adventures and latest discoveries, I had a giddy rush of envy as he talked about how he enjoyed living without a base (he has no fixed address), the freedom that comes from abstaining from smartphones (a basic Japanese mobile does the trick) and the plotting he’d been doing to launch new businesses.

As we marvelled at the general passing of time, I noted how delightful it was that he never once reached for a phone to check messages (his device barely manages with basic texting) and how rare it was to sit in a cosy restaurant and not be disturbed by the pings, vibrations and eerie glow of telecommunication devices poking out of pockets or peeking out from under napkins.

How different from that pool scene in Bangkok the week before (my friend had the good sense to escape to the same hotel that I retreated to after telling off that incredibly rude grouping of French families – see last week’s column), and how perfect that after a round of yoghurt sake (a most delicious concoction) we had the restaurant to ourselves.

At this point the owners of the establishment gathered round for a chat and I asked them about the preparation of dishes (an amazing combo of leeks and mozzarella and the most delicate piece of beef) and whether they could be coaxed to come to London to open up their establishment for a season.

Outside the secret establishment (no sign suggesting there might be a restaurant beyond the wall), we said our goodbyes and I made my way to another part of the city for a meeting. As the familiar signage of Japan Inc slipped by (Yoshinoya, 7-11, Curry House CoCo, Lawson, Doutor, Family Mart, Mos Burger, Yoshinoya, 7-11, and so on) I resisted the urge to tap away at my phone.

Instead, I watched the men in blue jumpsuits clearing away snow, the girls in smart camel coats and mink collars teetering out of bars and the elegant old couple speed past in the back seat of a smoke-grey Toyota Century (the most chic way to shuttle around on four wheels).

At one intersection we passed an electronic screen displaying highlights of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and I couldn’t help but wince – so much hype about not much in the way of life improvement. Should we really be heaping attention on an event hosting companies that are actively making people dumber, aiding and abetting in the invasion of privacy, and for the most part making life more complicated than rewarding?

You might think it was all that fine wine doing the talking, but pause for a brief moment and consider the state of contemporary communications. How could we have arrived at a point where it’s now perfectly acceptable to send correspondence peppered with errors? And where one of the most celebrated devices, created by one of the world’s most valuable companies, has forced people to add bizarre disclaimers excusing all of their mistakes, while failing to mention that touchscreen technology is still a nightmare for anyone who wants to put their point across?

Why have we allowed functional buttons, knobs and dials to become demonised, while stroking sheets of backlit glass as if it were the most rewarding, sensual experience? How did a group of once (somewhat) sane media companies allow a bunch of upstart digital companies to blanket the marketplace with their logos and get away without paying for the endless free plugs for their brands?

Why do responsible newspapers make such a fuss about the number of people who “follow” or “like” certain people or brands, when we know very well that talk is cheap? Wouldn’t it be more interesting (and valuable) if there was a cost attached to belonging to these media channels?

Wouldn’t there be more viable (read: responsible) businesses if they actually had a revenue stream from their users? What’s the point of claiming millions of “followers” when awareness doesn’t necessarily tally with transactions at the till?

And, finally, what about charging people to comment? It used to cost the price of a stamp to send a letter to the editor. I’m quite sure the media landscape would be a tidier, more polite place if everyone was charged a first-class postal fee before firing off poorly researched, occasionally rude remarks.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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