Face time used to be a key to personal riches. In my former life as an investment banker, if you wanted a decent bonus, you put in the hours. Being physically present at work, doing work.
Sometimes a little ingenuity was required. After all, perception is reality. Leaving your jacket on the back of your chair is a brilliant way to disguise the fact that you’d gone to the gym, not an internal meeting, or simply left the office early to have a life.
Technological face time has made other people rich but has made our lives open to interruption. We can be found — wherever we are. It has also seduced us into dependence on essentially unreliable devices.
When tech fails, it can massively screw up your day. Not turning up to work because you overslept is a career limiting move. As a radio presenter of a weekday Early Breakfast Business Show, even more so. You have to be physically in the studio. For me, that means waking at 3.20am every weekday. Ouch! A massive reliance on technology ensures I am up, informed and then chauffeured to work.
I have presented thousands of shows on the wireless, many at antisocial times of day and night. I have never been late, never missed a show, not one — until three weeks ago. Seeing daylight when I woke up was the first clue all was not well.
I hadn’t been on a boozy night out, unlike the time I missed a briefing with the then prime minister John Major because I’d overslept after hoovering beers with tequila chasers the night before. On my way home, I managed temporarily to redesign my clothing. I learnt two important lessons that morning. First, oversleeping is unacceptable and, second, that a black Italian loafer never recovers from a lager-soaked bar floor.
A few months ago, the other third (there’s not three of us in this relationship, it’s just that my diet hasn’t gone so well recently) bought me a lovely gift. A Tozo wireless phone charger. You plonk the phone on it and it charges wirelessly. It’s £27.99 well spent. Except when it doesn’t charge.
Instead, it decided to switch the phone on and off while draining the battery. The alarm failed to ring. Panic. Where am I? Why is it light outside? What’s the time? Realising it was five minutes until my show started, I rang the studio — from my landline, which no one had bothered to ring. Millennials don’t do landlines.
My cheery producer was just pleased I wasn’t dead. We had a plan and I’d get in as soon as I could. No mobile phone? How do you order an Uber? Thank heavens for the emergency quick charge power pack that gave my phone enough juice by the time I’d showered, slung on some clothes and stopped swearing. Rich people have been allowed to swear ever since Hugh Grant added a k to far in Four Weddings.
My iPhone X is my domestic help, a modern-day valet. Its first task is to wake me every morning. Then it delivers my electronic newspaper. It informs me that my car has arrived.
The car may have been waiting outside, but because my phone was dead no attempt was made to get out of the car and ring on the doorbell. Oh no. That’s too much to ask. When I was at Morgan Stanley, my chauffeur would have climbed a drainpipe to ensure I was at the office or airport on time.
Eventually, I did make it into the studio and seamlessly picked up the reins half an hour into my show. I felt terrible all day. How could technology do this to me? It’s supposed to make my life easier. It’s supposed to avoid terrible and calamitous diary failure. It’s supposed to deal with the fallibility of the human mind.
Owning cutting-edge tech used to be a sign of wealth. When flatscreen televisions were first launched in 1997, Sony and Sharp retailed them at more than £10,000. That’s £12,700 in today’s money for a 42-inch model. In 2018, a Samsung top-range 75-inch QLED with every bell and whistle will set you back just under £6,000. Unless you have a massive room, a 55-inch telly is more than sufficient. And £2,799 will get you the latest and greatest model. Tech has become smarter and faster. It does more. It’s less expensive and it has democratised society. Even though it costs a grand, the iPhone X is considerably cheaper than getting a live-in butler.
Yet democratising tech has made our lives worse in all sorts of ways. Marks and Spencer used to be a massive UK company. It’s still big but it has a market capitalisation of just under £5bn, it’s closing stores and trying to survive. “Quality. Service. Value” no longer resonate. “Cheap. Now. Delivered” define today’s success stories.
M&S had the same market cap back in 2003. In 2003 Apple was worth about $5bn. Today, it’s worth more than $900bn. The number of smartphones and tablets in use provides access to services that were once out of reach of the masses, from limos to takeaways.
These make exclusive services available to all, which is nice if they work. But what happens if they go wrong? Not a lot, it would seem. We are all doomed. Money used to bring you power, influence and allow you to jump the queue. Customer service used to be something that was paid for and delivered. Try queue jumping at Virgin Media if your broadband goes down. If there’s a mass outage, everyone is calling, and you may as well shout out of the window at the call centre in India.
Or what about food delivery services? They promise they’ll deliver piping hot pizza in under 30 minutes. Except what if they don’t, and it isn’t? Will they take action? Only if we jump on to antisocial media.
Meanwhile the big tech giants are getting bigger, more powerful, more valuable — and less responsive. By inventing ways in which human interaction can be replaced while giving us services for “free”, pillaging our data to push unregulated adverts, vile content or convincing us to vote in ways we never thought conceivable.
We are told disruption is the answer to all our problems. Google apparently wants to use artificial intelligence to book our restaurants and make appointments for us, while their electronic inventions are teaching a generation that “please” or “thank you” are no longer necessary.
No, thank you. I think I’d rather go back to the old days, where loyalty is rewarded, an individual is not a number and my name is Mr Max. Not James.
Get alerts on Innovation when a new story is published