Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

At the risk of sounding like Jean Baudrillard, I would like to suggest that the internet revolution has not yet taken place.

So far, lots of very clever people have performed amazing feats of technical ingenuity. But for the most part our collective behaviour has so far failed to change enough to truly benefit us. Rather than making us freer, more relaxed and more efficient, in general everyone seems busier, more distracted and more tense.

Unfortunately, technology is a bit like Hitler: it doesn't know when to stop. No sooner has it annexed the Sudetenland than it starts invading Czechoslovakia. The world might be happier if Silicon Valley were put on a two-day week, to give us -- and our social norms -- time to catch up. Unless behaviour soon changes more significantly, we will have squandered digital technology's real potential to solve second-order problems: the housing shortage, say, or transport congestion, or the spiralling cost of education.

A lag between technological progress and behaviour change is only to be expected. Technological progress is at times very rapid and exponential, whereas changes in human behaviour follow a sigmoid curve: slow at first, then rapid, then hitting a plateau. I noticed this first-hand when the high-speed rail service opened in Kent ten years ago. Conventional wisdom would predict people would instantly switch to the new, faster line. It didn't work like that. For the first few years, alighting at Ebbsfleet station felt like Bad Day at Black Rock. Then suddenly it tipped. In the past five years usage has grown by 200,000 passengers a year, and the trains are packed. In time, growth will level off. (Virtually nothing in the human realm is linear, which is why extrapolating trends is so dangerous.)

Most behaviours -- and attitudes, too -- follow this sigmoid path. The fall in drink-driving or smoking; the rise in divorce; attitudes to homosexuality; car use; mobile phone adoption; the craze for gin, the fashion for beards. …

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