Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

When I was ten, the two things we all expected to enjoy by 2020 were flying cars and videotelephony. What never occurred to us was that we might successfully invent one of these things and then fail to use it.

Yet that has largely been the case with video conferencing. Is its day still to come? Will there be some tipping point when we start to hold virtual meetings routinely? Or will video conferencing turn out to be one of those technologies whose promise is never fulfilled: something which 'has a great future -- and always will'.

I don't know. Certainly it suffered from being oversold too soon. Memories of early video conferencing melt-downs still linger, though the reality today is much better (services such as Zoom or WebEx function well, and increasingly, even at home, people finally have the bandwidth to make full use of them).

Nor did it help that video conferencing was always promoted as a cheap alternative to physical travel. Business travel entails a large component of 'costly signalling', whereby your commitment to a project is conveyed by the pain and cost you incur in maintaining it. ('If I didn't think this was important, would I have got up at 5 a.m. to fly to Frankfurt to see you?') Without the symbolic cost and pain of meeting face to face, anything online receives less attention.

My colleague Stephen Fraser suggests that this instinct -- to signal that one's presence at any meeting has come at a high personal cost -- drives people on telephone conference calls to act in bizarrely antisocial ways. You can't call in punctually from a quiet room -- that would make it seem easy. So to convey the impression that attendance involves significant sacrifice of diary-time, people dial into conference calls ten minutes late from wholly inappropriate and noisy locations: an airport departure gate, perhaps, or a missile testing ground. …

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