Earlier this week, Labour’s new business ambassador hit the headlines by saying that we wouldn’t need HS2, because technological advances would mean that the mean we’d no longer need to journey for meetings.
Lord Mitchell’s favoured option was holograms. But that is not the only possibility. I can imagine a combination of virtual reality rooms, which could enable people in different places to feel like they are in the same room, combined with robotic arms manipulating objects at another location. That would make today’s emphasis on face-to-face meetings seem laughingly old-fashioned, because of how limiting they are. This is not science fiction: lots of these ideas are being tested now.
Although what will actually happen will almost certainly surprise both me and Lord Mitchell.
When I think back to the internet of twenty years ago – or even ten – the way people use it now is amazingly different. Going from a text based medium of usenet, the graphical interface of the world wide web today is a wholly different experience.
Take the sci-fi staple – wrist watch communicator. Tell someone in the fifties that in the twentyfirst century we’d be communicating with the same device that we use to tell the time, and they might well picture a wristwatch with a two-way radio.
But instead of the timepiece on our wrist getting the extra functionality, these days its the mobile phone in our pocket that is used instead of a watch. Mintel tracked the decline in the wristwatch. In 2010, 28% of the under 25s used a mobile instead of a watch to tell the time, and this trend has continued, with four in ten of the under 35s in 2012 using a mobile instead of a watch.
The end point of trends is unpredictable. Exactly what a remote meeting will look like in 2033 or even 2026 we don’t know yet. One thing is certain: the trend is clear.
Here is the truth: the digital revolution is Schumpeter’s creative destruction writ large. Just look how traditional channels of distribution have been destroyed by the new media—music, movies, printed news, books and photography—and the companies that have gone to the wall, including Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster. There are many more to come. The sectors just about to fall to the advent of this tsunami of technology include banking, medicine and education. The changes in these sectors are particularly breathtaking. This new digital order represents a flat world where my competitor and the person challenging me for my job may well live halfway around the world, and our thinking needs to reflect it.
I take as an example HS2, which I must say I first enthusiastically supported but which I am now having second thoughts about. I do not think that we have factored in the technological changes that are upon us. I do not understand the logic of spending £40 billion and more just to enable people to get from Birmingham to London 23 minutes earlier or Manchester to London 50 minutes earlier for them then to be stuck in monster traffic jams on the Euston Road. I adore using the TGV in France, and I have been envious of that country’s achievements, but could it just have been a 20th-century phenomenon? Just for once, why do we not try and project what the world will look like in 20 years’ time, when HS2 is scheduled to be completed, and in doing so remember what the world looked like 20 years ago? Which of us could have predicted Skype? Who would have thought it would be possible to speak to one’s children in Australia holding a small device in one’s hand, to receive the transmission in high definition and perfect sound, and for there to be no delay in transmission? Who would have guessed it would also be free of charge?
Now let us project forward. In 2033, can we imagine a technology that could transmit a perfect hologram of a person halfway around the world sitting on a chair in front of us—a hologram where you are hard pushed to tell the reality from the image? If this and thousands of other technologies are bubbling away, who in their right mind would journey to a meeting starting early in the day and getting home late at night, no matter how fast the train will travel? That is why we need to project the technology forward in all these mega-expensive infrastructure decisions.