Vital signs: In touch with your ego

Vital signs: In touch with your ego - In the '80s I could provoke carriage-loads of respectable train travellers into a fury. Deputations would sway up the aisle to admonish me, hot-faced with that kind of British anger usually meant for queue-jumpers. It

by PETER YORK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the '80s I could provoke carriage-loads of respectable train travellers into a fury. Deputations would sway up the aisle to admonish me, hot-faced with that kind of British anger usually meant for queue-jumpers. It was easy. All I had to do was talk continuously in my loud, annoying voice, blaring away in marketing-speak - my second language - into my toy telephone. I bought one the moment they became smallish - ie, not a risible brick. They cost the thick end of pounds 2,000 then - 1985 - and I've had one clapped to my ear ever since (so if what they say is true, I'm a goner).

The mobile was an obvious advance, a wonder. I remember trying a New York number when I was tucked up in the sleeper to Scotland and being amazed when it rang. I've had a fax machine at home from about the same time. Another no-brainer, like e-mail in its time.

But that's it. I don't really want any more travelling toys. I want to see where I'm going, or have a little think or a big write. That's what travelling is for. Now, of course, everyone in every train carriage has a mobile, and in Business Club World they've got a great deal more, with a whole new breed of strappy, sacky black nylon Business Class luggage to carry it in. It's wonderful to watch grown men taking out their toys on the seven o'clock from Bath to London. The lap-top, the Palm Pilot, the Psion, the WAP phone with its absurd little screen. Wonderful to see the toys arranged on the table, testimony to being busy, in-touch, wanted, a Mobile Master of the Universe.

Soon they'll be Personally Power Assisted, with a modem linking an implanted chip in the brain to every satellite going. If I were a performance artist I'd take that train with a couple of ostentatious wires going into my head. One could make a thing of peeling back some skin (latex) to display the connections, Robocop fashion. But now all you'd get would be people asking where they could have the operation.

People are starting to think of themselves as commercial cyborgs too, man-machine combinations. Every little economy of one has to have its IT system and communications. In a wired world you can work seamlessly, be seen to work continuously. You can always be reached - always. There's no goofing off, no lying low at Tiffany's in Sutton Coldfield. Your presentation can be updated, by the minute, all the way to Newcastle.

And you can, notionally, work with people, do distance meetings, distance interaction, be part of the corporate flow. And you can spreadsheet the world. If you're a political apparatchik you can receive continuous instruction via the Instant Rebuttal system. Was there ever such fun?

But the irony is that all the kit designed to get everything done and over with faster has managed to prolong it all by extending the possibilities so spectacularly. Kit makes work - it encourages the production of more fanciful calculations, communications and presentations. For kit folk, all things aspire to the status of a presentation - PowerPointed, multicoloured things elevated way beyond their humble purposes. Kit gives the illusion of massive productivity.

Does it make people more efficient? Of course, but only if they were properly focused in the first place. Is it a help to have the net with you everywhere? Of course, provided you've got the discipline to go off-line when you've got what you really, really want. Is it good for corporate cohesion? That's like asking if three-year contracts help build a corporate culture. Anything that fosters the travelling Me over the real experienced off-line We makes for a contingent world.

The interpenetration of home and work, workplace and travel creates some interesting little patterns. The technology lets you do what the Henley Centre calls 'homing' wherever you are, accessing your messages, voice-mail, planning your next holiday, enjoying a bit of virtual goofing-off (mature men visiting the Britney Spears site, say).

But the real point of the kit remains to reinforce your new persona.

It places the emphasis on the individual, makes you more of a modern man wherever you go. And that reduces the authority, the contemporary relevance of Base Camp, the big office, the corporate compound, home of the archive and the founder's portrait. Perpetual motion atomises organisations.

But it's great for life's proper freelancers and it's marvellous for con-men who can build a multinational corporation in the back of a white Transit van.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU

e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk.

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