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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man 

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

Local newspapaers usually have a slightly dotty reverence for the area they serve. My own local paper recently described Winston Churchill as ‘the former Westerham resident and wartime prime-minister’.

The Evening Standard has the opposite problem in that it is a London paper which really doesn’t much like London. In fact it wants its readers to leave. Articles along the lines of Why I’m Buying a Big House in France with the Money I Earn Writing this Rubbish appear alongside news of desperate couples driven away by ‘rush-hour chaos’, ‘crumbling infrastructure’ or ‘soaring crime’.

There is, it’s perfectly true, an exodus from London and from Britain in general, but not necessarily for the bleak reasons the Standard or the Daily Mail suggest. Another plausible reason for the migration is that technology has simply made remoter parts of the country (or the world) far less crappy places to live than they were only a few years ago.


In a little over a decade the country’s biggest, most interesting bookshops, electrical shops, music shops, cheese shops, hat shops, junk shops have all moved. They are no longer found in London but online. And they are exactly the same whether you browse them in Knightsbridge or Bonar Bridge.

Retail is only part of the story. Even if you move to the kind of place where children still wave at passing cars, you can tune in online to the same 10,000 radio stations you have in London or New York. Television isn’t yet quite as universal, but a couple of phone calls to a local chancer will get you a Sky subscription almost anywhere in Europe. Wikipedia alone is probably more useful to most of us than a British Library card.

All of this supports the vital point made by a character in a Douglas Coupland book — who claims that the ultimate aim of all geek activity is to make physical location irrelevant. The endgame of the tech ‘project’ is to allow anyone to do pretty much anything from anywhere. The social value of this is huge.

Networks, it seems, have an immensely egalitarian effect, as it is in their nature to offer the same thing equally to everyone connected to them. Anyone wanting to open a speciality hat shop in 1992 would have moved straight to SW3 or the Upper East Side. Now, when www.villagehatshop.com opens (in San Diego, as it happens) its presence benefits about a billion people equally. Yet the benefits of this egalitarianism do not show up on any economic measures — since these only record the money people earn, not what they can buy with it. The Economist in its Christmas edition produced a splendid article about this new, hidden equality. It argued that, though income inequalities were rising, inequalities in ‘what everyone can get for their money’ were falling fast.

Money, in short, has a diminishing marginal utility, meaning that the first 20,000 you earn is a lot more useful to you than the tenth. Avaricious bankers and CEOs seem blind to this principle, but it’s one Woody Allen understands perfectly. A few years ago when invited to direct a TV commercial he turned it down. ‘But they’re offering you a million dollars,’ his agent begged him. ‘I’ve already got one of those,’ Woody replied.


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