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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

16 April 2008

12:00 AM

16 April 2008

12:00 AM

My article last week (‘Mad Men are taking over the world’) led me to be accused of elitism by one of the magazine’s online readers.

What riled him was my suggestion that, rather than spending £6 billion on speeding up the Eurostar journey by an hour, it might have been better to spend a few million quid providing WiFi to the passengers, allowing them to make better use of their time on the train. I was told that this was typical of the ‘businessman’s arrogant assumption that only business passengers mattered’ — and what about people who wanted to go to Paris for leisure?

In reply I said this chap seemed a pretty rum kind of populist if he thought it reasonable to make the 45 million people in Britain who never want to go to Paris pay £100 each — i.e. almost the cost of a year’s upgrade to Sky Sports — just so Mr Egalitarian here could get to the Musée d’Orsay at 11 a.m. rather than noon. I also thought it odd to assume that WiFi is only of benefit to businesspeople.

In truth I am more likely to take a laptop with me on holiday than on business. And if there is one country to which you should always carry a laptop, it’s France.


Broadband speeds in France are spectacular. Every public space or café will offer ‘le wee-fee’ to its patrons. Amazon.fr has a huge range of English books which they will deliver next day to my bourgeois luxury hotel — or indeed to my accuser’s modest back-street pension. Moreover, there are many sources of leisure information you can only ever find online: ticket-booking, train times, maps, phone numbers — or the fact that the Musée d’Orsay is closed owing to a wild-cat strike by curatorial staff so it doesn’t matter what time of day you get there anyway, comrade.

Like my accuser, I love going to France. He may like the deep-felt love of justice, whereas I like their admirable policy of pricing the poor off the motorways. But the best thing nowadays is the French love of technology and innovation. Fnac, for example, makes our own electrical retailers look second-rate.

On a recent French rail trip, I walked most of the length of the train and found over half of the people onboard were using laptops (I even made an unwelcome foray into second class, and it was the same story among the proletariat). What the French have found is that any journey over two hours is transformed by a laptop. It is better than any in-flight entertainment. You can play games, listen to over 4,000 hours of Johnny Hallyday, watch DVDs, read emails, blog, entertain children, organise photographs — or even oppress the lower orders with a little light capitalism.

The invention of the laptop and BlackBerry have revived the case for rail travel for, unlike a car trip, time spent by train can be put to good use. In France they know this. Meanwhile, in the UK, a bunch of idiots with engineering degrees are busy removing the tables from our trains to fit in 4.9 per cent more passengers per carriage — unaware that by removing the table they are destroying the single most compelling reason to travel by rail.

Besides, if it’s elitist to prefer your coffee on a table to on the floor, then guilty as charged.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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