I have just spent a weekend planning a family trip to Chennai and Hyderabad. Since some of the flights are booked with reward points and some are not, our flights are under three separate booking numbers, each of which requires a separate login. I also had to print out booking confirmations from three different hotels, four boarding cards for the internal flights from Madras to Hyderabad, and a separate docket for my airport parking. That doesn’t include the two hours my wife spent applying for online visas, or the 90 minutes I spent getting approval to use a British credit card on an Indian airline website. Or the time I spent inputting my family’s passport details into another airline website, while also pre-ordering vegetarian meals for my pinko daughter.
Wouldn’t it be easier if there were someone to do this for you? Oh, there is — they’re called a travel agent.
Thinking about it, I probably could have saved two days of my life by using a good old intermediary. Yet somehow the web seduces us into thinking that what we are doing is efficient when it is anything but. With the telephone call centre, companies grasped the opportunity to outsource service jobs to people in low-wage economies; with the internet they went one better — they outsourced work to their own customers.
In return for a feeling of control and some notional cost-savings, people now willingly spend hours performing mundane data-entry chores which were previously the responsibility of the service provider.
I do wonder sometimes whether it is time to properly analyse where technology saves time and where it wastes it. Does online grocery shopping save time? It certainly feels very time-efficient, but I’m not sure it really is. Generally I will spend about three separate sessions of 20 minutes editing my order. Added up, that’s time enough to go to a shop. Bizarrely, half the people who order clothes online from Next do not have them delivered to their home but collect them — from a branch of Next.
Quite simply, human perception of time and speed is deeply wonky. We have no reliable way of comparing the true speed of different forms of transport. We may insanely catch taxis when we are running late, since it feels faster even when it is slower than the Tube. It took me 30 years in London before I learned that the Victoria line was much faster than other Tube lines. The time between stations is much the same, so the speed of the train seems fairly unremarkable — what I didn’t know was that the stations are much further apart.
Email is unbelievably misleading in this respect. If you spend an afternoon replying to emails, you happily imagine you are being productive. In fact — by comparison with voice communication — what you are doing is insanely slow and protracted. If you were in a meeting with someone who spoke at the speed most people type, you would feel the urge to attack them. If any business objectively compared the efficiency of email to that of a phone call or a spoken meeting, they would ban it.
The Spectator’s Ethically Dubious Christmas Tip of the Year. Some £300 million a year is pocketed by retailers in the form of lost, expired or unredeemed gift cards. When gifting vouchers to friends or relatives who are rich or disorganised, there is always the fear they may be ignored, mislaid or forgotten. Problem solved. Print out Amazon gift vouchers to give to these people, but take a note of the numbers. After six months, try adding them to your own account. If the vouchers haven’t been redeemed, spend the money on yourself.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.