I recently saw a series of photographs depicting a rural home in China. Pride of place in a grimly furnished main room was given to a gargantuan new flat-screen television, while the sole toilet was a hole in the ground in an outside shed. What strange priorities, I thought. On reflection, though, under the same circumstances, I suspect quite a few of us would do the same thing.
In Britain, for a hundred years or so, we never faced such a choice: you could install a decent indoor toilet, but not a Samsung 75in 4K LED TV, because the latter hadn’t been invented yet. So in Britain we almost all installed plumbing before we bought televisions — because that is the order in which they became available.
But people in newly developed parts of the world are faced with a plethora of technologies to choose from all at once. ‘Do you want clean running water or pay TV?’ seems a strange question to us: to millions of people it is a real dilemma.
Remember there are many distorting factors at work here. Acquiring mains drainage or water, unlike satellite television or mobile telephony, requires cooperation with your neighbours. If half of them don’t want it, you aren’t going to get it. By contrast you can go ahead and install a satellite dish unilaterally. When Philip Larkin wrote, ‘I don’t want to take a girl out and spend circa £5 when I can toss myself off in five minutes, free, and have the rest of the evening to myself,’ he was experiencing what economists call ‘the coordination problem’. Masturbation may be inferior to sex, but it does not require the costly and protracted contrivance of simultaneous intent. In the same way, buying a huge TV may be less valuable than installing mains drainage, but it’s something you can do on your own. This helps explain why countries which could never organise drainage or landlines rapidly reached 100 per cent ownership of mobile phones.
So when we see seemingly bizarre preferences for the use of technology in other countries, we should not roll our eyes in astonishment. Instead we should ask whether our own use of technology is driven by similarly arbitrary factors.
For example, the past two decades have spawned an insane number of messaging and communication technologies, all arising in rapid succession and in no particular order. Modern working (and social) life duly involves a jumbled and distracting mixture of meetings, telephone calls, video, email, text and messaging applications, leaving people endlessly and ineffectually shunting between communications modes. The problem has been exacerbated by the fashion for open-plan offices (which further drive use of text, not voice). More-over, asynchronous communication is easier to generate, and requires neither coordination nor consent: why go to the trouble of meeting people when you can, um, toss off an email in five minutes, for free? We are growing a highly educated, talented workforce only for technology to turn them into email-pushing bureaucrats.
The only people I have found who have solved this problem are a group known as Twats (where Twat stands for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). These people travel into London for those three days every week, holding face-to-face meetings and little else. Friday and Monday is spent at home, and dedicated to business activities which are location-independent: email, video calls, phone calls and so forth. Instead of their lives being a mess of different demands, they have partitioned their week by activity, meaning the ratio of communication modes they use is driven by their schedule, not other people’s whims.
I’m not sure the name is going to catch on, but the behaviour should. The more people become Twats, the more effective twattery becomes.