The explosion in remote and flexible working accelerated by the pandemic slightly supports my assertion that the most important limits to future innovation may be psychological and behavioural, not technological. I am among a number of people who believe that the newly widespread use of video-conferencing is of great economic significance. A few economists and commentators agree, but all of us suffer mild social embarrassment whenever we make our case: it feels faintly absurd to evangelise a technology which is more than 20 years old, rather than pontificating about the ‘metaverse’ or some other fashionable guff.
Yet history bears us out. Because, bizarre as it may seem in retrospect, most technologies — especially network technologies — are relatively old at the point when they fully realise their economic or social significance. Many new technologies require a surprisingly high degree of collective behaviour change before they are adopted at the scale required to deliver their value. The challenge does not always lie in getting people to adopt a new habit as much as in getting people to abandon an old one. If you were already travelling into an office five times a week, video-conferencing offered very little except the sacrifice of often enjoyable business junkets. It was only with the option not to leave home that people noticed the opportunity cost of commuting.
This asymmetry of perception is significant. Many things are only appreciable in the light of experience. Bill Gates once said that his biggest problem was that ‘People don’t know how to want the things we can offer them’. And indeed many good things are as unappetising in theory as they are enjoyable in practice. As a 1970s ad for Guinness read: ‘I’ve never tried it because I don’t like it.’