Rory Sutherland

Finally, we’re unboxing the teleporter

Finally, we’re unboxing the teleporter
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This week’s Wiki Man may read a bit oddly. You see, I haven’t ‘written’ it at all; I’ve dictated it into a kind of dictaphone (an Olympus LS-P4, at £130, needlessly expensive for the purpose, but that’s how I roll) and then uploaded the audio file to an online transcription service called otter.ai. The reason I’m doing this is to find out how long it takes to write a Spectator article when you dictate it and get it transcribed online, compared with writing it on a keyboard like it’s 1940 or something.

I’ll let you know the result at the end of this article. But I’m doing this because I don’t know the answer. It’s a worthwhile experiment — in an area where very little experimentation takes place.

When the pandemic hit, thousands of people were forced to work differently. And, to their amazement, most found Zoom meetings rather than physical ones surprisingly agreeable — and surprisingly productive. In part, there was the absence of commuting. It might also have helped that, as time spent in remote meetings went up, the volume of emails went down. But what’s really horrifying about this finding is that it came as a ‘surprise’.

This suggests that the worlds of management and administration have previously felt little urge to experiment with technology at all. They continued getting up at seven o’clock in the morning and travelling across town (or oceans) to meetings, without considering how new technologies might enable more productive behaviour. It’s as though the crew of the USS Enterprise had been supplied with a teleporter but had never got round to unboxing it.

We should have been performing these experiments on ourselves years ago, given that blue-collar workers have had their productivity measured, tweaked and Taylorised to within an inch of their lives. I think it’s telling that people in business, government and the professions were barely experimenting with productivity tools at all.

Experimentation is especially important here since we are very bad judges of our own productivity. It is very easy to feel individually busy and important while contributing nothing of value overall. Dr Johnson called this ‘getting on horseback in a ship’. So while emails seem efficient from the point of view of the sender, by slowing down decision-making the technology may be a net negative.

Are white-collar workers so confident of their own assessment of their own capability that they can be entirely trusted to decide their own working practices? I doubt it. One problem that often besets business activity is what I call the ‘stress heuristic’. When no one really knows how productive they are, they use stress and exertion as a proxy measure for productivity. ‘I am very, very tired after that transatlantic flight, and I am now replying to emails at 11 p.m., and so I must be a massively effective and valuable person.’ This is a dangerous assumption.

I’ve always had a hunch that if most of the travel and entertainment costs in a business were incurred not by the senior management but by blue-collar and junior workers, staff would have been mandated to use video conferencing a decade ago. But management and administration are always left out of this harsh reckoning.

But I am hardly innocent myself. I just found — to my astonishment — that six minutes’ dictation plus two minutes’ processing time on otter.aiproduces 950 words. Wtf? This is perhaps five times faster than I type. Otter.ai was nearly flawless. Most of the remaining time was spent punctuating the piece and cutting 325 words. Which leads to a telling question: why on earth did I never try this before?

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.