Rory Sutherland

Is this the end of commuting?

Is this the end of commuting?
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The brother of a friend in Durban was once given a generous donation by a wealthy aunt. ‘I hate to see you just hanging around indoors all day. Buy an old Land Rover. Go and see the real Africa.’

The brother took the money but bought an enormous television instead. When my friend visited, he found him watching a wildlife documentary in glorious high-definition Technicolor. ‘Why would I want to go and see Africa when I can bring Africa in here?’ he explained.

I have a certain sympathy for this stoner approach to life. The ability to travel within your own mind seems to be a great gift — something to be cultivated. Instead we disparage it with terms such as ‘couch potato’. Yet it is really a mark of superior intelligence. Of all animals, the only two species which can watch television without extensive training are humans and dolphins. If you show a chimp a TV picture, they are completely bemused, and it requires some effort to get them to learn that images are depictions of reality. The vastly more intelligent dolphin grasps the concept immediately: ‘Ooh, that’s interesting — what’s he doing with that fish?’

Recently, under lockdown, I have been experimenting with virtual tourism. If you can watch YouTube on your television, you can find hundreds of walking tours of European cities filmed in high definition. In many respects, if you have a large enough 4K television, I cannot see how this experience is any less enjoyable or edifying than visiting these places in reality. As Dr Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway: ‘It is worth seeing, but not worth going to see.’

Most of the world is like that. Are you really better off — other than in a moronic, selfie-stick, status-seeking way — visiting Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu in person rather than watching a high-quality documentary on those places narrated by someone who knows something about them?

Many of the world’s problems would be solved if we cut down on gratuitous movement. It is a telling fact that during the coronavirus lockdown most of us can eat, drink and entertain ourselves perfectly well with a level of road traffic last seen in 1955. And yet at the same time my life is far more cosmopolitan than before: last week I had meetings with people in Sydney, Bucharest and both Georgias (Atlanta and Tbilisi), and talked to students in Boulder and Ottawa.

Do we really want to return to our previous freneticism? I predict a brewing revolt in terms of our approach to work and travel. Many people have now noticed that by not commuting you gain an extra day every week.

How much time, money and mental effort have you expended on transportation in your life? Air tickets, season tickets, learning to drive, motor insurance premiums, fuel? Yet how much money and time have you spent perfecting videoconferencing? Now is the time to prove it can work.

So, a few tips: if you don’t have a 4K television, buy one — and use it as a monitor (a simple USB-C to HDMI cable costing perhaps £10 should connect it to your laptop). Buy a better webcam. If you are feeling extravagant, buy a fancy microphone. Wear headphones for videocalls (they are much more immersive). But, above all, buy a £15 ring-light to place beside your camera. This will ensure your face is reasonably lit, so you don’t look like a paedophile in a Channel 4 documentary.

All of this will cost at most £600. But it could change your life. If the last three years were spent debating freedom of movement, the next three should be marked by the opposite: a campaign for the freedom of non-movement.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.