Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 14 June 2008

Rory Sutherland's fortnightly column on technology and the web

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A 1980s cartoon from Private Eye shows a teenage boy, dressed in animal skins, staring intently into the dancing flames of a small fire. Behind him, bearded and leaning on a club, stands his scowling Neanderthal father, horrified: ‘When I was a boy we had to make our own entertainment.’

The great Douglas Adams believed technology always arouses one of three different reactions in us, depending on our age at the time it first appeared. So anything invented before our tenth birthday leaves us unfazed — it’s mere infrastructure (just as my daughters are no more excited by Sky+ than I am by plumbing). By contrast the stuff invented in the 30 years after our tenth birthday, well that’s real Technology, and an endless source of awe and fascination (the way we still enjoy a minor thrill each time we go abroad and find our mobile still works). Last are the things invented after we hit 40. These we greet with blimpish disapproval: ‘absurd, over-complicated nonsense... what’s wrong with carbon paper anyway?’ (Pretty much my father’s view of computers, until he found you could use them to sell second-hand books.)

As with music, so with gadgets: once you pass 40, as your natural inquisitiveness flags, you need to try harder to like things you instinctively hate.

There are good reasons for this. For a start, the cost of adopting new technology is usually heavily front-end loaded, many innovations delivering long-term gains at the price of short-term annoyance. Take online grocery shopping. The first time you place an order, the process of filling your basket is tedious; worse even than a real trip to Tesco. By your fourth visit, the website has recognised your favourite items, and you find that typing ‘marjoram’ is easier than finding it in a crowded shop, even supposing you knew what it looked like anyway. By your tenth visit you can do an entire week’s shopping in four minutes. In the departures lounge at JFK. At 3 a.m.

Just as you can’t discover your favourite music by reading sleeve notes, you can’t judge these things without trying them. No one tells you that online grocery shopping saves you from flying home to an empty fridge. You just find out for yourself.

This is because, with use, most technology pays back in unenvisaged ways. Satellite navigation is a good example. Older people sneer at satnav, loving to remind us of ‘the time that Argos lorry got stuck down Jethro’s field,’ yet, as these people were born in an era when the combined resources of the US and British air forces couldn’t find Berlin when it was cloudy, I can’t help feeling that they’re being a bit picky complaining when a £200 box from Curry’s fails to distinguish between a small path and a bridleway. In any case, they are missing the point. For the real value of satnav has little to do with navigation at all.

You see your TomTom will make mistakes, as human map-readers do. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, when you do end up lost or in a ditch, you swear at a small electronic box and not at your wife. The device is really a marital aid — an electronic scapegoat. Even at a time of plummeting property prices, £200 to avoid a divorce is probably a good call.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.