Video conferencing

Are electric cars a Columbus’s egg?

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

The hidden cost of free technology

Back in late 2019 I met someone from Zoom who was visiting London. The company, then as now, offered free video-conferencing calls for up to 40 minutes, but charged a fee of around £10 a month to users who wanted longer calls. Towards the end of the conversation, I flippantly asked what I thought was a hypothetical question: ‘How much would you charge to give full Zoom access to the whole UK population?’ I didn’t think much more about it, but to my surprise they came back to me a few days later: ‘If you know anyone in the government who’d be interested in this, we’d like to talk.’ In

Video calls are the new penny post

Dear Sir, I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no university education but I have undergone the ordinary school course… I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as “startling”. This was the opening of the letter written by the Indian maths prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan to Professor G.H. Hardy at Trinity College, Cambridge in January 1913. The penny post was the first network

The economics of learning languages

There is a kind of conversation which sounds intelligent, and which makes sense at first hearing, but which deeper thought reveals to be stupid. A classic example of this is the dinner party trope where some poncy polyglot belittles the British or Americans for being terrible at learning foreign languages. The raw facts seem to bear this out. But further consideration reveals a reason behind this discrepancy. Seen through the lens of time, it is much harder to learn a foreign language if your first language is English than if it isn’t. How so? Well let’s imagine how a Swede, say, might approach the issue: 1. ‘Do I need to

Will video-calling kill bureaucracy?

Having grown up in a family business, my earliest exposure to corporate life was often baffling. I remember the first time I presented some work in a client’s office 30 years ago. He suggested some small edits, and asked that they be enacted before he presented the work to his superior, who was called Dave. ‘I’ve got a window in Dave’s diary next Wednesday to present the work on up to him, so I’d like to have the changes made by then.’ Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps Dave was flying in from Chicago. Or maybe Dave was a highly elusive figure who only appeared in the building on Wednesdays during

The ludicrousness of stemmed wine glasses

In 1989 I answered my first mobile phone call on Oxford Street using a brick-sized Motorola borrowed from work. Several people shouted abuse at me from passing cars. Back then, it was also rare to make a mobile-to-mobile call. If you did, it was the main topic of conversation for the first few minutes: ‘Where are you?’ ‘On a boat.’ ‘Wow, I’m on a train going through Leighton Buzzard.’ And you’d laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing. The world’s most ludicrous object is the stemmed wine glass. Why does this idiotic item persist? Now let’s imagine that, owing to a technological limitation, early cellphones hadn’t offered interconnectivity with

NHS workers deserve our applause – but so does the telecoms industry

Next time there is a highly deserved round of public applause for NHS workers, do add one additional clap for the tele-communications industry for — so far — keeping the show on the road. High-speed broadband, for those lucky enough to have it, has made self-isolation more tolerable, and may have significantly reduced the impact of the disease in Britain. I say this because, for several weeks before it became mandatory to stay indoors, a large number of people did so voluntarily. That includes me. Ever since my grandfather contracted jaundice and so avoided landing at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli, there has been a proud family tradition of calling in