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Postcard from the Edge
Technology doesn't laugh.
People want purpose; business wants profits.
In between those polarities lies the possibility of both purpose and profit, but when big, geographically dispersed businesses operate outside of notions of community, that is a very big and increasingly difficult ask.
The thought struck me as, whilst waiting for an order to be processed, I wandered across into a nearby Morrisons to get a coffee (other options were not available). Since I last used it, it has become more efficient through the installation of self-service kiosks, so what always had the charisma of a railway station waiting room, mitigated in part by the humour and warmth of the people who served there, now had no mitigation. They could, I suppose, make the argument of costs and the fact that every other provider of mediocre food is doing the same, but I found it all a little Orwellian.
I’ve noticed the same at Marks and Spencer, whose improved profits announced this week have, I’m sure, been significantly contributed to by the fact that they have largely removed visible, available people from their stores. It’s now much more like Amazon but without the convenience or the delivery driver - maybe a strategy to encourage us online, where even fewer people are needed.
My local taxi firm now has a new name Veezu - taxis as technology maybe - and a new app, having been acquired by a larger company. I don’t have to speak to anybody to call a cab, just about wherever I am in the country.
Zoom does a great job of enabling conversations but lacks something that leads to extended, serendipitous exchanges with people at the table next door.
In areas other than “premium” (a.k.a expensive), we seem to be in a headlong rush to remove people from transactions, and making it all about the most efficient, least expensive way of delivering “product” and in the process are making the environments in which we interact for money decidedly anti-social.
Maybe, if the nature of the transaction is to deliver decidedly uninspiring products to people, the last thing that is wanted is a person delivering it to get that feedback.
Back in my local village, there was a newsagent suffering from the ravages of big and online media. So, in a move they made that surprised us, they turned it into a café. They did everything that was inefficient: lots of people, dogs were welcomed, people around the village donated their parents’ and grandparents’ traditional crockery. In looking to find alternative ways to serve a clientele within a fairly tight radius, they have ended up reaching much further, and booking is increasingly necessary because they cannot scale what they do as it’s all about a mix of relationships and connections that will not scale.
This last weekend, I spent a glorious weekend on the Yorkshire moors with people I normally see on Zoom. We cooked together, walked, talked, laughed and generally just went around doing some serious being together. No technology was required.
It really emphasises for me how much technology diminishes the connection we have with the people who make, distribute and serve the things we buy. Efficiency may bring a frisson of pleasure to shareholders but does little for the rest of us. Time taken to stop, talk, reflect, notice and connect is not a luxury; it is the lifeblood of relationships. It is what puts the colour and memory into what we create and buy together. Products and services as social collateral way beyond their sterile functionality, rather than the wet dreams of spreadsheet warriors.
Brands are a consequence of what we do everyday, not a strategy developed by consultants, and the more we break into the chain between the people who create and the people who buy, the more we dilute the relationships vital to long-term commercial health.
The distance between M&S and their rivals is wafer thin, a gap maintained only by expensive storytelling, and light years away from the pleasure of cooking with friends from scratch. McFood may be cheap and convenient but does little to nourish us where it matters.
When things break, as they will, there is no app to fix it.
For things that matter to us, people buy from people because technology cannot laugh with us.
It’s not rocket science.