Last week I participated in a ritual that used to feel commonplace but now presents a shock: entering a television studio to give a live interview. The prompt was the meeting of G7 leaders in Cornwall and the fact that I recently published a book, with its inevitable tour.
Pre-Covid, this type of promotion entailed a well-defined set of ceremonies: popping into TV studios, sipping warm wine at launch parties, putting in appearances at bookshops and pontificating on conference platforms. The process required a lot of all-too-physical travel.
Now, however, a book tour is largely conducted from the safety — or hell — of a spare room via video platforms, after some hastily applied smudges of make-up. It starts with a few clicks of a mouse and can be accomplished minutes after rolling out of bed. (Depending on the timezone, this occasionally happens.)
Last weekend I was bracing myself for another Skype call, with a morning chat show on America’s MSNBC network. But then I learnt that the studio was opening for “real life”, since Covid-19 rates in Manhattan are now so low and the vaccination rates so high. (This week, New York state hit the 70 per cent vaccination rate and fireworks were set off to celebrate.) Cue a scramble to find vaguely smart trousers in my wardrobe, after a year of worrying only about the state of my shirts.
It was an instructive experience, not least because echoes of this adjustment are being felt by anyone now returning to the office. My first reaction, as I raced to the studio, was to feel startled and irritated by how time-consuming physical experiences can be compared with ones taking place in cyberspace. Going to a TV studio entails travel, navigating security at the entrance and hanging around for hours in a green room.
Worse, it is hard to predict how long such processes will last. A year of lockdown has caused many pieces of once everyday infrastructure to atrophy. Sometimes this makes it easy to breeze through bureaucratic systems. Sometimes capacity has been cut so drastically that there are bottlenecks when actual people start turning up, be that at car-rental services, airline check-ins, coffee shops or office security. (I have experienced terrible queues at all of these recently.)
My second thought, as I hung around the green room, was that time “wasted” in physical space is never entirely unused. Far from it. Just milling about in a social environment generates serendipitous encounters. It also lets us absorb non-verbal signals from others, and gain a sense of peripheral vision that widens our lens on the world.
The issue at stake revolves around customisation — and control. When we go online, we tend to choose our experiences and the boundaries of our vision. But in the real world we have less control over what we might bump into. Other people and other realities intrude. This is immensely valuable after a year in which we have been cooped up, not just in a physical or social sense, in our homes and friendship groups, but also, all too often, in a mental sense, only watching the people and events on our screens.
At MSNBC, for example, I encountered someone I had never met before, rightwing political commentator Max Boot. Better still, in 2018 he wrote a book on a topic I knew nothing about (and did not even realise I knew nothing about): the life of Edward Lansdale, the 20th-century US military and intelligence leader. After spending time in that green room, I am now a little less ignorant about this corner of American history.
That encounter has shown me what I am missing by not doing physical book tours: chance remarks in a crowd, people telling you why you are wrong (which they do not often do on Zoom) and an opportunity to observe the body language in an audience to see if people are bored by your ideas. Physical encounters are the necessary counterpoint to being trapped in a room with your thoughts — the normal state for authors, even without a lockdown.
Of course, I should have known all this before I ended up on that talk-show sofa, since my book explains what we need to know about being human in a digital age. It also lays out, with reference to Wall Street, how deeply modern work relies on the lateral vision we have been forced to abandon in the past year. The reason why offices are valuable is not because they uphold formal processes at work but what social scientists sometimes describe as “incidental information exchange” (swapping ideas between teams) and “sense-making” (navigating the world through shared knowledge and experience, including non-verbal cues).
But my brain, like everyone else’s, has a tremendous capacity to self-deceive and forget. The act of returning to the office — or TV studio — still creates a new set of surprises, irrespective of what my brain knows.
And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all: physical encounters enable us to collide with the unexpected. That might not be “efficient” compared with digital work. Nor is it probably what most office workers want to experience each day. But these collisions are part of the joy of life.
‘Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life’ by Gillian Tett is published by Random House Business
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