Matt Hancock’s been doing the rounds to talk about global heating. He says we shouldn’t actually be flying less “because connectivity around the country is incredibly important”. He also says: “Flying has already decarbonised and can decarbonise more.” I’m no expert but I think there’s probably some way to go on this one. He says: “We should use technology to reduce carbon emissions.” Well, yes, we should, and I have always assumed mankind’s brilliance would find a way of undoing the harm mankind’s brilliance has inadvertently wrought. It has always seemed obvious to me that as long as untold riches (and, secondarily, a place in heaven) await the inventor of the technology that makes fossil fuels redundant, some clever clogs will come up with the goods. I wish they would get a move on.
But I also wish we could get a move on and make proper use of the brilliant technology already at our disposal that should by now be saving the planet from the carbon emissions of millions of miles of travel. Planes, trains and automobiles are loaded up every day with people making unnecessary journeys and I’m one of them. I wonder what percentage of God’s green earth I’ve destroyed travelling the country and the world to meet people to talk about work stuff, whom I could have met remotely.
Twenty years ago, companies pushing video-conferencing technology were telling me there would no longer be any need to travel for meetings; eye-contact would be established on video screens and the talking could begin. They were right, but it just hasn’t happened. It’s barking mad that in business we don’t all have two or more screens open at all times to communicate with clients and colleagues. But no, martyrs that we are, we would rather shrug sagely, helplessly, and say: “We really need to do this face to face; I can be in Inverness by 8am tomorrow. I just have to be there.” The clue to the nonsense here is in the words “face to face”; you can easily be face to face remotely. That’s the point of it.
“But it’s not the same!” somebody will wail. And they’re right: it’s not the same. It’s better, nicer, to shake hands, air kiss, hug or whatever, and then talk while breathing the same air. Of course that’s better; of course to do it remotely is sub-optimal; just not the same. But nothing can be the same now; we just have to change.
Our squeamishness about using FaceTime, Skype or whatever is odd. I feel more shy and self-conscious talking to a stranger face-to-face on Skype than in person. But I suspect the more I do it, the easier it will get. Our kids do it all the time, after all. And at work I’m already there. Presenting my radio show from Salford I now see no advantage in having the guest in front of me rather than up on a big screen in a BBC studio in London.
My suggestion is this: if a meeting actually requires physical touching – perhaps if you’re an itinerant surgeon or something – then fair enough, saddle up and ride. Fair enough, too, if you need to embrace a loved one. Otherwise, less satisfactory though it is, let’s make more of the opportunities to make eyes at each other down the line.