The Trader: Businessman: born free but chained to his laptop

THE TRADING system in New York needs a quick once-over to make sure it really is the same as the one in London. Why this is necessary, I'm not sure. It strikes me that software is software wherever it's installed, but if it means a freebie to the States, who am I to complain?

Which brings me to where I am now, sitting in business class - only it's not called that, it's called something like Executive Club or President Suite - sipping champagne and looking around me. This makes me, as far as I can see, unique in this part of the cabin. All about me, there are men and women tapping away frantically at their notebook computers and personal organisers, and they've been doing it almost from the moment they got on the plane.

You can spot the regular fliers from the little rituals they perform when they board: take off coat, jacket and shoes (both sexes); loosen tie and roll up shirt sleeves (men); spray face with mineral water mist and put on serious-looking but expensive glasses with dark frames (women); order freshly squeezed orange juice (men and women); unpack vast array of electronic gadgetry and fidget until plane has taken off and can switch it all on (men and women).

Not that I could join in even if I wanted to. Unsurprisingly, the concept of mobile trading hasn't caught on yet, so my personal organiser contains nothing more exciting than names, addresses and a few games. I don't even keep my diary in it, not since the time I stood up friends three evenings in a row because I'd written them into 1996 by mistake. Consequently, I am about the only person in business class making eye contact with the cabin crew, and they spoil me rotten as a result.

So while I'm nibbling on dinky little snacks left over from first class, my fellow passengers are beavering away. Luckily, though they may be making full use of the hand-writing recognition - an interesting challenge, I think, if we hit turbulence - at least no one is using voice recognition.

Not that you could in a public space like this: too many secrets would come out, like how much company time these City types waste writing letters in which they threaten to sue their builders and so on. The next labour- saving device has to be a headset that can take down your thoughts and e-mail them immediately. How ghastly, I think. Then I realise that a society organised like that wouldn't last long anyway.

The only obstacle to my happy champagne-and-smoked-salmon-fuelled musing is the man next to me. He's old - at least 40 - and fat and sweaty. This doesn't really surprise me, though. I've never sat next to anyone on a plane who wasn't ugly. Once, on the Eurostar to Paris, I sat next to a male model - but he was a Libran and wouldn't stop talking, so it wasn't that good.

Anyway, this flight's Mr Ugly is an entrepreneur from somewhere up north, Cheshire perhaps, who's wearing a three-piece mustard yellow checked suit that makes him look like an oversized Rupert Bear.

Not that he's horrid or anything, just a bit chatty. He tells me about what he does, and I half listen.

He nudges me to make sure I'm listening. "I'll speak plainly," he says, then laughs and adds: "No pun intended." None taken, I think. "This lot" - he carries on - "are like rats on a treadmill. It's no way to live."

I look harder at the faces around me and suddenly realise where I've seen them before: in an engraving of a Victorian workhouse my history teacher showed me once. So much for progress, I think, and take another sip of champagne.

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