Cancel that invite to the virtual dinner party

In the land of the Internet, people have to meet each other more, not less. Personal contact remains king
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The Independent Online
The more we move into the electronic age the more people want to meet real people. I happened to be in the United States earlier this week on the day of the presidential election and what struck me as most interesting was not the themes the commentators were banging on about - the likely low turnout, or the support for Clinton among women - but rather the way the final days of the campaign were fought.

Thus Bob Dole, aged 73, was widely applauded for spending the last 96 hours whizzing round America without even stopping for a couple of hours' sleep, making scores of five-minute speeches to supporters, before getting back on to the plane. The President's schedule was only slightly less frantic. It was not relevant that the vast bulk of the nation's voters could never be reached in this way, and that they merely saw a series of clips on the TV that happened to come from different bits of America. Nor was it relevant that a whole array of new interactive technology enables ordinary people to communicate with politicians. In the land of the Internet, personal contact remains king.

By chance, I came across two other examples of the way in which the more advanced the technology, the greater the evident need for personal contact. I was trying, never having done it before, to travel back by Concorde - trying, because 45 minutes out from New York an engine failed and the poor thing had to dump fuel and struggle back to Kennedy with, so to speak, its tail between its legs.

The experience encouraged a certain camaraderie among the passengers and it transpired that the American executive next to me had a schedule of Dole-ite rigour. He had already had two other meetings in different US cities that morning using a company jet which delivered him to the Concorde ramp. He was then going to pick up another company jet at Heathrow to take him to Berlin by 2am, ready for an 8am presentation. The previous week he had been in Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. He looked perfectly fit on it, but confessed that it was a dreadful way of living. Yet his company, one of the great hi-tech multinationals, was in such fierce competition that this was what he had to do. Telecommunications were not enough; he had to be there in person.

The other example concerns the BT-MTI takeover. News of this leaked towards the end of last week, forcing the companies to bring forward the announcement. How? Well, it seems that about six weeks ago a group of more than a dozen BT executives went to New York. They were spotted in the BA first-class lounge at Kennedy by a London analyst, who thought it odd that they should be breaking normal commercial practice by having all the senior management on one plane. He reckoned that there must be a very big deal brewing. This suspicion was confirmed a couple of weeks later when they were spotted again. It could only be one of about four possible deals, and the investment bank concerned correctly guessed which one it was - and told its clients, who filled their boots with the stock.

You see the point: a giant takeover between these two communications companies required the physical presence of a large number of its senior people in the same place. They would have had available the most sophisticated electronic communications technology in the world, but that would not have done the job. The people had to meet.

So it is almost as though the electronic age, far from reducing the need for person-to-person contact, may actually increase it. In a way, this is comforting. It is good to know that we are not heading into a world of virtual dinner parties, sitting thousands of miles apart and toasting each other on video screens. In the business world, the process of internationalisation, made possible by better communications, means that people have to meet each other more, not less.

Or rather, some people need to meet more. And this is also disturbing, because this growing need for personal contact is associated with the growing disparities in our society: what one might call the performance culture, or the star society. It is now widely recognised that there has been an enormous surge in demand for the services of a few people - the top doctors, lawyers, film stars, financial analysts, politicians,and so on - while the demand for the rest, even the good average performer, has fallen away. For someone with below-average skills, the outlook is bleaker still.

So people who come into this star category find themselves having to race around, trying to satisfy all these demands on their time. The fact that Bob Dole could appear on millions of TV screens increased the demand for him to appear in person, not the reverse.

At our own forthcoming election, the party leaders will have to race around in their hired planes, followed by aides, boosters and critics. No one will be interested in some third-rate MP in a boring constituency. Our top business people will continue to race around, busier and busier, while their companies "downsize" the middle management. The fees of our top entertainers will soar as they sell to the global market, while the ranks of resting actors will swell.

Solution? I have none, because the pressures that have created the star society will grow for the foreseeable future. But we can perhaps lean against it, by making up our own minds as to what constitutes merit - which people are "real". Amateur actors can give enjoyable performances; middle management matters, and I know at least one "foot-soldier" MP who has wonderful, thoughtful ideas.