Everyone is on the hunt for silver linings to this pandemic trauma. Shop closures were going to end our materialism, but we’re buying more than ever now we can’t go out. Exceptional times would bring us together as a nation, then we stopped clapping and started scrapping about local lockdowns.
The most persistently proclaimed silver lining is that we’ve learned that tech makes full remote working the future. Zoom, Teams and the rest are apparently going to spread out good work across the country with no need for offices or densely populated cities. Parking the fact that less dense living is a climate change disaster, what does history tell us about the impact of big improvements in communications technology? A recent study investigated the case of mobile phones, examining 15m phone calls and texts a day. The question is whether mobile communications substitute for face-to-face meetings, allowing us to build networks in places where we don’t live or work.
But the authors find the opposite – our phone usage is heavily shaped by physical distance, with almost 50% of mobile phone ties formed within a 5km perimeter. Their argument: better communications tech doesn’t overcome the difficulties of forming relationships over distance. People will do more remote working post-crisis, but if we want a more geographically equal country we had better stop assuming it will happen automatically. Zoom isn’t the messiah, it’s just a naughty app.
• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org