In the 1910 book Howard’s End E.M.Forster wrote the sentence; ‘Only connect!’ This short sentence has been called the most human of all sentences.
There is another book in which a man rides a horse across the New Forest staying in Inns just as cars are starting to be seen on the roads (tracks). I have tried to find it online but it seems to have disappeared; it was out of print some time ago and I picked up a copy in an antique shop. In it the author recalls a conversation with an old farmer who said that barriers between people started to come up when enclosed carriages became the fashion. This was before cars, when the Brougham (enclosed carriage) took over from open carriages (around 1850).
At that time there was no internet and no telephone. The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, had arrived in 1840 and, while a letter delivery system was in place before then, it was not so well organised.
Information typically passed from country to village to town to city by human interaction. People passing would stop to share news and in every village people would lean on fences and engage passing travelers.
That is all a romanticised description, but it’s not so far from the truth. The closed carriages started to block people off to each other and today we live in a culture where engaging a stranger is a risky activity, fraught with perceived danger.
Even fairly recently we lived in a world where travelers on a train would engage each other in conversation in their closed carriages. One of the effects of adding a walkway seems to have been to close that communication down. Now we studiously ignore each other on public transport. Recently some of the London underground has been given Wifi coverage. How ironic that we can now sit ignoring the real people around us while we stare at our devices, often interacting with strangers on social media.
There have recently been several articles predicting that Google glass is doomed. People who have tried to wear the devices while living their day to day lives have reported that other people react badly to them. The glass sits between you and someone else and acts as a barrier to building rapport. It’s bad enough when you meet someone and they’re scanning the room for someone else to talk to, let alone that they have a little screen in their eye.
It does seem that the further we retreat from real conversation the harder it is for us to really understand what connection and engagement is. Often you hear fairly experienced business people saying, ironically; ‘here’s an idea, pick up the phone or visit people’ as if it’s an innovation. There also seems to be some evidence that direct mail is making a comeback. People have turned off electronic messages and actually receiving something in the post is a welcome novelty.
Marketing companies are reportedly investing a lot of money in big data. The idea is that they can get to know their customers better by analysing their data. How likely is that? You might be able to find out that someone is researching furniture suites a week after they have actually bought a new one but what can big data tell you about next week. How well can it really connect companies to the people they are dealing with?
E.M.Forster’s words, written more than 100 years ago in a very different world, could not be more poignant today. ‘Only connect!’ But this is not a digital connection, it’s the connection with the real person.
I don’t believe that big data is the solution here. I actually believe that getting to know people personally is and I think this is an area in which small business has an advantage.