UpFront 04/20

Although it’s only a few weeks since I talked with Oliver Letwin about his book Apocalypse How? it feels like a very long time ago. We discussed his concerns over our heavy reliance on technology and the difficulties that this may cause in the future. His book highlights the fact that governments tend to deal only with a crisis as it happens, and, although much effort goes into shoring up defences to stop problems from happening, not much is done to create a fall-back option should defences fail. In the case of Oliver’s book, the issue is a failure of the National Grid which by then powers all communications. Today, as we try to get through the current crisis, one thing that has been keenly brought into focus is the value of robust communication. For hospitals, medical suppliers and food producers, it provides a vital lifeline. For families, the benefit of video chat systems has been enormous in a time when people are forced apart from their loved ones. Although I am in a caravan nearby, I have only been able to share mealtimes with my family through the wonders of technology. Someone’s phone is strategically placed on my family’s dining table so we can all chat while we eat. Dinners together are something to look forward to. Although a couple of nights ago everything went a bit blurry when someone reached for the salt and knocked me into the noodles—messy but amusing. But there are already drawbacks when we let technology take too much control. Last week two computers conspired to cancel a friend’s food delivery which had been booked nearly two weeks previously. She went to bed the night before it was due in the knowledge that the next day she would receive her long-awaited food order. When she woke, she noticed automated text messages from her bank. One highlighted an attempted transaction after midnight that she recognised as the payment for her food order. The second asked her to verify the transaction. This was followed by an email from the food company, also sent just after midnight, informing her that her order had been cancelled because they had been unable to process the payment. As the chat line bots didn’t have a computer-generated answer to her problem and phone lines were inaccessible, she had to start again. Her next available delivery slot is in three weeks’ time and she has no plans to sleep the night before.