Economy

Real people making real stuff makes the world go round, surely?

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  12 February 2018

According to the FT’s Mehreen Khan, trade in data now creates more economic growth than trade in traditional goods. I take her point. I’m not stupid. The more we know, the better informed we are, and the more accurate the data flowing through the global economy, the better for those seeking to make informed choices.

I could go on. It always helps to know what you are talking about. Information is said to be power. If you want to set up a company, or export to new customers overseas, or price in dollars rather than euros, or buy or sell on the stock market, the first thing you do is get onto the internet, and the more up-to-date and “solid” the fruits of your inquiries, the likelier it is that you will come out on top.

So I’m not saying that data doesn’t have its place. Without it, we are stumbling around in the dark.

No, it is the second part of Khan’s statement that troubles, and puzzles, me. When I look around my home, what do I see? I see a washing machine, a fridge, a new kitchen tap (€94), cupboards full of crockery, the cupboards themselves, the curtains my wife ran up, the old sofa we need to replace, the two wood-burning stoves, the space heaters we had sent over from England, the oriental rug we bought in Clapham, a new dining table Made in China, books from Amazon, a wood basket from Brico Depot, a flat-screen tv from wossname down the road, the new terrasse that replaced the old one after it finally collapsed – oh, and my computer and its internet box thingy, plus the screen on which these words are now appearing.

Even the daft television programmes I watch each evening mostly star approximations of real people played by real actors on real sets, filmed with real cameras. And that’s without going upstairs (where dreams are real), or without taking into account the extension we are having put up by local builders, who plan to charge us an arm and a leg, or the car sat outside that cost €10,500, plus running costs that threaten to ruin me. And then there’s the cost of going to the shops, which my father always said was easier if you had money in your pocket. True, the demands made at the checkout are normally resolved with the swipe of a card, but if it turns out you don’t have the money to back up your plastic, take it from me, you’re in real trouble.

Life is a never-ending bill that has to be settled before immediately reassembling itself into something even bigger. Talk about retiring and taking it easy! My income, made up of those few pensions I didn’t cash in and bits and pieces of journalism (including this one), as well as the proceeds from the sale of our New York apartment, is nearly all spent on things, not data. I have yet to receive a payment marked “for data received, plus VAT.”

Maybe it’s different for everybody else. Maybe you’re all bankers or you work for Facebook. Maybe the rest of you spend your time adding up the digital cash that comes to you by the screenful in return for the information you either provide or exploit. But I have to say, it’s not true for anybody I know. A pint of beer still arrives in a pint glass. A pair of socks shipped in from Bangladesh tend still to be made of cotton, not gigabytes.

But what do I know? Obviously not enough. I should clearly spend even more of my time online, making big bucks in nano-seconds out of algorithms conjured up in Silicon Valley. If only I could pay my bills with an algorithm … though perhaps I do.

My point is, I am surrounded by things that were made by real people in real time. I realise that young persons spend more time in the virtual reality sphere than they do in what passes for real life these days. But they still do so on phones and other devices made by real people (just not them) while sat in restaurants, or bars, or buses that are chock-full of actual manufactured goods. So, outside of the world of global finance, or Facebook, or Google, or YouGov, how does trade in data create more economic growth than trade in traditional goods? Are we being sold a virtual pup, or am I missing something? Is the whole of Britain destined to be subsumed into the city of London?

Answers (on a postcard, please) c/o Iain Martin, Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, Surrey. Please remember to use a stamp.

Editor’s note: The editor of Reaction does not live in East Cheam.