Virtual insanity

Virtual insanity

PBM’s Editor Paul Davies discusses the rise – possibly to alarming levels – of online commerce and social media and the implications for business.

Apparently, by the year 2020, people will manage 85% of their engagements with businesses without talking to, or genuinely interacting with, a human. The cumulative consequence of online commerce and social media, this rather alarming stat comes from insight compiled by US technology research and advisory consultant, Gartner. Its findings are a few years old now, but are consistently used when evolving, modern business practices are discussed.

If we accept the veracity of the headline statement, am I alone in finding this rather sad? It seems to me symptomatic of a world supposedly enriched by the growth of social media and its ilk, allowing people to communicate in a way that was fanciful barely a decade ago, reaching out to friends spread far across the globe — yet what actually happens is the inducement of a zombie-like hypnosis as individuals remain glued to the screen in their hand, barely noticing the silent presence of actual human beings in the same room.

Since when did it become so socially acceptable to break away from a conversation at the dinner table to check Facebook? How can a Twitter exchange really be of more value than an actual conversation, and why is it that many moments in life are now missed because they’re being viewed through the prism of a small screen?

And whilst I do have genuine concerns for the future regarding the ways in which a proportion of the younger generation interacts with their peers and others, this isn’t just a matter for the under 35s but a creeping issue that makes that 85% figure seem alarmingly plausible.

Our ‘tablet dependency’, of course, is not the sign of the apocalypse — it is just a question of finding the right balance. However, the elimination of all bar 15% of human contact in our dealings with businesses just doesn’t strike the right note at all.

The clue has to be in phrases such as ‘social media tools’ — surely, they exist to be a facilitator and not a means to an end? The BMF, for example, has recently introduced a branch finder app, enabling trade customers to easily find a convenient outlet when they are on the move, and this seems to be an ideal way in which technology can enhance our daily life rather than hijack it.

Fortunately, therefore, the merchant sector seems to operate at a much more harmonious level when it comes to interaction. There continue to be great swathes of investment in new branches and showrooms from merchant businesses of all sizes, encouraging customers to actually travel to an enticing destination where they can learn from real experts about the best solutions to their needs.

Naturally, there’s still an evolutionary nature, as wonderfully typified by Elliotts’ intention to boost its own digital offering with a new website which allows customers to tap into the firm’s 175+ years of expertise. Better balance, once again.

Who knows quite how the merchant sector will fare on the 85/15 scale by 2020. I hope and indeed expect that business will still be centred on the buzz of the trade counter, of conferences and exhibitions and, put simply, of people dealing with people. Sometimes, ‘less is more’ and in my view, this is one of those times.

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