The more the machines take over routine work, the less the time we have for ourselves…

In the past few days, several “day in the life” pieces have appeared in newspapers which I read regularly. The common feature of all of them has been the length of the days, and the frenetic activity with which they are filled.

This may, of course, be due to a kind of self-justification complex. “I have to demonstrate that I work long hours or I shall not be taken seriously”. My suspicion, however, is that what is reflected is rather more fundamental. Many people whom I know do work long hours, and bring work home with them, and it is, to my mind, a sad reflection on the way in which we have reacted to new technologies which have taken much of the drudgery out of work.

As computers began to come into their own a quarter of a century or so ago, people spoke of the greater leisure that they would make possible. These predictions followed earlier assumptions that the introduction of computers would turn us into a “paperless society”.

Unexpected outcome

Somehow, it does not seem to have happened quite like that. It is true that much information is now circulated electronically. Our local parish council, for example, has — not before time — agreed that agendas and minutes shall be sent out by email. Most of us probably print out the agendas and minutes, but at least they do not have to be stuffed into envelopes.

Where greater leisure is concerned, I have yet to see the evidence. Information comes in a perpetual flow, from all over the world. Time differences mean nothing. The technology is ever more user-friendly. That ought to make things much easier and, of course, in many ways, it does. What it does not do, however, is encourage people to take more time to reflect. People do not seem able to switch off — literally. You have only to travel by train to see, and indeed hear, evidence of that, as fellow passengers conduct often confidential business by mobile phone.

The same kind of paradox arises with another area of greatly enhanced technical sophistication, namely travel. Modern air travel, to state the obvious, has made the world a smaller place. That clearly has brought huge advantages. It has, for example, made it possible for the world's political leaders to be present at major international gatherings. The Copenhagen Climate Change summit is a good case in point, and there are good reasons why the political leaders shouldattend. The issues for discussion are of great importance, and by their presence the leaders are emphasising that fact.

I am convinced by that, but I am less convinced that all the myriad international journeys that leading politicians make are either necessary or sensible. The British Prime Minister, to take just one example, has sometimes given the appearance of being in perpetual motion as he rushes from place to place. It demonstrates conscientiousness and concern, but I find myself wondering whether better results might sometimes be achieved by staying at home.

The world's major countries, after all, have diplomatic services, staffed in the main by intelligent and experienced people. With modern means of communication, to return to an earlier point, it is possible for diplomats to be in constant touch with the governments that they represent. What is the point of ignoring them by flying in the politicians who run those governments? For the really big events, like the Copenhagen summit, by all means let the politicians take the stage, but that should surely be the exception rather than the rule.

Then and now

It is interesting to make a comparison with a journey made by a previous British Prime Minister nearly 50 years ago. In February 1960, Harold Macmillan made his famous “Wind of Change” speech in Cape Town. It marked a dramatic change in the colonial climate, ushering in the period of rapid de-colonisation (and foretelling, in effect, the inevitable end of apartheid in South Africa). When he made the speech, Macmillan had been travelling in Africa for a month, visiting a number of countries. The speech, and the visits, were an important assertion of policy, though even at the time it seemed rather odd that the Prime Minister was away from his office for so long.

With modern travel, such a long absence would be more than rather odd. A series of long flights and short visits would be the norm. I am still not at all sure that constant travel is a sensible use of a political leader's time.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him