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Welcome to the age of electronic cottages and information elites
Future News 161
The transformation of a water-ringed wasteland into a cathedral of modern capitalism proved the futurists of the past wrong. More than 120,000 people would eventually work at Canary Wharf everyday.
The East London site started off life as a crucial trading link between Britain and its colonial possessions in the Caribbean in its guise as a series of three docks.
Larger iron ships meant bigger ports were needed, the Empire lapsed and the bombing of the West India Docks during the Second World War dealt a near-fatal blow to the area.
The invention of the shipping container in the 1950s effectively finished the West India Docks off, with a final closure in 1980. A slow death was followed by a dramatic rebirth.
The radical Margaret Thatcher had swept into power in 1979, promising to put Britain’s troubled decade behind it and harness a new age of prosperity through monetarism and privatisation.
The old guard, including traditionalist Tories, were vanquished and the UK’s post-war consensus would be uprooted. Thatcher’s first Conservative government saw the dilapidated docklands as a place where they could show off the effectiveness of this new form of politics.
The London Docklands Development Corporation was formed in 1981, the nearby Isle of Dogs was granted Enterprise Zone status in 1982 and local authorities, as well as voters and residents, were given very little say (if at all) on the future of the site.
Through tax breaks and other commercial incentives, Thatcher’s administration helped will Canary Wharf into existence.
The aptly named Olympia & York, the outfit behind New York’s World Financial Centre, was drafted in, signed a master builder agreement in 1987 and began the construction of Britain’s then largest skyscraper, One Canada Square, in 1988.
The vision for Canary Wharf was to create an advanced business district which would help put the UK on the map as Europe’s leading financial hub. A beacon of Thatcherism shining across the continent, in many ways.
The dream started to became a reality when One Canada was topped out with an iconic pyramid roof in November 1990. There should have been champagne flowing in Number 10, instead the hallways ran red.
The Tories had enacted one of their most infamous episodes of political bloodletting. Thatcher was forced out. Undefeated at the polls, the Iron Lady was toppled by an internal coup.
Business went on both in Downing Street, where John Major took charge, and in Canary Wharf, with the likes of Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Fleet Street outlets, including The Telegraph, Mirror and The Independent (established in 1986), moving east in 1991.
The Conservative axe-men were arguably proved right when mild-mannered ‘honest John’ won a surprise majority at the 1992 general election held in April. Major had warned voters against a “double-whammy” from Labour of higher taxes and higher prices.
But there were more twists ahead in the story of Canary Wharf and Major’s own economic competence. Olympia & York went into bankruptcy that May, owing an otherworldly $20 billion.
“It proves that nobody, no matter how rich or how smart, is escaping this real estate depression,” an industry commentator noted at the time.
Britain went on to face its own financial crisis that September. Major lost his safe-pair-of-hands status when the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The fateful events occurred on 16 September, forever after known as Black Wednesday.
The Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence was shot, helping Tony Blair’s New Labour secure a landslide victory at the 1997 General Election.
The age of ‘Cool Britannia’ was ushered in, with the then Prime Minister hosting his French counterpart Jacques Chirac in One Canada Square in November.
The pair were surrounded by carefully selected furniture. paintings and floral arrangements – all chosen to give a sense of modernity around the new guard of British politics.
“The new Britain, as we enter the new Millennium is a modern nation, forward looking, outward going, and it's important therefore that we use occasions like this to show the world that image of Britain,” Peter Mandelson, a co-architect of New Labour and then Minister without portfolio, would claim.
Millions would eventually follow in Blair’s and Chirac’s footsteps as more steel and glass pierced the sky in East London and corporate paternalism flourished. Your gym, your doctor, your tailor and your chef were all to be found in one place – the workplace. Why bother venturing anywhere else?
Once a wilderness, Canary Wharf had become synonymous with certainty, professionalism and prosperity. But then another twist to the tale.
The futurists of the past, some four decades later, began to be proven right as workers were forced to ditch the office for what one man and his wife described as the electronic cottage.
Shattering the consensus
Forgotten today, that man was Alvin Toffler, a journalist turned businessman who once toured the world and was the talk of middle-class dinner parties throughout the 1970s and early 1980s thanks to his two most influential books, Future Shock and The Third Wave.
The latter title, co-written with his wife Heidi, broke human civilization down into three broad eras – the agrarian age, the industrial age and post-industrial or information age. The final form of society was the Third Wave of the book’s title.
Toffler made some sensible and some bold predictions about the first, second and third order impacts of new forms of information and communications technology. He was wrong that computers, satellites and telephones would erode the nation state, but right about the polarisation of society.
Toffler’s argument rested on two main premises: that ‘information overload’ ultimately incentivised people to concentrate on things that only mattered to them (not the wider populous) and that media itself had become ‘demassified’, giving consumers the option to digest more and more content in their chosen niche instead of generalist publications or broadcasts.
The end result would be that society’s shared reality would therefore be replaced by a personal one. “The demassification of the media demassifies our minds as well,” Toffler put it. Consensus shatters.
The prediction obviously predates the rise of social media. But does reflect on how people can become increasingly dogmatic through their content consumption (algorithmically chosen or not) and form sub-groups which are intrinsically suspicious of other collectives.
Toffler hit the nail on its head (albeit thanks to government-mandated lockdowns and a cruel global virus) when he outlined his vision for what he called a home-centred society. At the heart of this hypothetical system is a partial return to the old agrarian society, but this time with robots and knowledge workers.
The tech-savvy employees would be able to be based at their electronic cottages thanks to computers and other modern information technology. In turn, commuting would die down and civil society would flourish thanks to the workers’ persistent presence and long-term stakes in their surroundings.
“If employees can perform some or all of their work tasks at home, they do not have to move every time they change jobs, as many are compelled to do today,” Toffler wrote.
“They can simply plug into a new computer. This implies less forced mobility, less strain on the individual, fewer transient human relationships, and greater participation in community life…the electronic cottage could help restore a sense of community belonging.”
Since employees would own the means of production, their terminals, they could also become entrepreneurs on the side – Toffler’s own prediction of the freelance or gig-economy.
Thanks to these circumstances, the soul-crushing rat race would subsequently become a thing of the past and offices would increasingly become decentralised.
But the reality of Toffler’s world has only become half-true. It is perhaps exemplified best by re-picking up the tale of Canary Wharf, which itself presented its own very different vision of the future in the 1980s.
A hybrid future
Amid the popularisation of hybrid-working, with commuting rates down as high as 17% on Mondays and Fridays in central London, one of the world’s largest banks has declared that it will decamp from Canary Wharf.
HSBC will head back to the City of London in 2027. Its new base is near Fleet Street no less. Leading law firm Clifford Chance is also making a similar move back to the City.
It isn’t just a London phenomenon, the rest of the UK is commuting much less too and office space has shrunk by millions of square feet. Rail journeys have peaked at 80% of their pre-pandemic rate. The Office of National Statistics reported in February that almost a third of the national workforce had a hybrid pattern.
At an international level, even Uber, once a disruptor of traditional taxi cabs, is transforming itself to meet new commuting demands by working with the likes of Nissan in Egypt, Toyota in Brazil and Tata Realty in India to provide private buses.
People still want to commute, but they want to do less of it and more comfortably. There are also things that you just cannot learn or communicate cooped up in the electric cottage.
This is especially true of new entrants to the workforce. Every virtual call becomes a formality, while the chance to overhear or overlook a more senior colleague as they successfully complete a task becomes obsolete.
Though some have branded it as a clash of generations, with Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X employees now working together, each demographic has the opportunity to learn from one another – so long as they are present at the same place at the same time.
Likewise, face-to-face meetings have arguably become more important since a higher value is associated to them than ever before. Effective networking and general business relations therefore can’t solely be achieved over a screen.
Toffler’s contention that there will be a shortened work-week as a result of the home-centred society has also proven to be dubious.
The ever-popular experiment of a four-day work-week may have proven successful for some companies, but without a government mandate – or a French-style banning of sending emails to colleagues after 6pm – it would never successfully take off. This is especially true in service-driven industries.
But the author was right on the rise of individualism. Toffler put great emphasis on the increase in product choice, while more fundamental socio-economic drivers have pushed workers away from the post-war vision of the good society.
No jobs for life, no gold-plated pensions, heavy educational debts and high mortgage rates are just some of the factors keeping younger employees off the housing ladder and well-away from starting a family.
Individualism isn’t so much of a choice brought about by technological advancement, but more of a reaction to the short-termist socio-economic status quo.
The situation could become grimmer if many of the 800 million workers which are set to be displaced by AI-driven automation are not reemployed in quick-time.
We would face a new class of economically inactive workers, who would deem the roles of the AI-age to be meaningless and therefore unworthy of their labour. A retreat would ensue. They would choose, where possible, to sit on the side-lines instead.
On the flip-side, it’s clear that a new class of information elites is emerging. Our societies are increasingly news-free zones, with 47% of global consumers not participating with news.
A decreasing number — 22%, down 10% from 2018 — of people are accessing news directly from an outlet’s website or app. Social media is the go-to source. The non-newsers are typically male, better educated and more partisan in their political views.
The emerging class of information elites, meanwhile, are paying for their news and other forms of useful data (The Bloomberg Terminal continues to dominate the financial services industries, for instance). It’s both an educational and financial divide.
We already have paywalled outlets (and rightly so), but the age of AI also looks like it comes with a monthly subscription (at the very least), never mind heady hardware costs (Apple’s $3,499 Vision Pro or NVIDIA’s $10,000 AI chip, the A100).
If generative AI continues on its compounding exponential growth trajectory, will the gap between the information elites and everyone else continue at the same pace? Or perhaps there is another twist? An AI-powered information bomb could provide a Canary Wharf-style reset and usher in a Fourth Wave of human civilisation.