“If broadband goes down, we’re all screwed”

For all the disruption that the lockdown has brought to the nation (if not the world), for the cast of the SmallDataForum, little has changed in the way we work: most of our 34 episodes were recorded “in the Zoom where it happens” (with a bit of Whereby here and there).

Sam is still delivering training on data storytelling and insightful thinking, just now with participants on screen.

Neville has been commuting the few meters to the home office for years, and I’m not at all missing the occasional trips to a London WeWork office – video calls do the job just as well.

And isn’t the fall of WeWork and the rise of Zoom (ignoring security and privacy issue for the moment) just the metaphor for our times …

While our capabilities of remote interaction continue to progress, actual travel has regressed to a remarkable degree over the last four weeks: road travel is at 1955 levels, rail journeys in the UK are 5% of normal levels, bus passengers numbers are down 88% from last year, and flight traffic is down 92% year on year, according to the latest available data. This will almost certainly reduce fatalities, though it is way too early to put any numbers to that.

transportation nose dive

Where we do have numbers, courtesy of live data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (and visualized by Information is Beautiful), they paint a harsh picture.

On 13th March, when we recorded episode 34 of the SmallDataForum, there were 137,000 COVID-19 cases world-wide, and about 5,000 people had died. The UK had 800 cases and 11 deaths.

On Monday 6th, less than four weeks later, there were 1,275,000 cases with 70,000 deaths globally, and 48,000 cases with 5,000 deaths in the UK.


So many numbers, but what do we really know? Testing varies greatly from country to country, and with impacts on economic activity and wealth, there is political motivation for some to downplay numbers and impact. But for once, we’re not focused on populist politics in the UK, the US or elsewhere (we leave that for the next episode).

What we seem to know and don’t know, however, is quite important: people are afraid and crave certainty – but the models don’t provide that.

Perhaps we would all be better off taking a leaf out of Mervyn King’s and John Kay’s new book Radical Uncertainty – decision making for an unknowable future. They set the scene with a quote from War & Peace: “All we can know is that we know nothing”. Which may or may not be the ‘Socratic Paradox’ as discussed by Plato and many others that followed.

And where knowledge is concerned, hedgehogs and foxes won’t be far, from Archilochus to Isiah Berlin (who incidentally based his essay on Tolstoy, who apparently was by nature a fox and by conviction a hedgehog; aren’t most of us?).


King and Kay tell us that “the hedgehog knows one big thing, the fox many little things. The hedgehog subscribes to some overarching narrative; the fox is sceptical about the power of any overarching narrative. The hedgehog approaches most uncertainties with strong priors; the fox attempts to assemble evidence before forming a view of ‘what is going on here’.”

Paradox indeed – we’re all scared and seek the reassurance of the hedgehog, when the incremental evidence of the fox is all we should trust.

In our world of marketers and communicators, where confidence is (almost) everything, the hedgehog thrives, and ‘priors’ tell us what’s likely to happen. Which is why Mark Ritson has all the answers to the question of Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus: do the right thing and people will remember. Just like they did with Marks & Spencer having produced ration clothing in World War II.

That doesn’t bode well for the ‘bad boys of COVID-19’, from Mike Ashley and Richard Branson to Philipp Green and Tim Martin. Be like Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, not  like Kyle Walker or Jack Grealish. England manager Gareth Southgate has said that Walker will never play for England under him again.

Ah, football. Some of us miss it greatly. All the big sport really. Watching it. Reading about it. Studying the league tables. Will this be the big moment for esports?

I greatly enjoyed the Virtual Grand National on Saturday (and even correctly predicted Red Rum’s triumph), but a virtual North London Derby? I don’t think so. Then again, Sam’s teenage son stays close to his friends via the FIFA online game, socialising virtually, chatting, collaborating. Clearly “if broadband goes down, we’re all screwed.”

Luckily we have the Internet Society’s Director of Digital Marketing reassuring us that no such thing is likely to happen.


So what’s ahead? Trying to be foxes rather than hedgehogs, we look at trends as they emerge: Neville sees us on the cusp of major shifts in society, a big reset perhaps. For Sam, face to face will rule again but time saved from travels and setups is time won: for more productivity, or even for a better life-work balance. I’ll hold off on predictions until the dust has settled at least a bit.

But when even FT editorials muse over a new social contract, something must be up. Amid all the agitated, often self-serving noise online, there are some thought-provoking perspectives, such as this webinar on pandemic economics, which also introduced me to Richard Baldwin’s prophetic The Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work. We’re likely to see a lot more ‘tele-migrants’ a lot sooner than the international economics professor would have foreseen a year ago. What that does to business travel, corporate real estate, businesses’ fixed costs?

Watch out for the sly foxes to gradually develop some evidence-based ideas around these themes. And ignore the yapping of the cocksure hedgehogs. In about three weeks, we’ll be back with our observations.

ship's bow

In the meantime, the three of us will hone our lockdown skills, from making our pizza ovens work and growing more fruit and veg (Sam), to continued sourdough bread baking and beer making (Thomas), to Neville finally clearing out his garage (once he’s set up his five – yes, five! – new blogs).

Listen to Episode 34:

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