The Wiki Man

The trick that will let you have a conference call from your home phone

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

For the past 12 years, Roger Alton and I have shared this half page like Box and Cox: he writes fortnightly about sport and I write fortnightly about technology. Normally it would be Roger’s turn this week to cover sport.

Unfortunately there isn’t any.

So we’ve reached an agreement. For now, while there’s no longer any sport, I may write a little more frequently about technology. Then, in six months’ time, if there’s no longer any technology, Roger can write more frequently about the newly popular sports: bare-knuckle pugilism, dog-fighting and Mad Max-style steel-cage jousting. He could even throw in some nostalgic pieces recalling the golden age of football, when fans could still afford to throw toilet rolls on to the pitch.

Meanwhile, the best thing I can do is to tell you how to use technology to make it easier to self-isolate. This is a rich field. Almost all technology is designed by introverts for introverts. Over the past few decades, trillions of dollars have been given to the world’s nerds, geeks and box-bedroom reclusives to remake the world in a way they would choose — which generally means the ability to do anything you need without having to make eye contact. If you are slightly on the spectrum, most technology is much more exciting than if you are wildly sociable.

This very nerdiness means that technologists and tech companies in general are astonishingly bad at explaining technology to people unlike them. As a result, there are many potentially useful technological ideas which are hugely underused.

Did you know, for instance, that you can use your home telephone to talk to more than one person at once? This has been possible since about 1988. Dial the first number as you would normally. Explain to the person you are talking to that you are going to ask a second person to join you — and ask them to hold.

Then press the Recall (or ‘R’) button on your keypad. Wait a second to hear the dialling tone. Dial the second number. When the call is answered, ask the person to wait a second. Press the Recall button again. Wait for the dialling tone, then press 3.

You are now all joined together in the same call. It costs about 60p to do this, though BT might reasonably be encouraged to waive this charge for the next few months. Currently, every day or so, my brother, my father and I use it to catch up. It is also excellent for making arrangements. Yet I have never heard of anyone else using it.

A second fabulous product is the series of Portal devices made by Facebook, which are still available starting from £79. These allow you to video-call your Facebook or WhatsApp contacts with an astonishingly high quality of video and sound.

These devices would have been heralded with much more fanfare had they not been sold by Facebook. As it was, every review of the product, while acknowledging its excellence, devoted the first five paragraphs to debating the privacy implications of allowing Facebook to put a camera in your home. This never worried me. After all, if Mark Zuckerberg has the power to spy on anyone, he’s hardly likely to choose to spend his time watching a portly middle-aged advertising executive wandering around in his underpants shouting: ‘Where have you put the remote?’

Next week I’ll explain how to use Zoom. About six months ago, I met someone very senior at Zoom todiscuss the behavioural obstacles to wider use of videoconferencing. ‘Of course, what you really need to accelerate adoption is some minor pandemic,’ I said. I wince every time I think of it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.

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