It’s a rum business, banking. First, one of the oldest in the game, NatWest, announces that it is to stop communicating with the dead. Then, one of the newest, Egg, demonstrates that it has yet to master the skill of communicating with the living.
NatWest’s decision came in response to a complaint from the widow of the late Bernie Grant MP, who wanted the bank to stop sending correspondence addressed to him. I know how she feels. Some years ago, following a family bereavement, the Inland Revenue wrote to the deceased, starting with the words “Owing to the change in your circumstances…”.
Evidence of Egg’s faltering attempts to connect with its customers comes in the latest edition of its magazine Egg Refresh. A glance at the cover, which is entirely taken up by a picture of a lemon and the words”easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy”, invites the suspicion that one is not in the company of adults. Turn the page and proof awaits. The editorial is written by a couple who sign themselves with the matey diminutives Steve and Kate. Pictures of the pair, one in a romper suit, the other in a push chair, bear the caption “Steve and Kate would never have believed that their paths would cross…”
On the evidence of this illustration, they are each about two years old, which explains a lot. For children so young, the ability to write at all is precocious in the extreme; even so, I think that, on mature reflection, the Prudential might agree that the couple’s promotion to magazine editors was premature. At that age, it is hard enough to learn to walk, let alone put together a publication. And, as one might expect, they are, quite understandably, prone to frequent lapses into baby talk.
Here are a few examples: “Our biggest news is that our website is going under the scalpel, at the mo…”, “Feel like saying, ‘stick yer job!’?”, “Don’t you just lurve finding out how great you are?” and “Psst…wanna buy a motor?”.
Page after page of this stuff leaves the reader feeling as if he’s trapped in a lift with a hyperactive costermonger who has been watching too much American television.
Egg is, of course, an Internet bank and, from the evidence of its magazine, it assumes that anyone with access to the Web is young and semi-literate; though there is indeed statistical evidence pointing to a causal link between those two conditions, not everyone with sufficient curiosity to explore the Web is either infantile or linguistically retarded.
There is, however, another, more disturbing possibility – that the Internet is itself responsible for shrinking the brain, and among the consequences of that might be a tendency to speak in a curious combination of estuary English and Midwest American.
Professor Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, told a recent meeting of the British Association that man’s brain, which had been unchanged for 30,000 years, could be adversely affected by information technology.
“I would argue that, if you just have in-your-face information, you don’t have the growth of the imagination encouraged by a book,” she said. Having “second-hand images thrust in our faces” could harm our ability to speculate, fantasise and to invent. “Of course, people get information from the Internet,” she added, “but you can’t necessarily get a framework into which to put the facts. That has to come from thinking, walking and living.”
Steve and Kate are therefore doubly at risk. Scarcely able to think and walk, and relative beginners at living, they may, through hours of looking at the Net, be subjecting themselves to an irreversible process of regression. Future issues of Refresh may, I fear, be little more than a collection of jam-and-dribble-stained pages.
There is an unresolved question here – where is the money coming from? The Prudential and others have entered Internet commerce to make money. They believe that people who use online banking are sufficiently well off to be worth attracting as customers. And yet they also seem to believe that those same customers are best addressed as near-idiots.
So what has changed in our economy and society to enable half-educated, semi-articulate people to enrich themselves? It beggars belief that they could all be employed in the “hospitality industry”, said to be among the biggest-earning sectors of the economy. For one thing, we are not suited either by temperament or inclination to be hospitable. For another, only a limited number of people can usefully be employed either as serving wenches at mock mediaeval banquets or as surly bar staff (this being something of a national specialism).
There must, however, be some mysterious process of wealth generation at work. After all, Anthony “Four Star” Blair has committed the Government to spending &£1bn on UK Online, his campaign to make Britain a world Internet leader. If the Pru and Professor Greenfield are both right, the Prime Minister is more Machiavellian than his sternest critics have supposed. For what could better suit the purposes of a tax-hungry, power-crazed politician (and all of them are), than to preside over a nation comprising well-to-do half-wits?