This is not what social anthropologists are usually expected to ask: they observe courtship rituals, try to interpret ancient chants, analyse gift-giving or tribal cosmology.
Simon Roberts, however, is searching for meanings in the daily life of Peter Quest, a senior auditor, who works for the global accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, in a featureless tower block in central London. Quest, who has spent 32 years at the firm, manifests unease. “I call my e-mails the triffids,” he says, referring to the killer plants in John Wyndham’s 1950s novel. “You can spend all day killing them, then you turn your back for a second and those red things, those triffids, have taken over your screen again! It eats up your day. When I started my career we used to spend lots of time talking to clients and colleagues. Now it’s harder.”
Roberts is patient. “But I have noticed that people here don’t seem to classify e-mail as ‘real’ work. They sit at their desk doing e- mails and then say, ‘Right, now let’s do some work’ – but e-mail is taking up work time. Perhaps that is the problem?”
Such predictions came from a study conducted by the National Science & Technology Council. The council announced a total of 761 technological tasks in eight areas, namely aerospace, materials and production, information and knowledge, food and biological resources, life and health, energy and environment, security, and territory management and social infrastructure.