Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


I like the analogue world. For 30 years, I have carried a fountain pen and blotting paper, accepting the occasional leaks in jacket pockets and onto shirts as an acceptable price to pay for the creative pleasure of putting ink on paper.

I prefer going to live football matches to watch my battling local lower league Yeovil Town (nicknamed the Glovers since they were founded in 1895) over watching English Premier League matches on television. And I like to buy products in proper shops rather than live a life online, filling our streets with delivery vans.

I have worked with, made money from and taught about the role of computers and digital matters since the 1980s, so you can rightly call me a hypocrite. Artificial intelligence is one of the areas most likely to transform industry over the next decade, but it is the old Greek motto “μηδὲν ἄγαν” (meden agan – nothing to excess) that I learned at school in Scotland that creates so much concern.

Many of the young marketing staff I hired early in my career, and those I taught later when teaching part-time, have gone on to manage big advertising and communications budgets. Without exception, they have complained about the fast-expanding moves towards 70%, 80% and often over 90% of budget having to be spent with Google (or Alphabet these days). Expenditure on print, television and outdoor advertising all declined as target audiences moved to new areas for their news, entertainment and information. There was suddenly no room for anything but digital.

Data analysts and big data

As I visited them in their new workplaces, there was always one person, invariably a young man, sitting quietly at the back and playing a key role. He was the one who collected and analysed the data, identifying what was successful, what was not so good, where target audiences were and what made them move.

At the 2017 World Leather Congress in Shanghai, I spoke about these new developments. My talk followed that of a young woman who headed up fashion for the Chinese Amazon-like business called JD.com. As she explained its coverage of China with same-day delivery in most conurbations, she was delighted to highlight how much information they were able to gather on each individual customer.

This was exactly the point I was making but my view named the then, and still now, largely unknown businesses who uncover information within fractions of a second of a consumer logging onto a webpage and build pictures with the over 300 separate items they usually have within a minute. Powerful for a brand intent on finding and servicing its target audience efficiently but frightening for the consumer who neither understands or knows what is being gathered and by whom.

In hindsight, China was a bad place for me to give this talk. I noted that their system was starting to be linked to social media, making it even more powerful, but in China this is still seen more as a tool than a threat. But with the advent of Covid bringing new tools to measure, control and track people’s health, the Chinese state had suddenly arrived at a level of control only imagined by George Orwell in 1984. Some of this is we are now also seeing reflected in “working from home” developments where companies are often installing monitoring and measuring software to watch what their employees do and for how long.

Add in the facial recognition in which they are experts – now being widely exported to many authoritarian regimes – and their ability to control is absolute. If you thought Dave Eggers 2013 novel The Circle was pure fantasy, read it again. It is getting to be real life.

In countries outside China, where people are not content to have a system where some digital algorithm assesses data and scores whether you can buy a train ticket, enter a restaurant or obtain a travel visa, governments are battling to bring the big companies under control and data management remains a matter of trust. Regulators are weak and the tiny number of oversized, over-rich corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Meta (Facebook in disguise) are yet to provide evidence. This is not a good sign that they can be trusted.

The Chinese companies Alibaba, JD.com, Tencent (which owns WeChat) and ByteDance (which owns TikTok), whose future role outside China has been muddled by both recent Chinese decisions related to free capitalism and the U.S.-China battles over security and technology, hold even more data on individuals.

How is data collected and held?

The leather industry has understood that social media is no longer a place for amateurs, and that the data matters, but there are two more areas of relevance.

Firstly, we must be responsible in how we use and hold this data and respectful of all our customers, be they companies or individuals. This should include heightened preparation against cybercrimes of all types. We read mostly of large companies losing access to their data and being asked for large fees to get it back; quite a few small and medium-sized leather businesses have been hit at huge cost. What data is held, why it is held and how it is held are all major policy decisions requiring constant review.

Secondly, we must remember that leather is an analogue material. Whatever digital tools we use to track it, to make it and to check leather is bought because it looks, feels, smells and works to perfection as a material. It is a touch of reality, an antidote to a world of science fantasy that only a fraction of us properly understands. Being natural, leather grounds us and brings us down to earth be it in a phone cover, a purse, a bag or a soft old chair.

Not everyone can or wants to live and work only with computers. Leather offers such people analogue work opportunities and products. That is why we find so many leather workers stay for decades. We should not forget it.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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