The sorts of things you can only tell in person

“You look like your father. You behave like him and you talk like him. Last year was the worst year of your life. Judgement will be passed on what happened. You will become a writer.”

Thus spake the fortune-teller a few years ago. They were the first words he said to me. Not even a “Hello”. It was the one and only time I’ve had my fortune told and the telling happened at great velocity. This was to be expected. It was a sort of speed dating event for a gathering of palmists and clairvoyants who were sprinkled around the trendy Shoreditch House members’ club. We, the punters, sat at the bar until someone with a clipboard called our name, and then off we would walk. Or stumble. Or march. Or sway. Or tip-toe. Or…

And that was the point. Because you can tell a lot about a person by the way they sashay across the bar. You can tell even more once they introduce themselves, or hesitate, by the way they shake your hand, or sit themselves down without a smile.

This is all data. The experienced soothsayer sees all of this and within an instant is fully armed with insights. In fact, the mystic who greeted me didn’t even greet me. He just sat still with his arms crossed while I held my hand out in greeting. From this little injection of tension I assume he learnt even more.

Most of us have not developed the ability to raise all this tacit knowledge to the surface to the same degree as a fortune-teller. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi says, “We know more than we can tell.” Nevertheless, we are all gifted amateurs.

Which brings us to the holograms and 3D virtual reality of our near future. The future, that is, that is being imagined and manifested a short walk from Shoreditch House. The one in which the ease of meeting, seeing, hearing and talking to each other without moving a centimetre from where we already sit will be extremely seductive. Our lazy bones will wail at us: “Why bother getting dressed, why shave or do your hair, when you can be virtually present and layer a smartly-dressed Snapchat filter over your scruffy actuality?” It’s the future described by the author, Shelly Turkle, where we are “alone together”.

But if all that mattered was ease of communication then the coworking spaces of Old Street would be empty and investors wouldn’t insist on meeting startups in person. Instead, the opposite is true. The tacit knowledge conveyed by, for example, a founder’s passion and conviction is pivotal for investors who need to decide whether they’ll stay the course through the ups and downs of growing a business.

It’s even more critical to those people who work inside the startups. The co-founders, first employees, programmers, data scientists and marketers that inhabit Shoreditch have all made decisions about spending a large part of their waking hours in the presence of stressed-out founders. That’s a decision that you can only make when you look into someone’s eyes. And as world leaders know, it doesn’t matter how surrounded you are by intelligence, sometimes the only way to really negotiate and understand the person you’re dealing with is to get on a plane and meet them face to face.

This is part of the reason for the huge success of Old Street roundabout’s startup scene. Physically, the area is a proliferation of coffee shops, coworking spaces, desk-shares, talks and hackathons. But the truth is, the area is rich in tacit knowledge. So it’s a breeze to meet with startups, investors and workers face to face. This enables you to build rapport and, perhaps more importantly, sense continuity and change in a startup’s confidence, anxiety, enthusiasm or desperate BS.

In other words, it turns out that the people who are building businesses that obviate the need for people to meet with each other in person are in fact founded on the very human need to be with each other and read each other’s body behaviour, tone of voice and facial expressions.

Which is why, when a startup breaks out to become a stellar success or, alternatively, fails and goes bust, the community around may not be surprised even though they can’t explain why. The startup inhabitants of Old Street roundabout had an inkling already. The scenius knows more than it can say.