I found it ironic that, on the very day we learned that the Internet economy is booming faster even than India’s — and that the UK has the largest Internet sector of any of the G20 economies — a new series of The Apprentice TV show began yesterday on the BBC. Although Lord Alan Sugar, the host of the UK show, might be said to have introduced computing to the masses with the launch of the Amstrad PCW in 1985, watching The Apprentice you could be forgiven for assuming you were viewing some alternative reality in which the Internet had never happened.
The programme’s thrusting would-be entrepreneurs all tote iPhones or HTCs, for sure, but the idea of using their smartphones to do anything as elementary as researching on Google or exchanging updates by SMS never seems to cross their minds. Lord Sugar’s apprentices are learning how to be entrepreneurs as castaways in a parallel, non-digital reality where research is always performed face-to-face, looking up information means sitting down with a directory or catalog, and the only way to find out what someone is up to is to place a voice call on speakerphone.
Of course this all makes excellent armchair entertainment for us at home as we watch the highly-strung contestants haplessly run themselves from pillar to post. In one scene last night, a posse of four of them traipsed around the leafier backstreets of London’s Primrose Hill in search of retailers who would buy their leftover stock. It was classic reality TV but did none of them think of doing a quick search on their smartphone map to find the six nearest prospects?
The Apprentice makes compelling viewing precisely because it puts contestants through all the messy personal interactions of persuasion, negotiation, teamwork and decision-making under stress that test every entrepreneur. But it paints a sadly incomplete picture of the skills that are needed today to be successful in the modern, connected, digital world. A more sophisticated production effort could build in the digital interactions it lacks and still make it just as entertaining. But it’s cheaper and easier to leave it stuck in its 1990s-vintage alternative universe — one where Lord Sugar is presumably much more in his element than if were to attempt to play the digital native.