In which we offer up a lyrically-hyperlinked (and determinedly purple) paean to the Future of Work. Even as economic storm clouds gather, a grimly pragmatic worker archetype is floating in on that other sort of cloud, which just came off beta status. Advance apologies to readers on a low-fat diet. Sometimes I just want to cook adjective-loaded long sentences.
The telecommuter is dead; meet the cloudworker (I made up the term for a contest). Commuting being an artifact of the work-life style of the Organization Man, the term telecommuter absolutely deserves to be retired in favor of one that captures the richness of what is actually going on. The cloudworker is the prototypical information worker of tomorrow. He overachieves or coasts remotely, collaborates or backstabs virtually, and delivers his gold or garbage to a shifting long-tail micro-market defined only by his own talents or lack thereof. The cloudworker manages personal microbrand equity and network social capital rather than a career. Over a lifetime, through recessions and bubbles, he navigates fluidly back and forth between traditional paycheck employment, slash-work and full, untethered-to-health-insurance free agency.
To paraphrase William Gibson, the cloudworker is already here; he is just unevenly distributed in the workforce.
If the Organization Man was a child of the entitlement era, born of the Mommy Corporation, for whom a layoff was a debilitating psychic shock, the cloudworker is his antithesis, the ultimate career/life pragmatist. He accepts the reality of a structurally volatile, but opportunity-rich global economy. He strives to build a diversified portfolio of active and potential income streams, but he is much too adult and social-network-enabled to want to fire his boss. He follows his micro-market wherever it takes him. Today he might be fighting a bidding war in a work-auction marketplace; next week he might be marching through the well-manicured forests of a corporate ecosystem, making his way to the back door marked “consultant.” Next year, he might go retro, accept a traditional job, and settle in for a good half-decade.
But he is not money-minded, just realistic about money, and the inevitable inequities of a global wealth management system that must, in the end, be designed by a flawed somebody. He eschews the oppression-centric, justice-seeking world-view of the hippie. While he might adopt the dystopic will-to-power machismo of yeah, the world isn’t fair; live with it, more often he navigates by a sense of pragmatic kindness that is aware of its own limitations. It isn’t his job to fix the world, but he does, with perennial optimism, resist contributing to the many tragedies of our global commons, with no expectation that others will follow suit.
If the cloudworker is not money-minded, he is lifestyle-design minded. He does not search hopelessly for early-retirement utopia, but he might angle for a 4-Hour Workweek built upon an ethically-murky globe-spanning pyramid scheme of labor arbitrage. Even the cloudworker of higher integrity is not averse to smart-working to deliver good-shit value while being, to various degrees, retired at work. The cloudworker does not seek to separate, balance or blend work and life. Instead, he tries to catalyze work-life chemistry. Whether he is good or evil, timing, positioning, leverage, and opportunism are as important to the cloudworker’s effectiveness as hours spent at the laptop. He earns his retired-at-work privileges by resisting intellectual laziness and moving with the cheese.
The cloudworker is truly peripatetic, but too firmly nested in the global social graph to deserve the label digital nomad. Virtually, he is in fact more farmer than hunter-gatherer; a careful curator of his social network and a model homesteader within the virtual geography of his twitter zone.
Over a day, his finely-tuned awareness of the interplay of environment and productivity takes him from office to home-office to that prototypical third-place, the coffee shop. Over a lifetime, as a member of the creative class, he follows his always-evolving cultural sweet spot from city to city as it shifts with the global tides of cultural capital. Wherever he goes, he is never a traveler or expatriate. As one whose very origins are global, he is certainly never part of a diaspora. Neither does he aspire to the insipid ideal of global citizenship. He is, instead, settled in as ruler of his own micro-Balkan virtual-geographic kingdom, never more than a tweet away from friend and foe. Not Me, Inc. but the Republic of Me. Travel and relocation for him are just channel surfing on his new TV, the window at Starbucks, his everywhere living room. As McLuhan predicted, the real world has become a mere museum for images first encountered elsewhere.
The harried frequent-flyer, crack-berrying at airports, may well vanish with rising aviation-fuel costs, but channel-surfing the real world as a way of life is here to stay. Even if we have to rely, green-faced, on bicycles, GPS-equipped neo-sailing-ships and a new age of clean steam engines. It makes no sense to ask the cloudworker where are you from? He has no geographic hometown. Ask, instead, where have you world-surfed so far? Don’t ask, how was your day? You’ll get more interesting answers with where was your day?
The big-D Dream of the cloudworker — the word cannot be prefixed by ‘Great American’ even for the nominally American — is neither a paid-up home mortgage, nor the corner office. Nor will he ever disengage, drop out and journey stoned towards self-discovery. His Dream is a life of self-invention, culminating in a global micro-brandhood that manages to rise, with ironic authenticity, above the noisy posturing of the vacuous micro-non-brands. A condition of happy, perennial over-subscription and unsolicited inbound economic attention via LinkedIn.
In this dream, the driving value is loyalty. A loyalty to the pattern of earned trust in his social-network neighborhood, not to institutions. Not even to the porous and protean institutions of tomorrow. In the gravity-free social graph, where there is no up or down, situational logic determines whether he will lead, manage or follow. Not for him the obscure positional logic of promotions, reporting relationships, salary bands or lateral moves. Even the deified abstraction of customer is suspect in his eyes. There are only ever dancing pairs of prosumers, who alternately lead or follow.
You and I weren’t born in the cloud, like today’s kids are, but we will certainly die in it. Here’s wishing you happy brandhood in the clouds. In Part 2, we will look at Cloudworker Economics.
[please vote for cloudworker in this contest to replace ‘telectommuter’. You can vote once a day between Oct 30 and Nov 2007]