The Cloudworker’s Creed

by Venkat on October 23, 2008

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.

Cloudworker

Cloudworker

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]

Van Scott October 25, 2008 at 1:09 am

Hi Venkatesh, not sure if my last comment went through so I’ll re-post. This article was a positive joy to read, I’ve been trying to formulate these thoughts myself, and now it looks like you got me off the hook. I am also interested in how consumerism and the availability of cheap consumer products (which makes it less important to “guard” wealth in a location) has catalyzed the cloudworker movement. Anyway, I’m a new cloudworker myself, and of course, I’m attempting to blog about it and meet others as well. You’ve won a new reader today. Thanks again.
Van

kapsio October 25, 2008 at 11:16 am

Very enjoyable read and I loved the way you have connected through a lot of your previous posts and tied all the ideas together.

Regarding the contest, I think you have a winner here.
The “worker” part of it makes it sufficiently close to “teleworker” and “cloud” is very timely. Its only in the last year or so that the term “cloud” is really gaining traction. I did a google search for “cloudworker” and it looks like you are definitely the first one to coin it (there does seem to be an obscure UK band by that name, I couldnt find their website though, just mentions to some concerts, etc.)

Congratulations !! I think this term will definitely stick.

I do think you can improve upon the “worker” part of the term, especially given that the person you describe is intent on “catalyzing work-life chemistry”. “Cloudsurfer” might do it, although outside of ribbonfarm, “surfing” may not have as rich a metaphorical association ;) (it might just be construed as web-surfing 2.0…or divert someone’s mind towards a wacky adventure sport)

It also got me thinking about “cloud” as a metaphor and where it might have originated.
This is the best article I could find – courtesy wikipedia entry on cloud computing
After thinking about it some more, it does seem like “cloud” is not really a great metaphor even for the internet. What does it offer? Mainly,
– Concealment of some complex infrastructure which the end-user need not care for (what do real clouds concel anyways?)..Its just that your data packet (metaphorically bird? plane?) will go in at one end and come out where you intend it to come out.

You really have to start stretching yourself to justify “Cloud” as a metaphor even for the internet. Consider the following:
1) what is rain?
2) What is lightning?
3) Do clouds offer connectivity to anything? in any way at all?
4) What do clear days signify? (unplugged??? definitely something astronomers want :)

I am surprised that the metaphor has endured for so long. I think it has stuck mainly because it is very easy to draw :) (see the article I linked above)

The one aspect I do like about the cloud metaphor is how upon a first look they appear static, but in a time-lapse you see that they are constantly changing , extremely dynamic systems.
Here is one of the best cloud time lapses I have seen – recommended viewing
I think the internet too can give you a static feel as you are looking at a single web page, but watch it over time and you will see all of the stuff you see in the video above.

Maybe you can dive into the details of “cloud” metaphor in a subsequent post like only you can !!

Beth Powell October 26, 2008 at 9:52 pm

Thanks for the great post, Ventakesh. I have been wondering how to describe the way I and many others work – not being tied to one organisation, one place, one way of thinking..you have described a life philosophy as well as the activity.

Venkat October 27, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for the comments folks.

@Van Scott — thanks, and glad to have you on board. I checked out your blog and you seem to be up to interesting stuff. Duly added to my radar.

@kapsio — very interesting set of thoughts there. Metaphor analysis of ‘cloud’ is definitely in my hopper now. Hadn’t thought of it much frankly. I suspect what we are seeing is an overloading of an existing cloud metaphor (‘head in the clouds’, the heavens as ‘cloud floor’ places, the metaphor of rain=bounty etc. So it is a 2-layer metaphor: literal to agricultural/mythological and from that to computing). I’ll start by trying to think of literary cloud metaphors. Kalidasa’s “Meghdoota” (cloud messenger) is the first one that comes to mind.

@ Beth: glad you liked it! Watch out for more.

Rachel Smith December 26, 2008 at 9:03 am

Love the term “cloudworker,” and the post is very clever and, I think, timely. Maybe next time a little gender balance would be in order, though. Half of all cloudworkers will be women, and many already are :-) The only female figure in the entire post is the entitlement corporation — definitely not a desired role model!

Venkat December 26, 2008 at 9:33 am

Rachel: the gender bias was deliberate. I usually am conscious about it and write with s/he language, but in this case, even though the term applies to women, I don’t think I am competent to write the female-POV post. There are many likely differences in how women would approach cloudworker lifestyle design (including the issue of kids, which impacts women more). I am definitely curious to hear the female view, either as a response blog or even a guest post. Any takers?

Provocative conjecture I’ve had: men possibly resonate more with the nomadic ‘hunter’ connotations of new ways of work, while women possibly resonate more with ‘nester’ and ‘gatherer’ connotations. Like Seinfeld noted about TV remote habits, “women want to see what’s on TV, men want to see what ELSE is on TV, because men like to hunt and women like to nest.”

Venkat

Tabby January 11, 2009 at 4:16 am

Maybe it’s time now to re-engineer some old terms to fit the cloud metaphor, such as:

1. A ‘rainmaker’ = a pioneering cloudworker
2. A ‘tap dancer’ = an adventurous (or restless) cloudworker
3. A ‘storm trooper’ = a cloudworker who likes crazy projects

I could carry on, but you get the drift …

Venkat January 11, 2009 at 5:43 am

Love the idea Tabby :)… though I think the term ‘rainmaker’ is already taken for a top sales person who generates lots of revenue. ‘cloudwarrior’ for next-gen special ops personnel. Thunderer for a dictatorial remote CEO. ‘Bolt’ for a cloudworker who delivers very high-quality work in sudden bursts :)

Am a little foggy at the moment, since it is early AM, but if we can come up with a few more, I’ll do a roundup post, maybe call it ‘cloudworker dictionary’

Venkat

Giuliana January 14, 2009 at 8:15 am

I was wondering why the cloudworker is: “truly peripatetic, but too firmly nested in the global social graph to deserve the label digital nomad” ?
:)

Venkat January 14, 2009 at 8:46 am

Hi Giuliana:

My thinking was that in the space that matters (virtual), cloudworkers are relatively stable. My close circle of social graph neighbors changes relatively slowly. That’s what I mean by ‘nested.’ Wherever I go physically, ribbonfarm.com is always my virtual home :)

Is that a reasonable argument?

Venkat

Giuliana Guazzaroni January 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm

We are discussing (in Italian language) about the cloudworker here: http://www.ibridamenti.com/e-learning-desk-juice/2009/01/cloudworker

Thanks Venkat for your answer!! :)
Giuliana

Giuliana Guazzaroni January 16, 2009 at 8:46 am

Hi Venkat,
you are really welcome in ibridamenti.com :)
We are talking about the cloudworker idea… and I’m realizing I’m a cloudworker!
We think that the cloudworker should be innovative and creative. He/she should expand dinamically and creatively in his/her social network (within and without the web).
Anyway, we are still talking and sharing our opinion about it.
I’d really enjoy to write our perspective in ribbonfarm.
Thanks! I’m emailing you about it :)

Martin Varesio August 16, 2011 at 11:13 am

That’s what I mean by ‘nested.’ Wherever I go physically, ribbonfarm.com is always my virtual home..!!

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