Is There a Cloudworker Culture?

When one of my regular readers IM’ed me, “I hope you write about cloudworker culture next,” I almost panicked. All I had in my head at the time was a dark three-word post: “there isn’t one,” accompanying a sort of desperately humorous image: Alberto Giacometti’s famous sculpture Chariot, holding a Starbucks coffee cup and a Blackberry at her hip. The original sculpture suggests a sort of sombre existential loneliness. Add Starbucks and the Blackberry, and the gravitas of the original degenerates to an anxious farce. A tragic farce, because the figure is still lonely. My modest photoshop skills turned out to be up to the task, so here is the mashed-up image I started with, in my head.

Mashup elements courtesy MOMA, Starbucks and RIM

Cloudworker by Rao (2008); Mashup elements courtesy MOMA, Starbucks and RIM

Immersed in the farcical post-existential loneliness of the Cloud, the cloudworker’s cultural life just might be no more than an impoverished buzz of emoticons. The highlights of his cultural life might be fleeting, unsatisfying encounters with co-cloudworker strangers whose gaze he holds for a second longer than necessary at Starbucks, but does not engage. A condition worse than that of Chuck Palahniuk’s hero in Fight Club, who at least found connection and community by beating other men to a pulp.

If the Giacometti sculpture is too high-brow for you, consider a more popular literary image: Mark Twain’s unforgettable King and Duke characters in Huckleberry Finn, drifting down the Mississippi. Rulers of a Micro-Balkan virtual kingdom on a raft. Farce once again.

But then I figured I was being too dark, and did come up with a bunch of ideas that suggest that a cloudworker culture is emerging. I figured I’d let you ponder the question for yourself before sharing my answer.

So what do you think? Is there a cloudworker culture, or are all us cloudworkers doomed to the socially and culturally empty life suggested by my art mashup?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think the concept you need to develop your notion of cloudworker culture is the cyber version of the flâneur. This notion was inspired by your blackberry+starbucks mashup which I think can be interpreted in an optimistic way in addition to your rather gloomy take.

    The problem of the flâneur/cloudworker is that they consume culturally but do not necessarily contribute culturally (sometimes yes, more often no). As such, our Puritan / Protestant forefathers decried their loafing ways, when in fact they were contributing, just not in a way visible to late industrial capitalism. Thanks to twitter and other technologies in search of a problem, I think we have a chance to rehabilitate the flâneur and perhaps reincarnate him/her in the figure of the cloudworker, where the problem is not the lack of contribution, but the lack of visibility and community.

    That’s my two cents, anyhow.


  2. Thanks for the pointer to the flaneur concept Chuck. Very interesting. From what I’ve read so far on the Web, there are certainly elements there that could be be ‘virtualized.’


  3. After reading the first three posts in the series I thought I was going to come across something akin to my own culture, but this is what I received. It took a moment to then realize that maybe you didn’t see that the culture is already here, and that you’d already posted about it. So, I’ll share some of what I know of it. It’s called social networking. There you go.

    Okay so that was a bit harsh, but seriously I was stunned to see that first paragraph. As one of these cloudworkers you speak of it seemed like a real let down that you saw all the rest so clearly and not this.

    This comment is a great example of the cloudworker culture already in existence. As the cloudworkers are varied and flexible in their work styles they are varied and flexible in their cultures. How they communicate isn’t the question. It’s with who and how often. Tools are just tools. Locations and mediums are just tools. We exist in many spheres, on many planes and in many realities, or whatever you want to call the circles and networks. The point is that the culture IS social networking. It’s communicating without limits like working without being tethered to just one thing. I found these posts through my contact with Stephen Downes, OLDaily.

    Take my own recent history for example. As a part of Project Top Secret (an Acclaim game project) I gained the contacts David Perry and Rusel Demaria. Through them I was told about James Paul Gee and several others. That was my first step into the realm of clouds. After that came the rules of social networking and poking around for some contacts and placing to contribute to online conversations. Chatting with Jim Groom and being mentioned in OLDaily has come out of it. Because I contribute, I gain contacts and people to converse with. Each virtual environment has its own social rules, lexicon and peculiarities, but it still boils down to social networking.

    When you mentioned Twitter and LinkedIn before, I saw the culture you spoke of without knowing. We aren’t just colleagues to each other. We are friends. We are potential information channels. We are job sources. We are a network of individuals who value our individuality as much as another person’s individuality. We thrive on contact with people who we can relate enough with to learn from our differences.

    At the same time we can be so purpose focused that we don’t pay as much attention to each other as would be considered normal. Yet, we don’t notice this much because we expect the others to be busy with their own lives and haven’t been paying as much attention to our network as is needed to make it a problem.

    Value and like purposes organize the networks. We aren’t striving to make contacts to be followers. We’re doing it to improve ourselves and accomplish goals. We help and are helped. It’s lust like on LinkedIn where you collect contacts for your own benefit with the implied promise of benefiting your contacts. Sounds like collaborative networking to me.

    Maybe I’m going out on a limb to describe the culture, since I am new to it. However that is what I’ve seen so far in the clouds. AT the least it is one person’s point of view.

  4. Steven:

    In this post, I merely asked the existence question about culture, framed broadly enough to allow for the possibility that there ISN’T one. I haven’t yet shared my answer (that’s a future post).

    I fully recognize the value of the things you mention, such as twitter and linkedIn (which as you note, have featured prominently in my previous posts in this series, and even more so in my previous 4-part series, virtual geography.

    I see the point you are making with your specific example of how you found this blog via Stephen Downes (I encountered HIM on a different comment thread recently). But am I yet a ‘friend’ to either of you in any meaningful sense of the word that can stack up to our existing face-to-face notion of friendship. At best, we are all on each other’s radars for the moment. I wouldn’t recommend you for a job, and you wouldn’t recommend me.

    All that granted, you cannot deny that when we compare to older examples of what we all recognize by consensus to be ‘cultures’ (say ‘Hippie’ or ‘Enlightenment Europe’ or ‘Meiji Japan’), you get the feeling that the 2.0 movement is a) a sideshow affecting only a minority as yet b) even for those most deeply immersed in it (as I have been for 10 years; I am not ‘recent’), it is not all-subsuming in the way, say, Hippie communities at their height were. Even the busiest Barcamp season in the Bay area does not match the cultural intensity of Burning Man, a late echo of Woodstock. The dying hippie empire packs a bigger cultural punch than the baby 2.0 rebellion.

    So I think you and I are setting different standards for what must be true for something to acquire the status of a ‘culture’ as opposed to a minor subculture.

    Cultures need canons (decentered and ironic folk/crowd canons of course!), grand narratives, origin myths, archetypes, pervasive symbols, entire patterns of life that constitute what David Hackett Fischer (‘Albion’s Seed’) has called ‘folkways’ — patterns that affect everything from how we build houses and roads to religions (theistic or atheistic) to marriage customs to languages to what we eat, when and how.

    We are getting there slowly, but the cloudworker landscape is at best a nascent proto-culture, not a fully-fledged one. I quoted William Gibson’s famous line ‘the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed’ for a reason. You don’t get a full, mature culture until it is a little more evenly distributed. It is both a critical mass thing and a stem cells vs. differentiated tissues thing.

    But I am getting ahead of myself. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about some of these issues, so stay tuned. But let’s keep ourselves honest in this conversation. It took a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine and automobile for the ‘horse’ culture to be replaced by the full manifestation of the rails-and-roads culture (which includes things like suburbia and malls). We are less tha a decade into the 2.0 era. Patience is called for :)


  5. I agree that we are using different standards. My is the definition of a culture. What kind of culture is a different matter and subject to scope and other point of view variables. Personally I would guess it is more like a metaculture, but that’s me.

    While I wouldn’t call it a fully mature culture, I also wouldn’t call it a nascent proto-culture. Seems more like a culture going through a growth spurt. Telecommuting definitely had a stable culture for a while, even by your list of characteristics. Now it seems to be changing to adapt to changing conditions.

    The other two things to note is that time for social life cycles can be very short with a full life-cycle, and the part about being on the radar fits social marketing.

    I shall wait for your next post with anticipation.