Yesterday, a colleague looked at me and deadpanned, “aren’t you supposed to have a long beard?” When you remote-work for an extended period (it’s been six months since my last visit to the mother ship), you can expect to hear your share of jokes and odd remarks when you do show up. Once you become a true cloudworker, a ghost in the corporate machine who only exists as a tinny voice on conference calls, perceptions change. So when you do show up, you find that people react to you with some confusion. You’re not a visitor or guest, but you don’t seem to truly belong either.
I hadn’t planned on such a long period without visits to the home base, but the recession and a travel freeze got in the way of my regular monthly visits for a while. The anomalous situation created an accidental social-psychological experiment with me as guinea pig. What’s the difference between six months and one month, you might ask? Everything. Monthly visits keep you domesticated. Six months is long enough to make you go feral. I’ve gone feral.
Consider the meaning of the word: the condition of a domesticated species that goes back to its wild ways. The picture above is of a feral cat. Curiously enough, this one is apparently from Virginia, where I live.
Most common domesticated animals can go feral: dogs, pigs, cats, horses and sheep, for instance. We tend to forget though, that the most impossibly ornery species we’ve managed to domesticate is ourselves, homo sapiens. Settled agriculture, urbanization, religion, the nation-state and finally, industrialization, each added one more layer of domestication. It’s not for nothing that primate ethologist Desmond Morris titled one of his books about human sociology The Human Zoo. Modern work styles are ripping away all the layers at once. I am an atheistic, post-nationalist immigrant from the other side of the planet, living in a neo-urban (though not bleak-cyberpunk) landscape. I inhabit physical environments where old communities are crumbling, and people are tentatively groping for social structure through meetups (aside: I just started a writer’s meetup, 1000 words a day, in the DC area). I am tethered to a corporation too loosely to be a significant part of it socially. No Friday happy hours or regular lunch-buddy for me.
I’ve become to the society that is my parent company what the privateers of old used to be to the big naval powers of the 18th century. A sort of barely-legal socio-economic quasi-outlaw. Maybe I am yielding to self-romanticizing temptations, but there are some hard truths here.
Political scientists often use a fictional construct, man in the state of nature, as a starting point for their conceptual models of the gradual
domestication civilization of humans. William Golding offered one fictional imagining of what might happen if humans went feral at an early enough age, in Lord of the Flies. But until now, the idea of modern feral humans has largely been a theoretical one.
Cloudworker lifestyles — mobile, home-based, unshaven, pajama-clad and Starbucks-swilling — create a psychological transformation that is very similar to what happens when animals go feral. In animals, it takes a couple of generations of breeding for the true wild nature to re-emerge. Cats, for instance, revert to a basic, hardy, stocky, short-haired robustly-interbred tabby variety. Dogs become mutts. But in humans it can happen faster, since most of our domestication is through education and socialization rather than breeding.
You might think that the true tabby-mutt human must live outside the financial system, maybe as a wilderness survivalist or fight-club member. Maybe engage in desperate and deadly Lord-of-the-flies style lifestyles, all nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw. But that’s actually a mistaken notion, because that sort of officially checked-out or actively nihilistic person is defined and motivated by the structure of human civilization. To rebel is to be defined by what you rebel against. Criminals and anarchists are civilized creatures. Feral populations are agnostic, rather than either dependent on, or self-consciously independent of, codified social structures. Feral cloudworkers use social structures where it accidentally works for them, rather like feral cats congregating near fish markets, and improvise ad-hoc self-support structures for the rest of their needs.
As a truly feral cloudworker, you simply end up being thrown to your own devices. Social infrastructure no longer works for you, except by accident. You don’t get friends for free just because you have a job or belong to a bowling league. You improvise. You find some social contact at Starbucks. You go for long walks and learn to appreciate solitude more. You become more closely attuned to your personal bio-rhythms. You nap (well, I do). You have left your cubicle for the wide world, but you pay the cost. You have to learn to survive in the social wilderness. Much of it is as bleak as the deep open ocean, where it takes the personality of the oceanic white-tip shark to survive.
But the contrast is most vivid when you do, on occasion, rejoin society as a physical guest. I was surprised at how different I felt, starting with my shoes and badge (I am barefoot or in flip-flops at home. At “work” I have to wear close-toed shoes because it is a lab environment). The regular rhythms of morning coffee-hello rituals and meeting behaviors seem strangely alien. It all seems like a foreign country you’ve only read about in theoretical org charts. Names and faces drift apart, starved of nourishing, daily reinforcement, and you struggle to conjure up names of people you used to pass by in the hallways everyday. Out of cc out of mind. The logic of promotions, team staffing and budgeting seem as obscure as the rituals of Martian society. Even though you know that in theory, you are being affected by it.
As my colleague’s beard joke illustrates, you are perceived differently. You are some strange off-the-org-chart species, and people don’t know what to do with you. You are disconnected from water-cooler gossip to a significant extent, but the fact that you are clearly surviving, productive, and effective, I suspect, makes the regular workers introspect as much as us aliens. I imagine they wonder whether all the seemingly solid reality all around them can really be what it seems if somebody like me can randomly show up and disappear occasionally and still impact things as much as their next-cubicle neighbor. Anybody with imagination who is still desk-bound in traditional ways, I suspect, is feeling reality and its walls, floors and ceilings dissolve around him/her, Matrix style.
On Friday, I’ll return to my natural wild habitat. Will life re-domesticate me at some point? I don’t know.