There is no avoiding the fact that digital networks will change the way we work. The question that remains, however, is this: How will we cope? After all, we can’t all hope to profit equally; there are always winners and losers.
The Industrial Revolution, says the British economist Dr. Leigh Shaw-Taylor of Cambridge, was the direct result of the Enclosure Movement in 18th and 19th century England: villagers lost their traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay, or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system and were forced to move to towns and cities where the increased labor supply contributed to the rapid growth of factories.
At the same time, the growing town populations increased demand for manufactured goods: a cycle that was perceived by its victims as vicious, even if economically speaking the benefits for society as a whole were obvious. At least it gave Great Britain a head start in industrializing that lasted until long into the 20th century.
Like enclosure, digitalization and networking are disruptive technologies that threaten to uproot many of us working in tze most effected professions and therefore capable of triggering existential fears in us. Digital acceleration contributes to this confusion, as did the World Wide Web which was arguably the most disruptive invention in history, both for the individual and for society.
Individual mobility takes this even further. As we move around with our smartphones and our iPads at the ready, always on and always reachable, we discover a strange paradox: Why travel when we could just as well stay at home and write e-mails? If videophones are capable of transmitting images so crystal-clear that we can see every tiny hair in the other guy’s nose, then why aren’t the number of business trips taken worldwide declineing?
In fact they’re going up all the time, as IATA, the international airline association, confirmes in its latest growth forecast which indicates that passenger flights are set to increase by an average of 5.4 percent annually. People, it seems, are more on the move than ever – and they take their work with them.
Every morning the lounges at large airports all over the world look completely alike: yawning businessmen sitting at tables, coffee cup in hand, silently staring at the screens of their laptop computers or tablet PCs, checking e-mail on the iPhones or talking excitedly with colleagues who may be sitting just down the street or half a world away with whom they may very well meeting in a few hours to discuss the latest deal or project.
These are always the same people, and they form a kind of social subset. What to call them? “Teleworker” was once popular, but today it conjures up an image of people wearing clumsy headsets crammed into cubicles at some call center. And “home worker” doesn’t do it, either, does it? These people work wherever they happen to be, in the airport, at in bars and restaurants or even on a park bench.
In America, the term “road warrior” used to be popular, but it doesn’t really describe what’s going on very well. After all, most of these “warriors” aren’t all that ferocious…
Nicholas Negroponte, the legendary head of MIT Media Lab in Boston, once coined the phrase “digital nomad” which he used to describe someone who carries everything around he or she needs to be productive. Unfortunately, that usually includes a load of gadgets, adapters, sticks, drives and chargers as well as files and books that often fill more than one briefcase or even a small suitcase. Who wants to be a nomad?
Possibly the best label devised for these mobile workers appeared in an article published by The Economist as far back as 2008 under the headline “The Digital Bedouins”. Unlike former teleworkers who resembled astronauts – people who carry their own oxygen around with them – bedouins follow a tribal lifestyle that enables them to travel unencumbered, essentially equipped only with a burnous, a camel and a small bottle of water. And they don’t need anything else to survive since they know exactly where they will find the nearest oasis.
The digital bedouin’s situation is similar: all he needs is a smartphone or tablet, his oasis could be the nearest Starbuck’s where he can find all he needs to survive in a digital world: an Internet hotspot! The coffee is just a perk (or a pain, depending on your taste). We personally mostly chose to purchase a latte just to show our appreciation; after all, you can’t sit around for hours pulling mail and not consume something, can you?
Our blogger friend and columnist for the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Sascha Lobo, in his book “They call it Work”, describes the unconventional lifestyle cultivated by young people in Berlin, one if the most wired cities in Europe, whom he calls the “Digital Bòheme”. These people, he says, sit around all day in coffee houses, just like their ancestors in Paris or Milan, but instead of books and writing pads they bring their laptops with them. Nothing else, though, since that’s all they need to communicate, socialize and earn a living. Between fits of inspiration or industry they read newspapers, chat with friend or head for the door, calling back over their sholders: “Gotta go work – my landlord wants some rent.”
This new form of liberty changes many things, not the least those concerned. It seems almost like a new species has been born: “homo mobilis”, the mobile human. Mobility not only alters our behavior, it also changes our self-awareness. By heaving off the shackles of time and location we become different creatures, unlike our our more stationary (or should we say: sedentary) fellow-humans.
And while stationary workers produce more and more paper, techno Bedouins don’t print things out, they store them in the Cloud where they are instantly available – and sharable – anytime. At the same time, digital Bedouins are less aware of the technology they use because it isn’t that important: hey, it’s just there, and it works! Anyone can operate an iPhone without reading a manual first. And so the final obstacle is removed on our way to true, total mobility.
Of course, digital Bedouins don’t have time clocks. The working day has 24 hours, and anyone who is self-employed has a tyrant for a boss, says our friend Paul Saffo from the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. This can cause problems at home (“no Blackberry in bed!”) and can lead to overload if mobile man doesn’t remember to switch off once in a while. Pitty the so-called “crackberries”; people gripped by a terrible compulsion to constantly check their Blackberry devices. These are the real victims of Digital Transformation, and they need our help!
Thankfully, most members of “homo mobilis” are learning the important lesson that more information doesn’t necessarily lead to more intelligent decisions. The techno Bedouin realizes that the ability to filter information, and to only store things he really needs in his biological memory, is the most important lesson we all can learn. Everything else we can find online.
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