Mark Twain, Stewart Brand, and what to call “remote work”

In The Diaries of Adam and Eve (“translated by Mark Twain”), Adam writes at one point:

The new creature names everything that comes along, before I can get in a protest. And always the same excuse is offered—it looks like the thing. There is the dodo, for instance. Says the moment that one looks at it one sees at a glance that it “looks like a dodo.” It will have to keep that name, no doubt. It wearies me to fret about it, and it does no good, anyway. Dodo! It looks no more like a dodo than I do.

Names do stick, though as Stewart Brand observed, names associated with technology gradually fade.

We have only another decade or so of carrying on about computers as the big new bad/good thing. They’re about to disappear from view the way motors did. Engines were cause for wonder and speculation when they ran ships and railroads.

Motor? Mouth!
CC-licensed photo by Josh Minor

Nobody called the automobile or truck a personal railroad, but that’s what it was, and people still were impressed. Then motors got smaller and disappeared into lawn mowers, refrigerators, toothbrushes, wristwatches, and nobody…speculates now about what motors will become or worries much about what they are doing to human dignity or economic inequality.

I think perhaps the coming of personal computers was slow enough — starting with the Altair in 1975 and slowly accelerating with the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981– that we’re still talking about “computers,” though that’s shifting. Everyone knows what you mean by a laptop or a tablet.

The speed of technology in phones is such that “smartphone” is starting to sound a bit quaint, like “automobile” for “car.”

I was at the Institute for Performance and Learning’s symposium in Vancouver last week. In his session, Steve Blane argued for “elearning” as a term (no capital L, no hyphen), much the way he’s seen “e-mail” turn toward “email.”

I’m not entirely sure of the latter, but I agree with the spirit. In fact I’d like to stop talking about e- things generally, except perhaps to distinguish one subset from another. Elearning, however spelled, is a format for encouraging learning.

Which is why I so much enjoyed Michael Erard’s Remote? That’s No Way to Describe This Work in the New York Times. He and his wife moved from Texas to Portland, Maine; she manages a geographically dispersed team, and he is a researcher for an organization in Washington DC.

They found a number of people in Portland in similar positions, and in looking to form a community, wondered what to call such people.

  • Remote workers? “Such a headquarters-centric label.”
  • Telecommuters? “Such a dial-up-era feel.”
  • Virtual workers? “As if the work is somehow less tangible…than in traditional offices.”

It was at the first face-to-face meeting my wife and I had with Creative Portland representatives (we had been communicating by Facebook) that a new label came to me: We “work in place.”

It’s worth reading the linked article for Erard’s full discussion. As he points out, it’s worker-centric. And it carries a connotation of the work that suits you in your circumstances (assuming, of course, that you’re not frantically scrambling to make ends meet).