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The infrastructure of cloud work

Manhattan—Late one evening after watching a two-hour Broadway show, I discovered a well-lit café on Broadway Avenue and 49th Street. It was close to midnight but this favorite haunt of software engineers, graphic designers and students cramming for a major release or taking a break from endless papers was still very much open.

There was unmistakable energy in this café. In one corner sat a student furiously playing games on his iPad. In another a chess tournament was in full swing. At almost every table, people were either reading or discussing, pounding on their laptops or sketching a software design. I got myself a spinach-feta wrap and a bowl of Napoli tomato soup and quickly felt at home among New York City’s insomniacs. A uniformed but unarmed security guard patrolled the tables and occasionally stopped to watch the progress of the chess game, but as far as I could see he did not remind anyone that this was an eating place and not a library or a coworking space.

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This café is not exactly known for its food or its ambience. Like some of New York’s libraries, the main reasons for its popularity include its strong WiFi connectivity and its 24/7 operations. Students and freelancers find each other here at any time of the day. In my idea of the cloud economy, a place like this is very vital with the decline of brick-and-mortar offices.

The abundance of such “tools of conviviality,” the basic infrastructure of cloud work, is what makes cities like New York a popular destination for digital nomads like myself. As the infrastructure of cloud work increasingly becomes democratized, and as all the great things that technology has come to offer become readily accessible to anyone, the contest begins to shift from infrastructures to indices of competitiveness. The belief that education is the great equalizer has never been more significant today than it was in the last few decades. But by education, I do not simply mean the formal degrees offered by universities. More importantly, the growing popularity of the “Uber economy” has made it possible for anyone to learn practically anything—from creating spreadsheet scripts to developing mobile applications. In this context, education has become available for anyone’s disposal. Precisely because of this, however, competition is increasingly getting tougher. Automation eliminates low-value work and the arena of competition shifts to business analysis and content creation.

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Critical thinking, technical competence and business acumen take the front seat in the recruitment of talent in today’s knowledge economy. In a flat world, everyone is given the tools to compete. This is both a promise and a challenge. It is a promise given to societies that, for centuries, have seen themselves constrained by physical boundaries, inherited hierarchies, and historical contingencies. But at the same time, this is a challenge that postmodern conditions have come to pose to everyone who strives to stay relevant.

Since arriving in New York a few months ago, I have often found myself working from home, public libraries and coworking spaces. I plan to drive upstate in the coming weeks and bring my office to the grounds of Cornell University and state parks in Ithaca, or by Niagara Falls in Buffalo. Until today, the uncertainty of having reliable internet connectivity and the odds of being faced with uncomfortable working conditions have discouraged me from pursuing that idea. But with my powerful Plantronics Voyager noise-canceling Bluetooth headset and an unlimited high-speed data plan, I can attend video conference calls anytime and anywhere.

It really doesn’t take a lot to conquer the world these days.
Joseph Jadway “JJ” Marasigan is a Filipino expatriate in America who manages global teams at Crossover for Work.

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TAGS: 49th Street, Broadway Avenue, café, Technology, tools of conviviality
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