Step Away From the Computer

Nestled among the advertisements for upscale apartments (Enjoy Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale! Only $4,300,000!) in this week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine  is a thoughtful piece by Kyle Chayka not entirely about Roam, a company offering a selection of live-work spaces for the discerning digital nomad: “The World is Your Office.” And this one time I’ll recommend reading the comments, and Mr. Chayka’s thread on the topic over at Twitter. Those certainly are pretty boarding houses and expatriate hotels that Roam offers.

The picture accompanying the essay shows a couple casually lounging outside: a young girl typing on her laptop, beer close to hand; a young man taking a call in his hammock, shielding his eyes from the sun. I’ve explored the limits of placeless work for several years now, since before this always connected century of ubiquitous computing, and one of the as-yet-unsolved technical limitations has been the glare of sunlight. Laptops don’t do well out-of-doors.

You have perhaps noticed this phenomenon while using your phone while driving: your focus shrinks to the size of the screen and the world disappears. My workday is constrained by a 17″ laptop screen, which is a desk just large enough to offer the promise of holding more than one document at a time, but without actually providing room enough. I didn’t quite understand the clamor for larger virtual desktops, but now I desire some way of expanding my peripheral vision, of setting things to the side while I focus on the thing in front of me. Instead, I have a series of distracting context switches, where chatty interruptions eclipse the memory of what I was doing. The world vanishes in a chain of consequences, and I forget to eat lunch. What does it matter then if I’m in Bali or Tokyo or Miami? The work eventually finishes, yes? And then you can go to the beach?

The prospect of working anywhere and anytime is simultaneously appealing and revolting. Appealing to the worker because it cuts away the dreaded commute; appealing to the employer because the pool of labor expands globally: offshoring here we come! Revolting because it never ends. If you can work anywhere, why not everywhere? If anytime, why not all the time? I’ve experienced a bit of this on the train, in the tub, on the toilet, in line for Space Mountain. Some companies adjust the nature of the work to this flexibility. Others try to force some kind of official rigor: work only from the alternate location; work a minimum of 45 hours a week; work between 08:00 and 18:00; do not take company equipment out of the country; do not work from personal equipment; respond to a call within 15 minutes. This is the overseer’s mindset: control the lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothin’ labor. Disrespect is paid in kind.

I’ve fancied the nomadic lifestyle since reading A Walk Across America and Stand on Zanzibar, if not The Rolling Stones. Location-independent work is one reason why I’m in this field, and haven’t seen an office in years. While tinkers and gypsies have gotten short shrift among settled folks, I seem to have developed a romantic image of their life, and a temporary wanderlust does set in now and again. I want a sailboat or an Airstream; I want to ride Amtrak across the country. It competes with a yearning to know a place deeply enough that it is Home. But I suspect I’m more hobbit than wanderer. Perhaps after the children have grown and flown.

Nevertheless, this idea of working while traveling seems to defeat the purpose: Why work from Bali if you’re never there, if you travel the world but never leave the airport? Mr. Chayka recognizes this dilemma in his concluding paragraphs.

You can go anywhere, as long as you never stop working.

Work has come to consume everything in its sheer busyness. Look up from the screen, even if only to look out the window.

By my Window have I for Scenery 
Just a Sea—with a Stem—
If the Bird and the Farmer—deem it a “Pine”—
The Opinion will serve—for them—


Also published on Medium.