Geographical ambivalence

The internet continues to generate unexpected consequences. The ability to send information anywhere, immediately, at minimal cost, means most white collar work is now geographically ambivalent.

The internet continues to generate unexpected consequences. The ability to send information anywhere, immediately, at minimal cost, means most white collar work is now geographically ambivalent.

As a reader of this article, it doesn't matter to you where I live, work or play. I could be writing these words in a hammock on an island in the Pacific; perched precariously on a barstool in a pub in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland; or at my desk in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. My location, relative to yours at this moment, is of zero importance.

If you're reading this article on a website, you don't care where the website is physically located. From the viewer's perspective, the 'physical location' of a website is a concept without meaning because it has zero bearing on how we judge the value of a website. Geographical location of a website is a difference which makes no difference.

Yet ... almost every organisation in the world is structured as if the geographical location of their buildings and employees does matter. This difference between how we designed our social infrastructure yesterday, and what we are capable of today, should provide a hint of the societal dislocations in store for us tomorrow.

Most of us commute to work. I'm one of those still rare individuals who works less than 20 feet from my bedroom. The only traffic I have to deal with is feeding time in the kitchen as I step around, up and over, two indignant cats and a tail lashing puppy.

In a big city, most commuters are white collar workers. Most of them could work from home, and just as you don't care where I wrote this, their companies should not care where their work is done. Yet they do, because they are used to overseeing employees on a daily basis. This will change in time.

While every manager will have to address the work at home issues, the geographical ambivalence of work has implications far larger than telecommuting. It is fueling the growing trend towards offshore outsourcing.

Folk in the IT industry are the first to encounter the impact of this trend. IBM recently announced it intends to move tens of thousands of jobs offshore. IT isn't the only industry under assault. Call centres of all types are looking offshore as a way to reduce costs.

Here's the pressure point of leverage. The cost of living is not the same everywhere in the world. Nor are the expectations of workers. It is cheaper to develop a system in India, or Eastern Europe than it is to create the same system in North America, or Western Europe.

We can rant and rave about this all we want. We can complain that foreigners are taking away our work. We can try to protect 'work' as a national resource. The fact remains, in a global economy where technology eradicates geographical distance in the blink of an eye - and the click of a mouse - the notion of 'foreigner' is a quaint one, more at home in the Victorian era, than in the 21st century.

Nor is it possible to legislate that certain types of work should remain onshore. To do so would suggest that a country should ban the import of all manufactured goods. How can we possibly distinguish programming work from manufacturing work? In terms of human effort, there is no difference between an imported car, and an imported accounting system.

If you like the taste of irony, this topic is rich with it. As we improve technology to increase our ability to produce, we lower the barriers to where the production takes place!

Once upon a time we found it cheaper to import labour to build the railways in North America. Today the 'Information Highway' enables us to export a particular type of work to the individuals most qualified to perform it, at the cheapest possible cost, regardless of where they are hooked into the net. Today we move work, instead of moving people.

There are many ways to take advantage of this trend; but they require we see ourselves as citizens of a technologically empowered world. Technology vaporises the concepts of time, geography, and cost, and will eventually erase national economic disparities and differences.

De Jager is a Canadian writer and consultant. Contact him via his website.

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