The illusionist’s trick

VISITING SYDNEY FROM New York before Christmas, I dropped by the office of a client and former colleague. Her employer, a large law firm, recently moved to swanky new premises and she was keen to take me on a tour. As we strolled the eerily quiet corridors, the towering windows, antiseptic surfaces and noiseless elevator doors put me in mind of the inside of a spaceship. At any moment I half-expected the two of us to defy gravity and lift off from the gleaming polished floor.

The cost of maintaining the illusion of worker freedom through extravagant fit-outs seems to grow with every decade. The office’s split-level mezzanine and cafeteria exaggerated the sense of a space–time continuum. Designed as a hub for meetings of all kinds, the mezzanine encourages flexibility of human movement within the larger workplace, which remains tethered to that relic of twentieth century work practices, the billable hour. Looking around, I felt a retrospective pang for the lifestyle extras a corporate job used to afford me. But having ‘consciously uncoupled’ myself as a full-time employee from the corporate workplace eight years earlier, it felt like viewing Earth from deep space.

These days I write grist for my client’s marketing mill from my desk in Brooklyn. But as a freelance writer and editor over here, I’m about as rare as the common cold. Numerous cafés in my Crown Heights neighborhood have become the home office away from home for many independent workers in today’s ‘knowledge economy’. Hunched at communal benches, wearing oversized headphones and staring into their laptops, these café-offices could be mistaken for call centres. I work from my bedroom, like I did as a student.

Because the majority of my freelancing is for Australian companies and authors, my working life orbits around Skype. Started in 2003 and named for the awkward progeny of ‘sky’ and ‘peer’, Skype facilitates free calls between computers over the internet and provides additional ‘freemium’ services. By opening a Skype credit account, for example, I could dial landlines from my laptop for two Australian cents per minute. For a consumer accustomed to the Rosetta Stone of her monthly Telstra bill, my Skype usage was not only a bargain but straightforward to track.

Super-sizing my Skype account, I acquired a ‘Skype-in’ telephone number for $60 that begins with the Sydney area code and diverts to my laptop for a local call cost to the dialer. I refer to this as my ‘magic number’. Clients enjoy the trick, though neither end of the line – or is it the optic fibre? – has a clue as to how it’s done.

Product consumers are accustomed to the fact that the things they buy are often manufactured at a great geographical distance, but in the service economy this is a recent and transformative change. In a recent blog post for The New Yorker, George Packer described the invisibility of the worker in today’s digital economy. Companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook are ‘ubiquitous in our lives but with no physical presence or human face,’ he wrote. ‘With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the internet economy.’ As one of the lesser stars of that universe, Skype’s workings as a corporation remain a mystery to me as its happy customer, in the same way that the logistics of my virtual office must baffle some of my clients.

For seven years now I have commuted around the world from the comfort of my bedroom-slash-office. (I try not to dwell on the fact that in Sydney I worked out of a dedicated study in my home; living in a New York apartment is all about sacrificing space.) Using Skype I have coached Australian authors living in Kenya, Melbourne, Los Angeles, the Gold Coast, Sydney and on a remote Queensland farm through writing their respective manuscripts, all of which have been, or soon will be, published.

When I first moved to New York in 2006, I learned that my professional experience beyond the borders of the United States counted for little. Though I found it relatively easy to find a junior-level job, it was immediately obvious that I’d need to earn more to survive. I got in touch with a few friends working for book publishers and large corporations back home and work trickled in. By 2009, with the floor of the global economy having collapsed, I had become dependent on Skype to stay afloat. Happily my physical location in New York proved no impediment to clients based in other parts of the world. A few have stuck with me since the early versions of Skype, when my voice sounded like it was at the end of a tin-can telephone.

TODAY SKYPE SHAPES the ‘social contours’ of my professional and personal life. My typical working day splits into three shifts across two time zones. Mornings are for my own writing projects, afternoons for deadline-driven client jobs or errands. The third shift is the trickiest but the most crucial. By now it’s evening in New York, but Australia is only just flipping open its smart phone, arriving at work, checking email. Between three and five times each week I have a Skype meeting, which makes local dinner time a moveable feast.

My parents like to say of people they find incompetent, ‘He wouldn’t know what day it is.’ Competence aside, no one can accuse me of that. My Skype working life demands I stay aware not only of the day, but the time of day in two places at once. I straddle the International Date Line like a time-travelling desk-jockey.

Perhaps all this is evidence of Dutch theorist Erik Veldhoen’s claim that the digital era makes work more independent of time and place. But having cultivated the illusion of access and availability, in another sense I feel chained to my desk, wherever I may roam, a satellite in virtual space.

Veldhoen predicts the end of the physical office environment for the vast majority of ‘knowledge economy’ workers around the world. On his website, where he sets out his vision of what he dubs the New Way of Working, he writes, ‘The one-on-one relationship between the organisational structure and the building will be abandoned on all fronts.’ Like all good futurists, Veldhoen’s relationship to technology is relentlessly positive, as evidenced by the title of his 2013 book You-Topia: The Impact of the Digital Revolution on Our Work, Our Life and Our Environment (Xlibris Corporation, 2013). You-Topia is a tantalising prospect until you start considering the implications for workers’ rights. Or living a version of it yourself.

Back on Earth, where increasing numbers of workers compete for jobs in online content mills and freelance farms, the future of independent work looks less promising. As Nikil Saval writes in Cubed (Random House, 2014), his new history of the workplace, ‘The more radical prediction for the future of the office – that it will disappear altogether – might similarly offer either more freedom or only the illusion of it.’

IN THE UNITED States, freelancers workers now constitute anywhere between 20 and 30 per cent of the workforce, a fast-growing but vulnerable group sometimes referred to as the ‘precariat’. ‘Some of these workers have chosen to leave the permanent workforce; most have been pushed out,’ Saval writes. ‘In many cases they lack health insurance and are at constant risk of insolvency.’ The Government Accountability Office estimated the numbers of freelancers at forty-two million in a 2006 study. Since then global economic conditions have added millions to this number, though there seems little political motivation to count them again. Freelancers are a powerless group, as well as a precarious one.

The absence of health insurance became urgent early this year when I experienced a sudden pain in my hip pocket: with the introduction of the Obamacare legislation I would face tax penalties if I did not take out insurance by April.

I decided to join the Freelancers Union. Established in 1995 to deliver benefits to independent workers, this self-described ‘Federation of the Unaffiliated’ now boasts almost 250,000 members. While membership cost me nothing, I was dismayed to learn their health insurance plan for individuals began at US$471 per month. Until the Freelancers Union attracts millions of members, it will continue to boast neither political clout nor affordable insurance. Reluctantly, I found a cheaper plan elsewhere.

Admittedly I’m a lot more fortunate than most freelancers. My time is largely my own to organise and I have a variety of interesting and occasionally well-paid jobs. Skype has liberated me from the commute and the pointless meetings and the nine-to-five. But there have been unexpected consequences too. While I’ve developed a wide social network in New York, I can’t say the same about my professional one. My working week always begins on Sunday, and not because of church. I am often using Skype well into the evenings. It’s convenient but exhausting. I’m always ‘on’. Paradoxically, just like my former employer’s work environment, my home office is often a mirage of freedom from employment – with a less ergonomic chair.

SKYPE IS AN illusionist’s tool and a mixed blessing. It offers the chimera of proximity and the promise of flexibility, without delivering either. Sometimes the sight of its cheerful blue icon on my desktop makes me want to scream. And like any illusion, my working life depends on a sleight of hand. The trick lies in the physical world, in the ‘analog’ network established over years of living and working in Australia. Another paradox.

I depend on Skype, not only financially, but emotionally. It’s my lifeline to steady income and to the lifelong relationships that confirm me as an Australian despite my status as a dual citizen. Every expatriate daughter learns that part of being the one who goes away is the responsibility for staying in touch. Even if I don’t feel distant emotionally from the people I love back home, Skype can exacerbate the geographical distance I feel. It’s the opposite effect of looking in a side mirror: friends and family are further away than they appear on screen. So Skype does not make me feel as if I never left; it helps me sustain the illusion that, online at least, it is possible to exist in two places at the same time.

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