The Economist Examines Digital Nomads

April 15, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | Leave a comment

I’d recommend anyone interested in the cultural aspects of attention management to check out the special section in this weeks Economist.  In a bit of sociological research equaled only by Jane Goodall and her chimps, Andreas Kluth, San Francisco correspondent for the Economist, studies digital nomads and describes what makes them tick.  You can hear an interview with Mr. Kluth or check out the first article here, which has links for the rest in the series. Subscription may be required.

Hammers, guns, and Blackberrys are simply tools that surface the desires of the people that wield them, so the series correctly bypasses a discussion of the specific technologies used by digital nomads.  Instead he focuses on a wide array of topics about the culture of digital nomads, the work they do, and why they act as they do. 

The summary article at the start of the issue has a great description of the dangers of continuous availability and partial attention: “the old tyranny of place could become a new tyranny of time, as nomads who are “always on” all too often end up—mentally—anywhere but here (wherever here may be).”

About the prevalence of nomadic work among knowledge workers, he writes:

James Ware, a co-founder of the Work Design Collaborative, a small think-tank, says that nomadic work styles are fast becoming the norm for “knowledge workers”. His research shows that in America such people spend less than a third of their working time in traditional corporate offices, about a third in their home offices and the remaining third working from “third places” such as cafés, public libraries or parks.

The author differentiates nomadism from the archaic “telecommuting”:

Because it still tied workers to a place—the home office—telecommuting implicitly had people “cocooning at home five days a week”, he says. But people do not want that: instead, they want to mingle with others and to collaborate, though not necessarily under fluorescent lights in a cubicle farm an hour’s drive from their homes. The crucial difference between telecommuting and nomadism, he says, is that nomadism combines the autonomy of telecommuting with the mobility that allows a gregarious and flexible work style.

On how to make nomadic work work, he writes:

this requires “management by objectives rather than face time”. Not all workers thrive in such a culture; some prefer the structure of the traditional office. But “anyone who did well at college can work well this way,” he thinks. “The prof said ‘paper by Friday’ but didn’t care where you did it; it’s the same now.

I’ve posited some of my own theories about what drives email addiction, but the author quotes James Katz, a professor at Rutgers University, with another explanation:

This is, first, because of “random reinforcement”, the desultory pattern of rewards that comes with addictive behaviours such as gambling. A CrackBerry winnows through his e-mail throughout the day, knowing full well that most of it is chaff, but cannot help himself because of that occasional grain. The second reason, says Mr Katz, is that most people suffer from the illusion that more information always leads to better decisions, and there is always more information available on our phones and laptops.

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