Gail Whitman peered through the one-way glass at the small, barren room. A man sat alone amid the whitewashed concrete walls, neon striplight buzzing above his head. If the furniture wasn’t bolted down he would have tipped himself over onto the floor by now, but instead he sat chewing on one pink dreadlock, rocking back and forth to the rhythm in his head…
Today I’m really appreciating the freedom that modern technology and my freelance work allows me.
By the time you read this I’ll be on the far side of England, having crossed the country to help out my dad on short notice. It’s not a crisis moment, but my presence will be helpful for him and reassuring for me. It’s on short notice, but I don’t even have to drop everything to go, because so much of my life exists either through the internet or through a small number of electronic devices I can easily carry myself across the country on a day’s notice.
Being self-employed makes a huge difference to this. I’ve previously worked in a job where I had to fight to get time off for a funeral. My last employer was far more flexible, but I still would have had to run around making arrangements and getting permission before I left. And the time would have come out of my holidays, rather than just being time I spent working on a train or in someone else’s living room.
But this isn’t just about how lovely it is to be a freelancer. It’s about the age we live in. Changes in technology and society are letting us live our lives in more dynamic, flexible ways. We can cross entire countries in a few hours. We can stay in contact with work, family and friends through pocket-sized devices. We can carry half our lives with us in a backpack. It frees us up to take more care of ourselves and the people around us. Big social institutions like how we’re employed can be slow to change, and so just as living in a first world city lets me make the most of technology’s potential for entertainment, so too working freelance through the internet lets me make the most of this flexibility. But over time we’ll adapt to the possibilities on offer.
I’m extremely privileged to live on the edge of social and technological change. But that change is spreading, and it makes me optimistic for the future.
Now excuse me, I have to go pack. Don’t want to forget my books if I’m going to spend hours on a train.
Oh, and for those of you in the UK reading this on Thursday, go out and vote! I know it’s ‘only’ local and European elections, but this stuff matters. This is how we build that better future, by voting for people who will help it happen.
Part of our desire to own and collect books stems from an instinct to control. As in many areas of our lives, we assert that control to feel more like agents of our own destiny, like masters of our world. In business, this manifests as managers setting strict rules. In politics it’s both the intellectual struggle to create orderly systems of thought and the ballot box battles for control of the country. And in reading it’s our book collections, knowing that you have a book to hand even if you’ll never read it again, that it’s there inside your sphere of influence. You own that story, just a little.
I got a new e-reader this week, having broken my last one in a moment of clumsiness at the gym, and it made me think about this issue of ownership again. Because in a digital age we can get hold of many books at a moment’s notice just by going on an e-reader and downloading them from the appropriate store. We can even access books instantly for free through the growing electronic collections of libraries. It can liberate us from the clutter of books, but involves a change of mindset, from one of control to one of flexibility, feeling safe that you can get what you want when you want it if you just let go of the need to own. The book is just as available as before, even more so as you don’t have to work out which shelf or box it’s in. But some of the romance is definitely gone.
I doubt many people of my generation, entrenched like me in thirty-something years of habit, will make the most of this liberation. But the shift from functioning by controlling to functioning through flexible networks is one that’s also emerging in other areas like business management. Maybe, as future generations give up paper pages in favour of networked e-readers, changing reading habits will be symbols of a wider social change.
And that’s enough intellectual posturing for today. I’m off to the gym with my new e-reader. And this time I’m going to be very careful.
Photo by Zhao ! via Flickr creative commons