Vagabond Shoes

According to my Facebook profile, “I love Berkeley, but I left part of my heart in Plano, TX.” What it ought to say, is “my life is in Seattle, but I left my heart in San Francisco, and my soul in Texas.” I was talking to a friend who moved away from San Francisco – like me – but that went back for a weekend. She told me “people don’t realize how jarring it is to go back. I was depressed when I got home.” I started thinking about community, and the fact that part of what I’m holding onto when I go back to Berkeley & to San Francisco – month after month – is the idea of having a community – something I don’t feel in Seattle.

Today more than ever we live in a global society. I like to imagine that I’m jet-setting around the country for work & play, but the truth is that more & more travel is a commodity & a fact of life. More information & better information means that Boeing doesn’t have to settle for the engineers that grow up in its back yard. If they’re unhappy, they can & do recruit engineers from Carnegie Mellon, Rochester Insitute of Technology, & University of Michigan – all of which are nowhere near Seattle. Thus, you have transplant cities – I barely know anyone in Seattle that’s from Seattle. Same with San Francisco. Same with New York. We’re all just transients, taking up space till our next job ships us somewhere else. Microsoft’s culture is one that emphasizes international experience on the road to becoming an executive. I imagine most other multi-nationals are the same. I’ve personally worked in Jakarta, Singapore, Texas, DC, & Seattle, and I’m only 24. Imagine how many cities the average American will live in. 

Which only makes the idea of a community that much more important.  In the Long Tail, Chris Anderson discusses the idea that choice is a fundamental force that contributes to the long tail. And that technology has been an enabler of choice. The example he gives is that before everyone watched the Johnny Carson show – because there were only a handful of TV stations, so only a handful of choices, so networks created programming that would appeal to as many of us as possible – hence lowest-common-denominator programming. Perhaps you were interested in SciFi. You had no place to go except the 1 SciFi program on TV once a week. Perhaps you wanted to talk about your passion for SciFi, you had only the one other nerd in the comic book store to talk to. The internet gave us more choice. Today I can watch a library of digitally remastered Star Trek episodes online. Today if I want to talk about SciFi, there are forums & chatrooms & discussion groups online that connect me to like-minded people. So the first way that technology is an enabler of community is by connecting you virtually with people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to form a geographic community around.

The second, slightly counter-intuitive way, that technology will begin to reinforce community, is through tele-commuting. The power of tele-commuting is only now beginning to be unlocked. Traditionally we all graduate from high school, many of us move out and go off to college in some other city, and a percentage of us never move home again. The tie with the community is severed. But because of MIT’s Open Campus Initiative, today I can get a world class education without leaving home. As programs like this hit the mainstream – as online learning becomes more prevalent, perhaps a “top tier” will emerge, and truly deliver a “world class” education fully via the internet. This will enable me to stay at home in Plano, TX, and be with my community. Earlier we talked about Boeing recruiting the best from schools anywhere – not just in it’s back yard – well my team at Microsoft has taken this a step further – we’re now hiring the best from anywhere – and letting them work from anywhere as well. Jason – a friend on my team – works full-time from his home in Dallas. Tracy – my manager – works full-time from her house in San Jose. And Kelly – on the Partners in Learning team – has family in Nashville, and is going to spend a couple weeks working from there. As companies adopt telecommuting more widely, the result may very well be that we are no longer burdened by geography – that we can work from anywhere, and therefore don’t need to be uproot our families and move to new cities. This possibility is what gives me hope that technology – although often lambasted for causing the disintigration of community – is actually going to contribute to it’s continued importance in our lives. The difference is choice – we’ll have more choices to find communities that fit who we are, better than ever before.


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