Virtual Companies and the Death of the Permanent Office

Here’s a small group guide for a discussion of virtual companies.


Max Chafkin, “The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company” Inc.

“Workplace Trends” [VIDEO] YNN

The “gist”: Virtual companies get their work done with minimal or no corporate headquarters or dedicated workspace. Sometimes they create cyberspace boardrooms using tools like Skype and ooVoo. Virtual work requires adjustments. Workers must be dedicated to the work itself rather than the social routines of the office. But, he argues, lots of types of work can’t be done efficiently at work anyway, especially tasks that require concentrated effort over long periods of uninterrupted time. As Chafkin notes, the workplace becomes an online market where a “culture of collaboration by a group of competent generalists” is replaced by “one based on specialists who are cheap, efficient, and good at meeting deadlines.” To counteract this negative effect, successful company owners and managers introduce and foster new online and offline collaboration products.

Key terms and definitions:

Mobile Work, Distributed Work – Distributed work reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is disbursed geographically over a wide area – domestically or internationally. By installing key technologies, distributed companies enable employees located anywhere to access all of the company’s resources and software such as applications, data, and e-mail without working within the confines of a physical company-operated facility.

Virtual company – In virtual companies, employees are distributed but primarily remain unconnected. Such companies employ electronic means to transact business as opposed to a traditional brick-and-mortar business that relies on face-to-face transactions with physical documents and physical currency or credit. Workers telecommute from other locations, and as much work as possible is usually outsourced to non-employee contractors.  Some virtual businesses operate solely in a virtual world.

Work-life balance – Work-life balance is having enough time for work and enough to have a family and personal life. It also means having a measure of control over when, where and how you work, leading to being able to enjoy an optimal quality of life.

Co-working centers – Co-working is a style of work that involves a shared working environment, often an office, and independent activity. Unlike in a typical office environment, those co-working are usually not employed by the same organization. Typically it is attractive to work-at-home professionals, independent contractors, or people who travel frequently who end up working in relative isolation. Some co-working spaces were developed by nomadic Internet entrepreneurs seeking an alternative to working in coffee shops and cafes, or to isolation in independent or home offices. See the recent story on Hacker Dojo (“Silicon Valley Techies Fight to Save a Popular but Illegal Haven”, which local authorities are threatening to close for violations of city regulations governing traditional workspaces.

Collaboration tools – A collaboration tool helps employees collaborate. Today, the term is often used to mean a piece of collaborative software. Conference phone calls are being replaced by asynchronous conferencing, video conferences, IRC or Instant Messaging. Peer review and editing of documents is done through Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, and Wikis rather than as iterative versions printed out on paper. Board room whiteboards are imitated by online whiteboards that allow telework.

Discussion questions:

  • What do you consider the best place to get your homework done? Why is this a good place to work?
  • Should “distractions” like Facebook and Twitter – and perhaps even email on specific days – be banned at work? Why or why not?
  • Think about a place where you have worked or your parents worked. How could this work be improved (or degraded) by implementing the strategies mentioned in Chafkin’s article or the video?
  • In companies with flexible schedules, how do you manage who picks up the slack during crunch times? Are employees who are parents a special class, and do they get or deserve special treatment? How do you juggle competing interests to work/school tasks and family or home responsibilities?
  • Do managers really distract employees from their work? Do managers tend to mismanage their time and the time of others? What should managers really be doing, and where should they be learning how to be better supervisors?

Additional comments: Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place argues that the best places to gather and get things done informally are what he calls “third places” like coffee shops, libraries, and pubs. He says these places, unlike home and work, represent “neutral ground” are important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.

As gasoline gets more expensive and commuting times get longer, virtual work is going to look more and more enticing to companies and their employees. In Iowa, my home state, government has made substantial progress in creating co-working centers in all 99 counties. Iowa is a big rural state with a low population, and workers are already dispersed over large geographical spaces. It makes sense to establish local workplaces where people do their daily jobs and can be gregarious – even when other employees in the building are working for entirely different companies.


The Real Geography of Science Fiction in America

Not finding a complete map of the “real” geography of science fiction in America, I decided to make my own.  Here find the location of important societies, library and archival collections, grave locations, and conventions. Recommendations for other high quality pilgrimage sites are welcome. The map also needs some sort of tentacled alien beast attacking the inset island of Newfoundland.

Click on the map (and click again) to enlarge the image. Original map is poster quality and 70″ x 44″.
Science Fiction Map

Crowdsourcing, the Long Tail, and Prosumption

A small group discussion guide to crowdsourcing and the “New Economy.”


“Production, Consumption, Prosumption: The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital ‘Prosumer’”

“The Long Tail in the Entertainment Industry”

“The Rise of Crowdsourcing”

“When the Crowd Isn’t Wise”

“Human Workers, Managed by Algorithm”

For reference purposes:

“The New Economy”

“User-Generated Online Content”

The “gist”: The New Economy has been brewing since the mid-1990s, but its major impacts have until recently been deflected by such things as the dot-com crash, 9/11, and the mortgage meltdown. But the reorganization of business and society since the Great Recession depends, in large part, on ideas introduced in these readings. Uncoordinated, amateur, and naive users are transforming American life on and off the internet. They are also creating value and abundance, possibly without appropriate remuneration.

The economy of the future depends on the creative labor and production of individuals as much as collective enterprise. It is also fiercely competitive as digital transparency (for example, online price comparison) drives profit margins down to near zero. Middlemen are being eliminated by technologies of disintermediation, and whole economies are being bypassed by globalization of commerce. Traditional authorities are increasingly undermined and becoming radicalized (examples: Tea Party members, Islamic fundamentalists, librarians).

Key terms and definition:

The Long Tail – A term coin by Chris Anderson in 2004 framing the phenomena of niche markets composed of products and services in low demand and low sales volume. Reduced marketing and distribution costs in the twenty-first century have made these niches potentially profitable for individuals, challenging the traditional markets for “bestsellers” and “blockbusters.”

Content Aggregator – An organization or individual that collects online media from various sites and repackages it for reuse or resale on another site.

User Generated Content – Media product and recommendations crafted by amateurs rather than recognized experts and professionals.

Virtualization – Changing physical objects into digital products. The movement of music from CDs and CD making factories to digital music download sites is an example.

Molecularization – The transformation of the markets for production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services from the masses to individuals. The new economies of scale are smaller, plural, and austere. Bigger isn’t better anymore.

Disintermediation – The removal of an intermediary, or middleman, from a transaction or communication. The user or consumer gains direct access to information that otherwise would require a mediator, such as a salesperson, a librarian, or a lawyer.  New technologies give users the power to look up medical, legal information, travel, or comparative product data directly.

Prosumption – A portmanteau coined by futurologist Alvin Toffler combining the terms “producer” and “consumer,” emphasizing the falsity of the dichotomy of the two.

Convergence – The combination of old industries into new and vital ones. One example is the combination of newspaper, television, and web companies into “new media” empires.

Wisdom of Crowds – Collective intelligence producing superior (or mediocre) judgment.

Folksonomy – Collaboratively sorting, tagging, or classifying content using internet technologies. Participating in such a venture is sometimes called microvolunteering (see for example Galaxy Zoo or Foldit).

Discussion questions:

Does crowdsourcing produce quality or mediocrity? Can a crowd really defeat experts and professionals at all things? Or is crowdsourcing really best for accomplishing simple or nonserious tasks? Consider the list of 2,000+ crowdsourcing sites at

Who can actually make a living in a crowdsourced business like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or InnoCentive? Is a system based on large groups of competing workers paid little (or nothing) for their efforts sustainable over the long haul? Is this unethical exploitation of the labor market?

What motivates people to do work for free?

What mundane activities and personal tasks in your daily life would you like to outsource/crowdsource to TaskRabbit? (See

Automation, Robotics, and Remote Work

A discussion guide on automation, robotics, and remote work.


John Markoff’s “Skilled Work, Without the Worker”

Antonio Regalado’s “When Machines Do Your Job” 

The “gist”: Each day brings a raft of new stories about the potential of robotics and automation to revolutionize our economy. Usually, the story turns on the potential of machines to reduce menial labor and free up humankind for more creative and important jobs. Markoff’s article shows us a world where automation is eliminating factory work and manufacturing jobs – even in China. Some of that automation may make America more competitive again: robots don’t get paid whether they work overseas or right here at home. On the other hand, more and more humans are going to find they aren’t going to get paid for their work anymore either. Robots are able to take over work previously thought to require the flexibility and initiative of the human being.

In Regalado’s interview of Andrew McAfee it becomes clear that automation, robotics, and remote work are going to dramatically transform the way we do business in the near future. Those who own the machines and automated factories and resources are going to have an unequal advantage over everyone else. These machines will surely exacerbate unemployment numbers. White collar jobs for knowledge workers, as well as blue collar jobs in factories, will go away forever because of computer technology. Some brain workers and more creative human beings may find their livelihoods and futures threatened. Some people who survive the transition will find their skills in high demand, and will work longer and longer hours. And ironically, some menial jobs will remain because it is easier to make machines smart than graceful.

Key terms and definitions:

Remote work – Work done at a distance; in this instance, robots that are remotely controlled by workers or managers from another location, also called “telepresence” or “avatarization.”

“Hollowing out” the job market – High-wage, high-skill employment is still created as “top” or most desirable jobs, but so are many poorly compensated service industry jobs for food preparers, home care aides, and others. Employment in the middle ranges of salary and skill is disappearing: clerical, sales, and administrative jobs and those on factory floors.

Automation – The use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process. It is generally credited with raising efficiency and productivity and eliminating routine or repetitive work.

Moving “bits, not atoms” – It is much cheaper and easier to manipulate bits of information rather than atoms of material substance. This philosophy, applied to the economy, has made lots of traditional products and services obsolete. Netflix replacing physical video rental stores with online viewing of movies is one example.

Luddite fallacy – The notion that machines will only take away human jobs and our ability to support our families through work. Luddites are contrasted with technophiles, those who think computers and automation will usher in a new golden age for humankind and fix all of our current problems.

Digital Athens – The idea that computers will free us from the drudgery of daily life and give us time to practice complex entrepreneurial skills and become more creative.

Discussion questions:

  • If routine and unskilled work goes away, what will undereducated and less intelligent people do to support themselves?
  • Humans are creatures of habit. What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking away work that is repetitive, or even ordinary?
  • If we agree that job demand exceeds foreseeable demand, what should we do about it? Ban robots? Reeducate the workforce for something else? What else? Are public works and public service jobs the only fix to this inflection point in capitalism?
  • What kinds of mental work is it reasonable to assume will be automated? What kinds of mental work will be hard or impossible to automate? Watson the Jeopardy computer anyone?
  • Could personal robots be the answer to the problem of inequality? If everyone owned a 3D printer (factory) or robot, wouldn’t this make everyone rich and happy?
  • Will this movement for automation impact certain parts of the world more than other parts? Is this really a “first world problem” or a developing world problem.

Additional comments:

Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, argued strenuously that work is good for the human body. It seems likely that we’ll continue to need exercise. One of the consequences of the loss of hard physical labor is vast and expanding waistlines as well as vast and expanding rec centers. I wonder if we aren’t replacing one kind of human struggle for another, at the cost of lots of nonrenewable energy sources. There’s a lot one human being can do with a shovel. Perhaps we are underestimating manual labor and a set of values based on hard work and diligence?

Gadget Freakery

A discussion guide on the topic.


Alex Hudson, “The Age of Information Overload” BBC News

Matt Richtel, “Silicon Valley Says Step Away from the Device” New York Times

Alexis Madrigal, “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” The Atlantic

The “gist”: Hudson reports that human beings eat more data than ever before, and repeats the common complaint that there is now too much information. The consequence is a potentially paralyzing “information overload.” Most disquieting, he says, is multitasking, which makes it possible to have more than 24 hours of screen time in a single day.

Richtel says that even technology executives know that there is a problem with Internet addiction and gadget freakery. In fact, they may have noticed the effects of electronic obsessions before the rest of us did. Electronic screens, particularly interactive ones – as opposed to passive ones, like television – increase dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Instead of making us more productive, and augmenting our creativity, our digital devices have debilitated us.

Madrigal responds to Richtel’s piece, arguing that this is really a problem of Homo economicus, which has made us callous to our social needs for things like conversation, love, and acceptance. Our bosses are exacerbating the problem by instilling fear of job loss. Now it’s not only “all work and no play,” but “all work and no pay.” Madrigal recommends we revolt – not against the machines per se, but our political, cultural, and corporate masters.

Key terms and definitions:

Worker productivity – The ratio of production output to what is required to produce it (inputs); amount of goods and services that a worker produces in a given amount of time.

Homo economicus – Humans are rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends; contrast with homo reciprocans, which states that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative and to improve their environment.

“The Great Speedup” – an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay.

Internet addiction disorder (IAD) –Internet overuse, problematic computer use, or pathological computer use; excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. IAD was originally proposed as a disorder in a satirical hoax by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., in 1995.

Discussion questions:

  • Do we really consume more data today than we did pre-Internet? Or are we just consuming different kinds of information than we once did?
  • Should kids still be learning how to write in cursive in elementary school? How about how to write a letter (snail mail)? Should these be replaced with keyboarding and texting/tweeting?
  • Is it duplicitous for computer companies to be making these products and at the same time telling us to use them only in moderation?
  • Is there a technological solution to every problem? Will our gadgets and technology inevitably save the world, or will they destroy the world?
  • Evaluate the following claim: Information is not just increasing exponentially; it is obsolescing at a rapid rate as well. It no longer makes sense to make students memorize vast quantities of information that will become outdated a few years beyond college.

Online Education and MOOCs

Here’s a small group guide for a discussion of e-learning in higher education.


Online Education Examples:

The “gist”:

The internet has made many sectors of the economy, and indeed life itself, more volatile and decentralized. Coupled with economic insecurity, the online revolution is now transforming higher education. The conventional model for education is under attack for many reasons. Foremost, higher education appears as the exclusive preserve of those who can afford the cost, big blocks of time (measured in semesters and years), and distance from family commitments.

Perhaps we can leverage technology to reduce barriers to access and reduce costs. In the process, decentralization threatens many storied traditions of university life. A physical campus where students interact may become unnecessary. The lecture model for teaching used for a thousand years may wither away. Learning may reside in non-human appliances rather than professors and other students. Cheating may require more sophisticated, high tech policing. More students may succeed as massively open online courses become available for free. Simultaneously, more students may fail as motivation or ability to self-regulate falters.

Networked learning makes a number of assumptions. First, basic digital literacy is presumed. Technical challenges will be overcome. Assessment and evaluation of developmental learning can be standardized or automated. Course developers as inquisitive minds will be stimulated within the context of online learning environments and adequately paid. MOOCs and courseware instructional design also assumes that affective learning mode – pleasure, frustration, feelings, rapport, and interest felt – can be captured as easily as cognitive learning mode – someone’s ability to recall a list of learned items, their ability to generalize and apply knowledge – and can be measured or tested.

Key terms and definitions:

MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) – Characterized by scalability and oriented at the community, MOOCs are distance education products that often rest on the pedagogy laid out by “deschooling” proponent Ivan Illich.

LMS (Learning Management System) —A client-server application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational courses.Blackboard/WebCT, Canvas, HCOL virtual classrooms are examples.

Hybrid classes – Courses partially taught in the classroom and partially online. Blended or mixed-mode courses are those that take place in multiple contexts or environments.

Flipped classroom – An education where the focus at class time is on one-to-one teacher-student or peer-to-peer education. Homework is reserved for online lectures produced by “superstar professors.”

Computer aided instruction (CAI) – The use of computers for education and training. The term often became synonymous in the 1990s and early 2000s with “drilling” facts or message board-style learning.

Keylogging – Monitoring the frequency and rate of keys struck on a keyboard, in this case to detect cheating.

Discussion questions:

  • Is it true that an education is such a scarce commodity these days that most universities are already engaged in rationing such services? If so, will online education relieve the problem?
  • Will online educational tools tend to increase variety or homogenize education?
  • Charlie Firestone of the Aspen Institute is quoted as favoring “passion-based education” in the Pew Survey story. What do you think that is? Can any online course become “passion-based”? Is there any virtue to an education passively consumed?
  • What is it that a teacher or professor (mostly) does? Is she a “content developer”? A “motivator”? Something else?
  • Is a face-to-face education always better than one delivered online? Does technology facilitate the gamification of higher education, or is education as delivered in higher education already mostly gamified?
  • Is a university education still relevant? If so, why is there so much marketing and administration attached to it?
  • Will there still be physical universities with campuses in the future? Why or why not? What will happen to education that happens outside the classroom? Where will that go?
  • Is a university that graduates only 42.4% of its students wasting resources? What about 7%? Why or why not?
  • What will happen to students who are “demotivated” (as defined by Bill Gates)? Where will they get an education in a world where most education is delivered online?
  • Is it okay that most students (enrollees) will never finish any particular MOOC?