Workscapes: A Writer’s Journey from Alphabet City to Silicon Valley

In the late 1980s, Jason Friedman was living in an apartment in Alphabet City, NYC working on his first book – Phantom Trucker. In a recent NYTimes post, Friedman describes how one day he came home to his apartment to find a flyer warning of increased gun violence one building over. Friedman explains that his younger self rationalized the danger posed by errant bullets because his time in his bedroom was spent sleeping – bringing his body below the window sill and out of danger. Later, Friedman says he (literally) “risked his life” to write Phantom Trucker in that apartment. However, beyond this vignette, risk largely drops out of the rest of Friedman’s narrative, which focuses on his journey as a writer, and the digital journeys of his work, their digital traces and legacies, online (buying a book for a penny, giving a Goodreads rating to another that was never published). Yet, as I read about Friedman’s process of changing jobs, leaving behind manuscripts, and thinking through criticisms of his work, it seemed as if risk continued to be a lurking character or force is his story.

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For Friedman, it appears risk, as if figured in his work practices, became naturalized. It appears that his ability to adapt to new forms of work, workplaces, and their environments, while retaining his sense of identity and self were essential to this naturalization. Friedman explains that as job market pressures changed, he shifted from job to job that let him use his (self-identified English major) skills for many forms of work. In this way, his story, while a reflection on his personal journey as a writer, also seems to function as a small scale ethnography of information work during the widespread turn to computing in the early ’90s onward, as Friedman went from writing fiction in Alphabet City to dreaming up the early terminology of the internet (“web page” or “webpage”) in Silicon Valley. Looking at what tools workers use, and what workers do what work and where are major topics in histories, anthropologies, and sociologies of work. As globalization has radically altered workscapes and relations, looking at migrations of work (being done in new places, by different people, with different tools, etc.) has become increasingly important (see Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship for an excellent culturally inflected discussion of work, capital and culture in the global age). However as computer-supported work continues to enhance, alter, shift, and reconfigure the nature of work in many realms in terms of how long one does a certain type of work (the rise of multi-career lifetimes) or task and to what end (crowdsourced labour etc.), I am curious to see how time and timing might be increasingly come to figure in how the politics of work are studied.

 

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