Detained by U.S. Customs: Some thoughts about the future of work

I’m writing this from the Vancouver, British Columbia airport, where I am waiting for a flight to San Francisco after being detained by U.S. Customs for so long that I missed my original flight. A border patrol agent flagged me for “secondary inspection” because (as far as I can tell) I work for a company that exists only on the Internet and has writers — like me — who work from countries other than the U.S. Based on their responses to me over the hour or so I was detained, this seemed to confuse the agents I spoke with, and that got me thinking about some of the issues behind the future of work and how it is changing thanks to the web.

Ironically, I have been thinking a lot about those topics already, because I am flying to San Francisco in order to take part in GigaOM’s Net:Work conference on Thursday. The whole point of the conference is to talk about how the Internet is changing the way we work, and how companies and individuals need to adapt to these new realities in order to prosper. Among those realities are the fact that many companies — including GigaOM itself — have an increasingly distributed workforce, and that means employees who work remotely from different countries, both on contract and on staff.

So while I am an employee of GigaOM, I work from Toronto. But I don’t work for the Canadian subsidiary of GigaOM, because there isn’t one — at least not in the usual legal sense; and I don’t work in the Canadian office of the company, because there isn’t one of those either (unless you include my home office). Like many virtual or web-based companies, GigaOM has writers and other staff who work in all kinds of places, including Britain, Canada and a number of U.S. states.

Was it because I am a blogger?

Like many people who get detained by U.S. Customs when trying to enter the U.S., I don’t really know why I was flagged for “secondary inspection,” or why the border agent spent so long assessing my case (releasing me just five minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off). Was it because they were concerned that, by working from Toronto for a U.S. publication, I am somehow taking writing jobs away from Americans? Possibly. Or was it that by coming to the U.S. to take part in a conference, I am preventing worthy citizens from doing that work instead? I don’t know.

The first agent I spoke to wanted to know a lot about the conference. What was it about? The future of work and how it’s being disrupted by the Internet, I said. Who attends these conferences? Different types of people, I said — executives, entrepreneurs, anyone interested in work. Could I attend this conference, the agent asked? Sure, I said.

After being told to go and sit in a special holding area, where I waited for half an hour in the border equivalent of the DMV line, another agent asked most of these questions again: Who do you work for? GigaOM, I said. She wrote the words down on a sticky note. And what kind of company is it? It’s a blog, I said. “A “blog?” she asked, spitting the word out. Do you manage any employees? No, I said. What do you do? I write. About what? The Internet, I said. After another half an hour, with no explanation, she led me to the door: “Have a nice day,” she said, as she watched me sprint for the gate to see my plane departing without me.

The future of work is inherently borderless

I have no idea whether the agents I spoke to know anything about blogs, or whether they are aware of how the Internet is changing the way we work, and the way companies are organized, or how corporations function from a legal perspective. But they seemed to get hung up on whether I worked in an office, or for a Canadian subsidiary of GigaOM, or whether I was a manager, and what my exact duties were. The idea that I could just write about the Internet for any company located anywhere — including the U.S. — and get paid for doing it seemed to take them by surprise.

Am I taking jobs away from Americans by writing blog posts from Toronto, and should the U.S. be concerned about that kind of activity? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that anyone living anywhere theoretically has the ability to do what I do, for any company based anywhere in the world — just like anyone can be a journalist, or write software or develop apps or design products, or edit books or movies or music, or do a thousand other things that only require a PC and an Internet connection.

That can cause problems for governments, obviously, since they are used to seeing jobs as things that can be contained by national borders and put in discrete little boxes for neat categorization, so that the visas can be issues (and taxes can be assessed). But the reality is that many of us don’t live in such a neat and tidy world any more, and while that may look like a threat to some, it’s also a huge opportunity — and that’s part of what we mean when we talk about the future of work.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users CBP Photography and Wesley Fryer