Saturday, August 18, 2007

Techno-outsourcing hums along, sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect.

My daughter is an artist by training. In the natural order of things before the Internet, she might have gone to New York, where commercial art is done, and gotten a job as a graphic designer. I asked her why she didn’t do it.

“It’s gotten really hard,” she said. “With the Internet you have to compete with people in the Philippines and India. Maybe there’s some advantage in actually being in the office with whoever you’re working for, but there’s talent all over the world and it’s a lot cheaper.” The difference is more than just the Internet.

Image-manipulation programs, most notably Adobe Photoshop, are astonishingly good these days. Perfectly ordinary computers, which is to say very powerful computers, effortlessly handle the huge files needed for high resolution. All the complex effects and adjustments needed for high-end graphics work simply. The kind of photo touch-up that once required a lab with chemical baths and pricey equipment can be done in a few minutes by a bright adolescent. Entry costs are low: a computer, an Internet connection and pirated software.

As another example, a friend of mine makes his living in Washington as a computer consultant. Mostly he maintains databases and networks for small companies, as well as locking their systems down against viruses, hackers, and so on. His clients are always having problems, usually because the employees have been changing settings or adding software without knowing what they were doing.

He works entirely from his home in suburban Northern Virginia.

How? There is a program called PC Anywhere. If you install it on your computer, and grant him access, he can take control of your machine. That is, what you see on your monitor is reproduced on his, and when he moves the cursor on his copy of your screen, your cursor also moves. For practical purposes, he is sitting in your chair in your office, working with your computer.

In the computer world, this is not unusual. He has been doing it for many years, and has clients he has never met. If the problem is software, he fixes it remotely. If it’s hardware, he tells the company to call Dell or whoever to replace whatever isn’t working.

Recently he visited a friend in small-town Mexico. In case his clients needed him, he forwarded one business line to his cell phone, which has international roaming. On his laptop he had all the diagnostic software and so on that he used, as well as PC Anywhere. Mexico, like most of the world, has plenty of cybercafes. Telmex, the phone company, provides reliable broadband Internet.

Then he went to his friend’s house and plugged in the router for his Vonage(.com) phone. This is VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone service and rings, wherever he is, when anyone dials his 703 number in Virginia.

As far as his clients could tell, he was in Springfield.

He could have done the same thing from any country with non-satellite broadband. (The time lag of the signal to and back from the satellite seems to confuse PC Anywhere.) This sort of thing is fast eroding what? Not national sovereignty exactly, but the meaning of borders.

As book publishers buy graphics from Thailand, and computer pros work from heaven knows where, and Mexicans teach Americans Spanish by Internet phone, the concept of country weakens. More and more jobs are independent of place.

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