The Semiotics of Remote


Thursday 18th January 2018

Real world journalist Vs. desk-bound theorist.  Deborah Simmons reports on her experiences of running her business from anywhere in the world...

Remote. Remote. Remote. Remote. Remote.

Barely an hour goes by where I don’t hear this word being uttered, read it on a Slack post or see it somewhere in my immediate vicinity.  I’m so used to hearing it that I almost don’t hear it anymore.  Does that make sense?

Recently though, I’ve started hearing it again.  And listening.  I mean really listening.  And what I’m hearing has started to clarify some things in my mind.

This past year I’ve heard many different people’s experiences of their remote working lives.  It’s disappointing, but not altogether surprising that a significant proportion of employers have serious reservations about allowing their staff to work remotely.  Some reject the idea outright and others find obstacles to place in the way.

I’ve tried to unpack this the best I can, with the help of the Remotes that I’m travelling with and others I’ve met along the way, and I hear the same concerns raised again and again:

As those who have followed my journey know, I’m currently 11 months into conducting a year-long ethnographical study into Digital Nomadism (working title: MyLifeAsADigitalNomad), and these are all themes that I’ll be reporting on in detail in 2018, so they are not going to be the focus of this piece, but what I do want to look at is what semiotic cues can be taken from the word Remote itself and how this can affect people’s perceptions and therefore their actions.

First off, here’s a snippet from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of Remote

Adjective: (of a place) situated far from the main centres of population; distant - Having very little connection with or relationship to.

 …and some synonyms from a brief Google search just to hammer the point home:

 Irrelevant to, unrelated to, unconnected to, unconcerned with, not pertinent to, inapposite to, immaterial to, unassociated with, inappropriate to.

I think it’s fair to say that our residual definition of (and associations with) Remote sit at the core of people’s apprehension, and while there is positive evidence to show that the word is being used increasingly in our everyday lives, I feel that this is an issue that needs to be tackled head-on and I for one am willing to take up this gauntlet and run with it.

Before starting to write this piece, I sought the opinions of an experienced Semiotician who is a former colleague and current friend, and whose mind I admire greatly.  He suggested that I “consider what the positive signifiers are of remoteness in the context of work, but what the negative associations are in terms of our cultural understanding…”, but in truth I struggled to find any historical references to the former.

On the whole, his thoughts and mine were pretty well aligned; “…the myths about slobbing around in pyjamas, not engaging fully with work, productivity dropping, too many (homely) distractions etc, and how we might signify pro-activity to offset that assumption with activity signifiers…. greater use of email to declare work in progress and checking in for reviews etc.  The stuff we habitually do to make sure nobody thinks we’re slacking off.”

Interestingly, his immediate associations are around working from home, whereas mine are generally intertwined with travel; clearly a product of him being a dedicated partner and father living outside of London, and me being a little more footloose and fancy-free (and currently in Colombia)!

The issue as I see it is that these negative perceptions are barriers to individuals and employers considering remote work as a positive step forward.  Not only does this create resistance to a movement that is growing in popularity and momentum, but it also holds people back from exploring their full potential and becoming their best selves.

My experience of living as a Digital Nomad fully contradicts the dominant/residual semiotic cues of Remote.  Of course, every individual is different, but on the whole I see only good things coming from those who are free to live a more integrated work and personal life.  A life full of richness, cultural immersion, flexibility, opportunity, gratitude and positivity.  The world and how we connect with it and each other is changing, and that to me is exciting.

When all is said and done my friend and I agreed that it feels like there is a battle of opposing perceptions… one dominant/residual that focuses in on the negatives, and the other emergent/dominant that tries to articulate the positives.  The challenge is that the negative signifiers are well established and understood, whilst the newer, less formalised positive signifiers are still evolving and coalescing to create a new set of semiotic codes.  And so we are left with a question in our heads and in our hearts:

How do we neutralise the negative perceptions of ‘remoteness’ with powerful signifiers of ‘remote action’?

Read more about Debs' travels on her blog

Photo credit:  #GenerationShare