“Digital Nomad” Is Obsolete

(The following is an excerpt from my new book, Gastronomad: The Art of Living Everywhere and Eating Everything.)

In 1997, Hitachi executive Tsugio Makimoto and writer David Manners wrote a prescient book called Digital Nomad. That’s where we get the label.

Makimoto and Manners predicted what would happen when mobile devices got powerful and cheap, and high-speed wireless internet access become commonplace. These, combined with our innate wanderlust, would inevitably lead to the rise of the digital nomad — people who take advantage of location-independent work to live anywhere they please.

I first started writing about this digital-nomad lifestyle ten years ago. Back then, it was new enough that I had to explain the concept to the tech-savvy audience of publications such as Computerworld, where I even wrote a “digital nomad” column called The World Is My Office.

Over that decade, the digital nomad idea has gone from unlikely and exotic to something many educated white-collar types actively consider. In the past five years, a “digital-nomad industrial complex” has emerged, in which people enable their digital-nomad lifestyles by providing services to other digital nomads — education, housing, workspaces and more.

Today, the term digital nomad is used to market all manner of goods and services, from co-working spaces, to co-living spaces, and even to digital nomad–branded sunglasses.

While the vision of digital-nomad living has become reality, the label is now dated and obsolete.

This kind of label obsolescence, driven by tech change, happens all the time. When I first started writing about technology back in the 1990s, I wrote about a new and exciting kind of personal computer called a “multimedia PC,” which meant that instead of a character-based, command-line system with beeps and buzzes, the new PCs had higher quality speakers, a CD-ROM drive and graphics! You could look at on-screen pictures and videos, and the PC could reproduce human speech and real music! Wow!

Nowadays the concept of a “multimedia PC” is laughable. Personal computers of all types, from desktop computers to tablets to smartphones all provide what we used to called multimedia. The phrase is obsolete because the graphics and sound are assumed. It’s just a PC now.

Some 15 years ago, the concept of the “camera phone” emerged. Imagine the ability to actually take pictures with your phone! Now, the existence of a camera in a phone is such a banality that the phrase is obsolete. Indeed, the “smart phone” has pretty much gone the same way. It’s just a phone now.

Likewise, the digital-nomad idea is that computers and wi-fi enable location-independent work, and therefore nomadism. But wireless devices are so ubiquitous that it’s silly to say that nomads are nomads because of wireless devices. Besides, there’s no difference between the equipment used by nomads and non-nomads.

Yes, there’s a difference between the kinds of work people do. I’m a writer, so I can live and work nomadically. A fireman can’t.

But the division between who can be nomadic and who cannot has no connection to whether they’re digital. A film-based photographer can be nomadic. An IT professional who spends 100% of their time on computers and networks in a corporate data center cannot.

The real dividing line is occupational, social and cultural, not some mythical gulf between those who are “digital” and those who are not. While you can theoretically manage people, teach classes, and do all kinds of things remotely, it just isn’t the same. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. So a huge number of professions strongly favor up-close, in-person human connection.

And, of course, there are millions of professions that absolutely require physical presence — people in construction, daycare, medicine and so on. For most of the people doing these jobs, living nomadically is virtually impossible.

People are either nomads, or they’re residents (living in a single place). But we’re all digital.

I think we should focus more on why people live nomadically, not the tools that enable it.

(Gastronomad is available now on Amazon.com.)

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