On Digital Nomads

Or why“Loving Lanka” makes me want to barf


“He quit his job, married his girl, moved to Sri Lanka, and made this masterpiece,” posted Miguel on his new fiance’s wall, followed by last week’s Vimeo staff pick “Loving Lanka.” The short film by Sebastian Linda is all HD cameras and epic shots, love amongst the mountains, beautiful white people in a colorful brown people world.

It’s gorgeous. And it makes me want to barf.

For the record, I met the person who shared the video while traveling in Peru at 22, and I’m currently writing this from an exotic location a decade later, having just finished up a motorcycle ride across Vietnam. In other words, I am Loving Lanka, and I was Loving Lanka before the Gh4 could make a slow-mo version of my life. Which is why I cringe when I come across media that romantically and uncritically promotes the “digital nomad” lifestyle I lead.

Loving Lanka is a beautiful film, but it was made with approximately $8,900 worth of equipment, on a trip most likely financed with social security, a savings account, and AirBnB’ing a very nice house in Europe. In other words, the film’s premise of throwing caution to the wind only applies if you’re already privileged and have access to a favorable exchange rate.

The utopian ideal of the digital nomad seems to define our time. The internet is abuzz with the new culture of the times: The freedom to work for yourself, craft a lifestyle of eternal travel, and pursue your passion. This essentially translates to have no boss but still make money, live on perpetual vacation, and do only what you want to do. I’d like to point out that this ideal is not only ridiculous, it’s also dangerous.

It’s ridiculous because of the actual difficulties and anxieties of living outside the norm. For the most part, people struggle when they work for themselves. Without the structure and safety net of society, it’s hard to feel successful. While films like Loving Lanka make the lifestyle seem fabulous, the fact is the filmmaker spent scores of hours going blind and developing carpel tunnel syndrome in front of a computer editing that masterpiece. It’s dangerous because the ideal it espouses is mostly a farce: digital nomads don’t actually challenge the structure of work they profess to escape –they replicate it.

Take Johann, the German web designer who spent an entire week in Bali at a co-working space on the beach…and never went to the beach. Or Felicity, a former consultant married to a serial entrepreneur who goes to Starbucks in Vietnam to write. Digital nomads normalize the freelancer, without jobs or benefits. They only exist in societies whose economies can be taken advantage of, which is gentrification on a whole other level. Most importantly, they promote a lifestyle where you are your job (because your job is so fabulous), dissolving forever the line between who you are and what you do. In other words, you’re working all the time.

So please: continue to think outside the cubicle and follow your dreams. But don’t be oblivious to the circumstances enabling you to do that, or the effect of your lifestyle on the people around you. Rather than falling prey to the fallacy that your job could be a perpetual vacation, I would fight for the right to a real vacation where you are right now.

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