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#solotravellers & #digitalnomads: presentation recap

I just gave a presentation about the Digital Nomad at the Instagram Conference at Middlesex University London, a one-day immersion in what is perhaps the most zeitgeist-y platform at the moment. Chrystal Abidin, Richard Rogers and Adam Arvidsson gave keynotes, while panels covered anything from digital methods to arts and interesting cultural initiatives like this Afropresentism project. It was fun.

As for my small contribution, a brief recap below.

Me not being an Instagram specialist, I had to contextualise my perspective by introducing the figure of the digital nomad and why I believe it’s worthy of cultural critique — also pointing out how I’m more concerned with the figure as a collective cultural production, rather than a sociological category.

The core of my presentation was built around three tagging practices that in my view reflect the digital nomad’s neoliberal hard-wiring, a problematic aspect that prevents this figure from being a truly utopian figuration.

The first is the most obvious one: the collective performance of the #solo traveller persona, expressed through the visual trope pictured above — a purified landscape, a faceless protagonist, an external public and/or photographer (which may or may not be tagged in the caption) — paired with the use of tags like #solotraveller and #digitalnomad.
These images are most present in promotional and marketing oriented material and they definitely echo in my Facebook and Instagram feeds as well, arguably providing the most idealised visual portrait of the digital nomad identity.
While I presented the facelessness of the subject as implicitly excluding the audience from the experience, a later presentation on the same panel by Jonathan D.Schöps (University of Innsbruck) (whose paper was titled “Consuming Commodified Selves — Accelerated Identity Co-Construction Dynamics Through Fashion Performances on Instagram”) actually pointed out how some of his interviewees stated the unidentified subject allows for easier identification. This is very interesting, because it confirms the trope is conducive to a collectively defined identity template — not quite à la Anonymous, but still open to participation.

The second set of tagging practices I outlined relate to the material and imaginary enforcement of what Benjamin H. Bratton has described in his fascinating brick of a book, The Stack.

Since landscape is important to the digital nomad imaginary, geo-tagging Instagram pictures can become a way to stitch Bratton’s “accidental megastructure” tighter together. As described in this article by Brent Knepper, this practice can lead to material effects on the actual landscape:

“Five years ago, Horseshoe Bend saw only a thousand visitors in a year. But this year, over 4,000 people a day have come to see the bend, take selfies at the rim, and dangle their feet over the exposed edge. All this traffic has put a lot of strain on the attraction, or at least its parking lot. So on November 6, construction began on new parking amenities and a platform at the canyon’s edge complete with railing and signs to safely handle all the new visitors. Once complete, the bend will be a perfect tourist attraction with great parking, water, and shade. But the wild beauty that brought so many here in the first place will be gone.”

Another way Instagram contributes to the Stack is the globalisation and promotion of co-working and remote work aesthetics, with plenty of South-Asian facilities being branded and marketed through the recognisable coffee+macbook+ferns trope, often with a European/Western looking person amidst it all [Kyle Chayka has described this globalising aesthetic as “airspace”, linking it to Silicon Valley ethos etc].
Clearly Instagram is playing a small role compared to the actual flows of capital and people involved in regular globalisation and Westernisation dynamics at play in Asia, but the Digital Nomad imaginary has a cultural grip on a lot of us and the imagery definitely provides at least an introduction to the lifestyle.

The last set of tagging practices is really just a cultural link to Tim Ferriss’ bestseller The 4-Hour Work Week through the #4hourworkweek tag. The book, which launched Ferriss’ career as a life-hack guru, argues for limiting work and automating income — which happens by delegating it to others through a combination of Internet tools and old-fashioned, globalised hyper-capitalism.
Content tagged #4hourworkweek on Instagram includes lots of nuggets of motivational wisdom as well as glimpses into the lifestyle of those who made it — or are at least on their way to, thanks to you clicking on their content. Generally, the idea is you can make it if you follow a few simple tricks, one of which seems to be sharing tricks with others who are yet to be enlightened.
The focus on productivity would seem counter-intuitive when talking about working less, but that is perfectly consistent with the ideology underpinning Ferriss’ ethos.
Before you can drop your job and join the “new rich”, in fact, you need to work really really hard: find your niche, craft a killer product (or at least market the shit out of something that is already out there), get someone with meager salary expectations to handle most of the nitty gritty and go join a salsa class or something. For a better and more detailed dissection of the capitalist trickery at play in the book, I recommend this very cool article by Megan Day on Jacobin explaining why its brand is problematic.

Like I wrote in this piece for NOT (Italian only), Ferriss’ idea of post-work is very different from — and incompatible with — other, more socially progressive versions that have been circulating in recent years.
Most notably, Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams champions post-work as a utopian populist horizon for a political renaissance of the Left. While the 4-hour achievement that inspires so many digital nomads (the book is often quoted as one of the most influential texts on blogs catering to audience of self-identifying digital nomad) is very much a neoliberal, individual goal, the British theorists focus on the wider societal implications of a fully-automated economy. One of the main points is universal basic income, which the authors intend as an achievable populist target around which the Left should organise. While the 4-hour work week has been proved to work for a few — a very mediated success, to boot — Srnicek and Williams’ stated goal remains decidedly utopian, for now.

At this point, the question is: is there a way to tap into the identification potential channeled by the Digital Nomad and politicise it for collective good?
It doesn’t seem likely, but I included a couple examples in my presentation that point towards alternative directions.
One is the Entreprecariat, a project by Silvio Lorusso that I often cite on this blog. Its Instagram incarnation is perhaps not the most successful iteration of Lorusso’s endeavour, but it provides some memeable injections of complexity and criticality — which are mostly absent in Digital Nomad discourse on the platform.
Another interesting account is this art project collecting poems written by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, paid 5 cents per poem. Poetry and hyper-precarious freelancing sound antithetical, so channeling the feelings of the global exploited could be a way to bring some of the bubbling psychic detritus of contemporary capitalism to the surface.

Any more directly DN-related equivalents of these subversive figures? If you know of or find any, do let me know.



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Nicola Bozzi

Nicola Bozzi


Afternoon person, eternal beginner. Research on #tagging + critique. Writing about arts, media & cities. Serious about comedy.