The ‘digital nomad’ is the modern hobo
Recently, we’ve seen the rise of what is euphemistically known as the ‘digital nomad’. I propose we call them by what they really are: digital hobos. Or, really, let’s just call them hobos, since the only significant difference between the hobos of the early 20th century and today’s ‘digital nomads’ is the tech. Instead of a bindle they have laptops, but the driving motivation is the same: coping with an economy that no longer makes sense.
Let’s be clear, though, they are hobos in the traditional sense of the word. Hobos aren’t lazy or unmotivated. They work. In the hierarchy of transience the hobo is perhaps the noblest of them all. A tramp works only when he has to, and a bum never works, but a hobo is ready to work and is always on the lookout for the next gig.
The digital hobo travels for the same reason analog hobos did: because staying put doesn’t make sense economically or psychologically; leases are a liability when work is so sporadic, and it’s easier to maintain hope when there’s always another place to go that might be better. They work when they can, but instead of calling it desperation they call it ‘freelancing’. A hobo of the last century taking shelter in a widow’s attic while he works for his keep would be just as happy to call his life ‘nomadic’ for the same reason people do now: a simple need to hide the tragedy of their life circumstances.
Each individual involved in this new trend of working trancience tends to think they’re making sensible decisions based on the specifics of their situation. However, observed from a distance and in aggregate, all those individual situations form a mass movement driven not by specific life circumstances but by grand economic sea-changes. When a movement is noticed its members are named, so we had the birth of hobos back then. Today we have a variety of terms to label the various participants of the new system of vulnerability and exploitation in the US desperation economy; terms like ‘van life’ and ‘gig economy’ and ‘digital nomad’ are all neologisms driven by the same deleterious society-spanning forces.
These new movements are not actually new, or rather the only thing new about them is the internet. Whereas before a young couple who decided it was best to live in their car were isolated and ashamed, now they can reframe their desperate acts of survival as something more intentional and noble via social media. The digital hobo can project themselves as heroic and enterprising, rather than as frightened and alone.
The tragedy of this reframing is it prevents them from properly grieving the loss or, at best, indefinite delay of things critical to the human experience, things like: daily physical contact with friends and family, a loving and supportive community, a home of their own, and the general feeling of security that comes from a stable life. This is what digital hobos leave behind. The total of that loss makes it impossible to believe they wouldn’t do things differently if they had the chance, so their apparent choice isn’t much of a choice at all. It’s a choice in the same way one mine choose to surrender their wallet to a mugger when the alternative is to get stabbed; it’s the best of the available options at the time, but that doesn’t make someone happy with the outcome.
To tally all those losses would be to admit the magnitude of the problem. No one wants to believe they’re in trouble. They especially do not want to recognize that they’re stuck in a troubled economy that was designed to make them fail and from which they cannot hope to escape, at least not by themselves.
We’re conditioned to blame ourselves for our own economic circomstances regardless of how poorly the economy is doing. We’re told the risk is all ours in the economy, that we have some nominal ‘freedom’ and therefore whatever economic fate we find ourselves in is only our fault. It doesn’t matter if there simply are not enough jobs offered, no, we’re still told it’s our fault if we suffer. In capitalism the individual is supposed to bear all risk and responsibility even if they never had a chance to begin with.
Employers want people to blame themselves so they don’t start blaming their bosses, and no one wants to feel powerless, so everyone in capitalism conspires to pretend as though anyone can be rich and secure if they just do it right and work hard. However, in reality most people have very little control over their economic conditions. Plenty of people work their asses off and get nowhere because there’s only room for a few winners in capitalism, and if you aren’t already on top you aren’t ever going to be.
Capitalism tells us we’re nothing, that we aren’t worth a shit and we don’t deserve anything. If we get anything it’s only because we had to work for it, to serve those holding all the resources until they granted us reprieve. No where does human dignity factor into capitalism. We’re told we should be thankful to have the opportunity to indenture ourselves to those who claimed existing resources by violence and used those resources to hold the rest of society hostage. It is a system of maximum suffering in which every individual is told they deserve whatever they get because they are ultimately nothing more than whatever job they’re allowed to do, as if a human being were nothing more than a crude tool to be used, exhausted, and discarded.
In this context it’s easy to see why digital hobos would reflexively see their position as something they chose rather than something they were driven to. They want to tell a story of their own power and self-determination, which means pretending they wanted to live the life of a transient. The greatest lie of capitalism may be that individuals have complete power over themselves to determine their fate; nevermind how hopelessly vulnerable people are in a system that attaches a price to every essential human need. What freedom do you have in a desert when every oasis and every drop of water therein is controlled by men who may offer you arbitrary terms in exchange for the that which you need to keep living? “How hard will you work to continue to live?” asks our employer, and we’re too whipped to do anything but lay ourselves out and push until there’s nothing left. We even compete with one another to be as submissive as possible to the people who control our lives.
The digital hobos of the ‘gig economy’ are trying to find some other path out of the deepening pit of the plundered and burning US economy, but for most of them there’s no way out. (Unless they’re the trust-fund-kid type of nomad who never had to work in the first place, but those assholes don’t count.) The new hobo is just as fucked as the old hobo. Hop all the trains and flights you want, the next pasture will be just as dry as the old one. Dressing up desperation as a lifestyle makes it no less precarious. Abandoning all efforts to live in any one place is a tacit admission that everywhere is just as broken and hopeless as anywhere else. This was true for the old hobo and remains so for the new one.
It would be more honest and dignified for those driven out of the traditional economy to recognize the forces outside their control that pushed them out. We should be witnesses to our own suffering, at the very least, even if society ignores us. We should feel fully our fear and insecurity in a society that no longer knows how to provide for the people in it, if it ever did. We can’t even begin to make things better until we own our anger at losing so much control of our lives that we just picked up and left without any hope of finding home again. So long as we paper-over the destructive effects of a broken society and a broken economy with euphemisms like ‘digital nomad’ we’ll continue to accept the misery of societal brokenness and never move beyond it to something better.
When we see our own pain we can start to recognize it in others; we can see the darkness under all those hashtags and be-filtered social media images of shiny ‘nomadic’ lives. There’s hope of reaching out and reforming community. This even in the midst of a society run by those who hate community, since there is nothing more threatening to the Jeff Bezos’ of the world than people providing for one another instead of remaining naked and isolated consumers without any leverage against the companies setting the rules and the adjusting the stakes.
It’s painful to see how completely fucked we are in the current economy. It sucks to realize there is no path forward for us alone, that all possible routes out of insecurity have so many roadblocks placed by so many economic gate-keepers that we’ll only exhaust ourselves in the effort if we try to ‘succeed’ according to the rules set by the extortionists in charge of the commanding heights of the economy.
We have to break the rules to move forward to a better and more humane society and economy. It is a rule that we must accept whatever scraps are offered to us by employers without complaint. It is a rule that we must work against our peers and treat them as competitors. It is a rule that we must never question the underlying wisdom of the laws of the economy. Being a digital hobo and championing the gig economy is not breaking any of those rules, however. It’s just a new way to be obedient to the system that robbed us of our freedom and dignity before we were even born. There is nothing disruptive or innovative about digital hoboism.
What will actually change things for the better is to draw near to one another in compassionate community while breaking those unfair and unjust rules forced upon us without our consent by the sociopaths at the helm of capitalism. We must profane the gods of capitalism by putting our own dignity and that of our peers before the whims of our employers. We’ll improve our communities by insisting that all people be treated with respect rather than as mere competitors to whom we owe nothing and whose suffering is merely a consequence of their own mistakes, and so ultimately none of our concern. So long as we refuse to work for the benefit of others in our community we’ll be isolated and easy to exploit. The individual hobo is powerless in the face of exploitative employers.
When we come to recognize our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others, we can start to move beyond exploitation of individuals to a society that upholds the innate dignity of all people. We can help find a place for those in our community who are alone and in pain, and in doing so help create a society of courageous altruism.
While the digital hobo is casting about for some scrap of success, the wise person will meanwhile be seeing to the truly revolutionary work of community-building. Hopefully, we can build places for those listless hobos to land when they’re finished worshipping the dead gods of capitalism.