Last century’s myth of the proud nomad is being modernised with the dream of the digital nomad. Unlike the Twentieth Century legends, today’s tales are far more mercenary.
“Quit your cubicle” is one of the war cries of the current cult of entrepreneurs. It’s a nice thought that overlooks the real risks of striking out on your own and usually pushed by those selling self help books or related services.
A related concept to quitting your cubicle is the ‘digital nomad’, a quaint idea pushed by the same people.
The theory of the digital nomad
In theory, the digital nomad is a knowledge worker who travels the world tethered only to an internet connection and a power socket. It’s best illustrated by this tweet.
Trend: Digital Nomad. Quite your cubicle job, travel world, couch surfing/airbnb work on oDesk, Taskrabbit, Cloudpeeps, Zirtual and more
— Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) May 29, 2014
This is a wonderfully privileged western middle class view of the world – backpack around the world in cheap, or free, accommodation while earning a good middle class income through oDesk or Taskrabbit.
Conveniently this view overlooks that making a western middle class income through oDesk or Taskrabbit is pretty difficult. For most, the digital nomad lifestyle is a myth and seated more in long standing romanticism.
Building the nomad myth
The noble nomad myth has a proud history that gained currency in modern times thanks to the mid-Twentieth century stories of Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
While the romantic myths about Arab nomads developed, Thesiger and TE Lawrence pulled no punches about the difficulties of nomadic life – it was a tough, hard and precarious existence that suited a spartan minimalist like Thesiger.
For the modern digital nomad life is tough and precarious as well unless you have a trust fund or tolerant, affluent employer.
The idea of sitting on a Boracay beach sipping a cold cocktail while working a four hour work week is lovely, but for clients there’s little reason to hire a privileged westerner at New York rates when they can employ a better qualified Filipino for a fraction of the price.
Most wannabe Digital Nomads will find picking fruit in Australia or teaching English in Bangkok is easier and better paid before returning to their community manager jobs in San Francisco, Melbourne or Manchester.
Thesiger himself would have been appalled at the whole idea of ‘digital nomads’ – entitled middle class people tied down by credit cards, encumbered with expensive laptops and obsessed with Wi-Fi access.
We should remember the romance of the nomad was built around retreating to a simpler lifestyle, the digital equivalent is actually far more complex – and precarious – than its advocates will admit.
The digital nomad lifestyle is a nice marketing line for self help books but for most it’s a cruel myth.