May 292014

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.

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.

Western privilege

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.

  5 Responses to “Debunking the myth of the digital nomad”

  1. I agree with you in one aspect. The Digital Nomad is close to a myth. The four last years I have lived in NYC (cause NYC), Kuala Lumpur (for love), Oslo (my apartment is there), Berlin (because of my startup), Phnom Penh (because I really like this town), and working while traveling in Bali, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. I have met a few digital nomads but I have yet to meet any who rented their place on airbnb (for longer than a week) or getting their beer money from oDesk.

    Your entire wording in this article really shows some hatred towards entrepreneurs, people who travel the world and particularity Westerns (like that is going to change anything with globalization today by pointing out that people in Western countries are richer). A few examples: “war cries of the current cult of entrepreneurs”, “wonderfully privileged western middle class view of the world”, “a quaint idea pushed by the same people.”

    First of all Paul, there is no “these people”. Just because one dude tweets about digital nomad, couch surfing and oDesk freelancing doesn’t mean there is some common entrepreneurial theme to want, do or advocate this. The hatred towards cubicle is purely based on worker performance and satisfaction. Something that is touted by not only among entrepreneurs but many others who want to improve office life. There is no link from wanting to get rid of cubicles to coding on an oDesk-project on Boracay.

    “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.”

    I don’t think you understand oDesk works. When you are competing on oDesk you are already competing against some Russian dude, a team of Indians and Filipinos. On oDesk you are your username and review score. So there are no NYC-rates on oDesk.

    I have yet to meet anyone traveling around doing oDesk-projects. The “digital nomads” I do meet who travels around or are based in some exotic country doing IT-work are either a) working on their startup like I am or b) doing contract work or freelancing work through their existing network back home. The latter have usually turned out to be very smart people (the ones that next year end up doing some YCombinator-startup). They have chosen to go abroad for six months not because of money but because of experiences. These people get work because of their skills, not because they slightly undercharge rates in their home country by living in some shack in Thailand.

    Back to the Filipinos. Of the countries I have visited in SEA the Filipinos are the ones I am most impressed with. Many smart people with modern views, they usually speak very good English and work hard. But like in Malaysia or Vietnam finding good developers is difficult. So if someone is hiring some dude on NYC-rates (who happen to sip cocktails on Boracay) the likelihood of finding a better and cheap Filipino to do the same work is slim. The pool of people is just too small and finding them is a difficult process. And on top of that there would be the cultural difference. Having managed outsourcing projects to India I can assure you that is not something to ignore.

    So yeah like I mentioned in my tweet I think your whole article is based on a misconceptional myth that is your own. Not something reflects reality. But please do show me some numbers to debunk my point of view and personal experiences here.

    • Thanks for your comment Espen, if you really think I hate entrepreneurs you might want to spend a little more time on this site.

      What I think you’re missing in your comment is that my point about the Digital Nomad is that it’s a very tiny group of workers who can actually live that lifestyle with any degree of affluence.

      Startups are a different category, I have friends who’ve had startup businesses in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand with varying levels of success. I wouldn’t count them as ‘digital nomads’ either.

      As far as the cubicle work goes; while many are unsatisfied with those careers, they are equally unsuited to the life of being an entrepreneur. Advocating that lifestyle to people who don’t have the risk appetite is dangerous.

  2. I agree in some respects. Many people are not suited to walking away from their job to become entrepreneurs. And many people adopting the so-called digital nomad lifestyle are unprepared financially and in other ways.

    I have been a DN (a label I use reluctantly) for a few years. I can support my traveling lifestyle by freelancing for US-based clients, most of whom I worked for before I went nomadic. I’ve found it harder to get new clients while traveling, though not too hard because I get jobs through a US-based agency. I think I’m luckier (or better prepared) than a lot of digital nomads I meet because I was making a living freelancing before leaving the USA; I’m not constantly trying to find work, and I’m not scrounging on oDesk and Taskrabbit. You are right that it’s very hard to make a living doing that kind of low-paying piecework no matter where you live.

    There is an increasing digital nomad “movement” and books, seminars, web sites, products, etc. sold to people who read “The Four Hour Work Week” and want to travel, but who have stars in their eyes about making money from a beach in Bali or Thailand. Like with any other risky life change, a few of those people will succeed, and most won’t.

    Anyone contemplating working while traveling should have their finances in order first (not paying credit card bills or mortgages back home). They should have a reliable income source sufficient to support their lifestyle. They should know about visas, work permits, taxes, banking, medical care/insurance, and all of the other nuts-and-bolts things that are frequently glossed over or ignored. And they should know themselves well enough to deal with culture shock, loneliness, and the inevitable confusions and frustrations encountered when traveling and living outside the tourist resort bubble.

    I’d advise anyone wanting to go nomadic to try it first in their own country, where there are fewer hassles and cultural differences. Getting on the next plane to Thailand with a vague idea of starting up a mobile app company or getting freelance work online is not a great plan.

  3. […] life of the modern digital nomad unconstrained by office cubicles sounds more precarious and complex than their romanticised […]

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