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The History of Digital Nomadism

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Abstract

This research essay traces the history of digital nomadism, a form of highly mobile digital work that has emerged as an information technology (IT)-enabled global phenomenon with substantial implications for individuals, businesses and societies (Schlagwein 2017). While definite numbers are not available, my estimate, based on primary research, is that, as of 2018, there are several hundred thousand digital nomads. To gain an appreciation of the history of digital nomadism, we need to trace concurrent developments and interwoven historical trends in technology, business and travel.
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The History of Digital Nomadism
Daniel Schlagwein, The University of Sydney, schlagwein@sydney.edu.au
Introduction
This research essay traces the history of digital nomadism, a form of highly mobile digital
work that has emerged as an information technology (IT)-enabled global phenomenon with
substantial implications for individuals, businesses and societies (Schlagwein 2017). While
definite numbers are not available, my estimate, based on primary research, is that, as of
2018, there are several hundred thousand digital nomads. To gain an appreciation of the
history of digital nomadism, we need to trace concurrent developments and interwoven
historical trends in technology, business and travel.
Digital nomadism became recognised as a mainstream phenomenon in 2014–15 when
dedicated online communities emerged (e.g., Nomad List), coworking spaces opened and
conference series began. However, its first appearance was as a more individualistic
phenomenon in the 2000s. It was then that IT companies started accepting remote working
arrangements for software developers, an important book was published (Ferriss 2007) and
electronic freelancing marketplaces emerged (e.g., Elance). The term itself dates further
back to the 1990s (Makimoto and Manners 1997). Pioneering examples existed even before
then (Roberts 1984), with conceptual predictions made even earlier (e.g., by Marshall
McLuhan 1962, 1964). The broader roots of digital nomadism can be traced to the
backpacking movement and, in fact, to traditional nomadism. This is where we start our
historical examination.
Settlers, Migrants and Nomads
Nomads are to be distinguished from settlers and migrants. Settlers live and work in fixed
locations. Most people today are settlers. Migrants are people who have moved to new
locations permanently or for an extended period of time. They live and work in fixed
locations that are not their traditional ethnic home. For instance, modern “expat” workers
are migrants but not nomads.
Nomads are people who move often to different locations. Traditionally, they were
motivated by the need to obtain food, find pasture for livestock or otherwise make a living.
While a grey zone exists in defining nomads and migrants, nomads move more often or
move continuously as a lifestyle choice. An excellent history and overview of traditional
nomadism are provided in Nomads and the Outside World (Khazanov 1994).
Among traditional nomads, we can distinguish hunter-gatherers (moving in their search for
food), pastoral nomads (moving with their livestock, such as the Bedouin) and peripatetic
nomads (moving to sell their craft, such as the Sinti). Historically, most people were
“hunter-gatherers” who changed location based on the seasons and availability of food. The
mega-trend over the last 8000 years, since the invention of agriculture, has been the
replacement of nomads by settlers (with farming requiring people to stay near “a place to
live”). Furthermore, in more recent centuries, the invention of the nation state (creating
legal borders) and wide industrialisation (large machinery and factories requiring people to
stay near “a place to work”) increased the trend to move humanity from the lifestyle of
nomads to that of settlers, with this including forced settlements. In 1995, it was estimated
that 30–40 million people continued to live a nomadic lifestyle (New Internationalist 1995).
Digital nomadism uses IT to return people to a state where the place to live and the place
to work are not spatially restricted. Digital nomads can, and do, move freely around the
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globe without home and work addresses, creating a form of neo-nomadism.
Early Visions of Digital Nomadism
The emergence of digital nomadism was predicted in various ways by different authors.
Some visions were quite different from digital nomadism as it has developed and now
currently stands but, nonetheless, these authors were notable for their foresight.
McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, pictured nomads
zipping around at great speed, using facilities on the road to the point where they could
almost dispense with their homes (McLuhan 1962). His “global village” is a metaphor for
the reduction of physical distances throughout the world due to the increased ability to
communicate and exchange ideas through the Internet (i.e., McLuhan predicted the Internet,
although, of course, using different terms). In his vision, the increased speed and ease of
communication were supposed to bring together all social functions thus creating the
impression of reduced physical distances (McLuhan 1964).
Toffler wrote in his book The Third Wave of the transition from an industrialised age (the
Second Wave) to an information age (the Third Wave). He described the information age
as being characterised by an economy and a society based on digital technologies and the
removal of spatial boundaries; he envisioned an “electric cottage” from which workers
could work remotely (Toffler 1980).
In a book actually called Digital Nomad, Makimoto and Manners (1997) predicted that the
development of technology would allow people to choose to become mobile across the
globe: “the 21st century will be the millennium which resurrects for humans a dilemma
which has been dormant for 10,000 years – humans will be able to ask themselves: ‘Am I
a Nomad or a Settler?’” (p. 3). The authors provided early examples of executives who
were using newly available IT to work from remote places. They pointed out not only the
possibility of digital nomadism but also foresaw some of its current issues (e.g., taxation).
We now turn to the actual roots and emergence of digital nomadism which we explore
decade by decade, focusing on the role of technology (e.g., new relevant IT), business (e.g.,
new relevant business models) and travel (e.g., travel and cultural trends).
The 1970s: From London to Nirvana
Technology: In 1971, the first pre-Internet computer networks were built at military and
academic institutions in the United States (US). The first email was sent over the Advanced
Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). The first personal computer (PC), the
MITS Altair 8800, was also released in the 1970s (mainstream adoption followed in the
1980s with IBM PCs and subsequent clones).
Business: During the 1970s, more flexible work schedules became possible and the notion
of “work–life balance” emerged. Based on a pioneering study in 1973–74, the concept of
“telecommuting” was introduced, primarily in the book Telecommunications–
Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow (Nilles 1976). Telecommuting was
thought of as an (IT-based) alternative to commuting to work in the context of city planning.
Travel: The Beatles spending time in Indian ashrams and working with local musicians in
the late-1960s and 1970s contributed much to the emergence of “The Hippie Trail”
(MacLean 2007). The Hippie Trail was an overland travel route from the United Kingdom
(UK) or Germany through Turkey and Iran to India or Nepal (and often on to South-East
Asia) on which many people travelled in the 1970s, sometimes in the iconic Volkswagen
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Combies (minivans). Based on their Hippie Trail travels, Tony and Maureen Wheeler
published their first Lonely Planet travel guide Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973
(International Directory of Company Histories 2018). This guidebook provided an
invaluable and critical resource for individualistic travellers. A host of Lonely Planet travel
guides subsequently emerged, creating a new category of travel literature and breaking
ground for an independent form of travelling.
The 1980s: Technological Innovations
Technology: The 1980s saw the emergence of a range of technological innovations
necessary for digital nomadism. The Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol
(TCP/IP), critical for the emergence of the Internet, was developed in 1982 (and adopted
by ARPANET in 1983). Universities increasingly connected their networks during the
1980s, forming what eventually became the Internet. Toward the end of the 1980s, the first
internet service providers (ISPs) emerged, providing Internet access for anyone
(mainstream adoption followed in the 1990s). Moreover, the first satellite phone system,
Motosat, was introduced to the market in 1985, creating the category “mobile phone”. Also
in 1985, Toshiba produced the first consumer laptop, the Toshiba T1100.
Business: Work mobility and flexibility of working hours increased in the 1980s. Several
organisations tried telecommuting (Nilles 1988). A notable example was J. C. Penney that
began to use home-based call centre agents.
Travel: Beginning from 1982, Thailand, in particular, saw an influx of “backpackers”. This
not only led to but was fuelled by the establishment of the “backpacker mecca” in
Bangkok’s Khao San Road, where local Thais started running cheap “guesthouses” and
“homestays” to cater to this new type of independent traveller. Similar backpacker set-ups
were soon springing up across the world. Falling prices for accommodation, the emergence
of travel guides and the “word of mouth” concept led to backpacking becoming an
increasing travel phenomenon in the 1980s.
The 1990s: “Dawn of the E-Lance Economy”
Technology: Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web (WWW) part of the Internet
in 1990, with this made public by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
in 1993. Mosaic was the first WWW/Internet browser (1993), followed by Netscape’s
Navigator (1994) and eventually Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (1995). The “killer app” of
the Internet was then developed: “search” (with Google taking most of the market share
from 1998). Mobile (smart)phones and laptops became common; their prices decreased
while their power increased throughout the 1990s. Laptops were equipped with Wi-Fi,
enabling cable-free online working. The 1990s also showed the power of online
communities, with the emergence of peer-to-peer (e.g., Napster in 1999), open-source (e.g.,
Linux in 1991) and crowdsourcing (e.g., Wikipedia in 2001) models.
Business: The second half of the 1990s saw a wave of electronic business implementations
(e.g., Amazon in 1994, eBay in 1995). New models, such as Amazon Affiliates (from 1996),
allowed individuals to make money online with shops and referrals. Online financial
transactions became possible, with both conventional retail and investment banking (e.g.,
Citibank, Schwab) going online, as well as pure online solutions, such as PayPal, becoming
available. Inspired by a Harvard Business Review article called “Dawn of the E-Lance
Economy(Malone and Laubacher 1998), Elance was launched as an electronic freelancing
marketplace, allowing online workers to source clients.
Travel: The price of long-distance flights dropped substantially with the launch of discount
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airlines (e.g., AirAsia in 1993). Early forms of digital nomadism emerged as a recognisable
phenomenon. For example, the New York Times used the term “technomads” to label an
emerging category of long-term travellers who used technology (such as early mobile
phones and Internet blogs) to stay in touch with friends (but not typically to work) (Siwolop
1999). These nomads were supported by books such as The Practical Nomad: How to
Travel around the World (Hasbrouck 1997).
The 2000s: Social Media and The Four-Hour Workweek
Technology: In the 2000s, Internet and mobile data speeds increased substantially while
costs decreased, leading to wider usage and new complementary technologies. The
emergence of digital nomadism was further fuelled by the increasing development of
“social technologies” (e.g., social media, such as Flickr, LinkedIn and Facebook). Voice
over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls and video conferencing became increasingly feasible
(especially with the launch of Skype in 2003). Later in the decade, “cloud computing”
emerged to service the IT needs of nomads and other workers (especially with the launch
of Dropbox in 2007). Importantly for nomads, Google AdSense (2003) went online, thus
allowing travel bloggers to run ads from Google’s network of advertisers.
Business: Having a “home office” became increasingly accepted in various industries,
particularly for information and communications technology (ICT) workers such as
developers. In the early 2000s, the establishment of “internet cafés” served remote workers
(in addition to gamers). Later in the decade, early “coworking spacesappeared (e.g., at
Spiral Muse in San Francisco and the de facto coworking space, St Oberholz in Berlin, both
in 2005). Websites oriented to digital nomadism emerged, including technomadia.com
(albeit its focus on recreational vehicle [RV] travellers) and some early digital nomads
started creating businesses catering for “wannabe” digital nomads (e.g., Digital Nomad
Academy in 2008). Importantly for digital nomadism, in 2007, Timothy Ferriss published
The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (4HWW),
selling over one million copies. The 4HWW focused on how to travel continuously, run an
online business and “escape 9-5”: it is sometimes considered the starting point and “the
bible” of digital nomadism.
Travel: In the 2000s, mobility for both recreation and work became more prevalent.
Founded in 2000, TripAdvisor, over time, has reconfigured the travel/evaluation industry.
Furthermore, Couchsurfing (2003) and AirBnB (2008) started to support alternative
accommodation models. With Matt “DancingHarding (2005), the world saw the first
“digital nomad YouTube star (Harding was the first travel blogger to receive major
corporate sponsorship and has had millions of views on his “Where the Hell is Matt?” video
series).
The 2010s: Cryptocurrencies, Conferences and Coworking Spaces
Technology: In 2010, Instagram emerged, emblematic of the trend to more visual
communication, and supporting the wide recognition of digital nomadism as an increasing
phenomenon (e.g., via cliché “laptop on beach” photos). Cryptocurrencies, based on the
Blockchain concept (although Bitcoin started in 2008, it was not widely known until the
2010s), allowed financial transactions that did not rely on fiat currencies and nation states.
As both users and creators, digital nomads were much engaged with this new technology.
Business: Throughout the 2010s, coworking spaces became increasingly important, with
their number approximately doubling every year: the number of remote workers (including
digital nomads) reached one million in 2017 (Foertsch 2017). Dedicated digital nomad
coworking spaces emerged, including Hubud (Ubud, Bali), Ko Hub (Ko Lanta, Thailand)
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and Hubba (Bangkok, Thailand). These “destination coworking spaces” provided a
physical manifestation point for digital nomads. In parallel, online communities for digital
nomads emerged such as Nomad List, Hashtag Nomads and Dynamite
Circle/TropicalMBA. Digital nomad conferences began to be organised, including DNX
(from 2014) and CUAsia (from 2015). Coworking, online communities and conferences
shaped, and were shaped by, the emerging notion of a shared “digital nomadism” identity.
Travel: Many digital nomads are “flashpackers”, a post-backpacker category characterised
by travellers with higher budgets who heavily use technology, while, at the same time,
seeking similar destinations and lifestyles to those sought by “budget” backpackers (Paris
2011). In addition to various “how to live as a digital nomad” books, two documentary
films on digital nomadism were produced in the 2010s: “Almost Fearless” (2014) and
“One-Way Ticket” (2017). At the time of writing, new travel models for digital nomads are
emerging, ranging from “nomad cruises”, “remote years” to “coliving spaces”.
Conclusion
Digital nomadism is still an “early-stage” phenomenon; for example, only one person at
last year’s International Workshop on the Changing Nature of Work (CNOW) indicated they
had heard about digital nomadism. As with other social phenomena, it is therefore
important to gain an appreciation of the roots of digital nomadism, which extend much
further back in time than the 4HWW publication date. Despite its limitation to five pages, I
hope this paper provides a first “lay of the land” of the history of digital nomadism.
References
Ferriss, T. 2007. The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.
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Foertsch, C. 2017. "Global Coworking Survey."
Hasbrouck, E. 1997. The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. Moon Publications.
International Directory of Company Histories. 2018. International Directory of Company Histories 2019.
Gale.
Khazanov, A. M. 1994. Nomads and the Outside World [2e]. University of Wisconsin Press.
MacLean, R. 2007. Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India. Penguin.
Makimoto, T., and Manners, D. 1997. Digital Nomad. Wiley.
Malone, T. W., and Laubacher, R. J. 1998. "The Dawn of the E-Lance Economy," Harvard Business Review
(76:5), pp. 144-152.
McLuhan, M. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.
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Coworking is a concept with multiple layers. In this article, we argue it as an organizational arrangement constituted communicatively and nurtured by the activity of work. This chapter aims to contribute to the discussion of staff supportiveness in coworking. Our emphasis is its mediation role as a mechanism to promote interactivity among people cohabitating in this kind of flexible workplace. We reach this purpose based on a qualitative approach, sustained on field research, and driven by a multiple case study pursued in Porto Alegre (Brazil) and Strasbourg (France). The materiality of the investigation is interactional practices on work, expressed by discourses. This research promotes a dialogical reflection based on the different locations of study, getting beyond a comparative point of view. Amid the results, it is identified that the activity of the staff is overcharged with structural issues, and the challenge is related to staff’s role in the cultural translation of coworking values in the daily decision-making life.
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The use of information technologies (IT) transforms “work”, with the corresponding discourse often using labels such as “the future of work” (Forman, King, & Lyytinen, 2014), “digital work” (Orlikowski & Scott, 2016) or “the changing nature of work” (this workshop). In this domain, a new and exciting phenomenon is emerging: “digital nomading”. This phenomenon is focal to the study outlined here. [...]
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The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich
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Ferriss, T. 2007. The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich. Random House.
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Foertsch, C. 2017. "Global Coworking Survey."