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Digital Work and High-Tech Wanderers: Three Theoretical Framings and a Research Agenda for Digital Nomadism

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This paper presents a literature review and conceptual development of digital nomadism. Digital nomadism is characterised by mobile workers indefinitely travelling between different locations while continually fulfilling their work obligations. The emerging literature on digital nomadism is fragmented and primarily focused on digital nomads' lifestyles. There is comparatively less focus on theoretically framing digital nomadism into broader narratives in human history. In order to gain a holistic understanding, this paper reviews the limited literature on digital nomadism and expands to other relevant literatures on economy (e.g. traditional boundaries in business), culture (e.g. lifehacking), and technology (e.g. telework and digital communication). These three theoretical framings of digital nomadism enable this paper to identify the current state of knowledge relevant to digital nomadism and develop a research agenda.
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Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
2018, Sydney Digital Nomadism: Theoretical Framings
1
Digital Work and High-Tech Wanderers: Three Theoretical
Framings and a Research Agenda for Digital Nomadism
Blair Wang
School of Information Systems and Technology Management
UNSW Business School
Sydney, Australia
Email: blair.wang@unsw.edu.au
Daniel Schlagwein
Discipline of Business Information Systems
The University of Sydney Business School
Sydney, Australia
Email: schlagwein@sydney.edu.au
Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic
School of Information Systems and Technology Management
UNSW Business School
Sydney, Australia
Email: dubravka@unsw.edu.au
Michael C. Cahalane
School of Information Systems and Technology Management
UNSW Business School
Sydney, Australia
Email: m.cahalane@unsw.edu.au
Abstract
This paper presents a literature review and conceptual development of digital nomadism. Digital
nomadism is characterised by mobile workers indefinitely travelling between different locations while
continually fulfilling their work obligations. The emerging literature on digital nomadism is fragmented
and primarily focused on digital nomads’ lifestyles. There is comparatively less focus on theoretically
framing digital nomadism into broader narratives in human history. In order to gain a holistic
understanding, this paper reviews the limited literature on digital nomadism and expands to other
relevant literatures on economy (e.g. traditional boundaries in business), culture (e.g. lifehacking), and
technology (e.g. telework and digital communication). These three theoretical framings of digital
nomadism enable this paper to identify the current state of knowledge relevant to digital nomadism and
develop a research agenda.
Keywords: digital nomadism, digital work, telework, factors of production, lifehacking, prosumers
Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
2018, Sydney Digital Nomadism: Theoretical Framings
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1 Introduction
We live in a world in which digital technologies have transformed work. This is the phenomenon that
the digital work research agenda seeks to understand (Orlikowski and Scott 2016). Digital work has been
described in recent literature as a “grand challenge” for humanity (Colbert et al. 2016). It is such a
challenge because it is accompanied by, for example, the loss of jobs as a result of more efficient
production operations (Mrass et al. 2017), and reduced clarity about established work-related norms
(Bordi et al. 2018). Nonetheless, as “the future of work itself” (Colbert et al. 2016), digital work presents
an opportunity to improve human lives.
Digital nomadism is emerging as a growing segment of the digital work labour force. Digital nomads are
teleworkers who have become so geographically mobile that they are free to work from almost anywhere
in the world. They therefore choose not only to work from almost anywhere in the world but also live
almost anywhere in the world, as “perpetual travellers(Nash et al. 2018). Due to the digital nomads’
defining characteristic of never staying in one place for too long, the total number of digital nomads is
difficult to ascertain, in the rough order of magnitude of 200,000 to 500,000 (Schlagwein 2018).
Moreover, due to the recency of digital nomadism, research has been scarce (Schlagwein 2018), and the
research that does exist is fragmented and primarily focused on the digital nomad’s lifestyle and
psychological considerations such as self-actualisation (Müller 2016) and loneliness (Nash et al. 2018).
Yet digital nomadism is much more significant for humanity’s historical narrative than simply another
lifestyle. Digital nomadism is not only a new lifestyle option but indeed a new way of working and
organising. Therefore, the research question we address is: How can we theoretically frame digital
nomadism holistically as a new way of living, working, and organising?
We answer this research question based on an interdisciplinary literature review. Grounded in the
literature review, we propose and discuss three theoretical framings of digital nomadism: digital
nomadism as economic activity; digital nomadism as a cultural phenomenon; and digital nomadism as
a new technology-enabled form of working and organising. These theoretical framings enable us to
develop a holistic view of the state of knowledge relevant to digital nomadism. Consequently, we are able
to propose a research agenda. Our contribution is relevant for academics interested in, and those seeking
to explore, a holistic understanding of digital nomadism. Our contribution may also be beneficial for
driving the strategic decisions of commercial organisations, and the policy directions of governing
bodies, responding to digital nomadism and related concerns.
2 Literature Review Method
We operationalised the hermeneutic approach to literature review developed by Boell and Cecez-
Kecmanovic (2014). A hermeneutic literature review is characterised by interpretive, non-deterministic,
non-replicable incremental discovery and understanding of literature. This was an important distinction
for us, since there are many concepts and streams of literature that are related to digital nomadism but
do not explicitly use that label, or even synonyms of that label. Keyword searches and systematic
literature reviews would have therefore been unable to capture all relevant literature.
Accordingly, we started with a small set of highly relevant publications, and the resulting body of
literature was formed through the conceptual relatedness of additional papers’ contents, rather than the
semantic similarity of additional papers’ keywords. Although digital nomadism is still a very new
phenomenon, it was possible through a combination of initial keyword searches, subsequent
interpretation, and citation tracking to find a set of the most relevant articles (Müller 2016;
Dobrinskaya 2016; Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017; Schlagwein 2018; Reichenberger 2018; Nash et al.
2018; Thompson 2018). The defining characteristic of this set is that they all explicitly use the term
‘digital nomad’ and provide an overview of digital nomadism from some perspective. Through multiple
hermeneutic cycles, papers were discovered, read, re-read; and the direction of the literature search
changed in response. The final set of 64 relevant papers includes 42 research papers (from academic
journals and conferences, and chapters from edited volumes) and 22 papers from practitioners
literature and newspapers. We selected these papers based on their ability to shed light on the
phenomenon of digital nomadism, even if the papers were not specifically written about digital
Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
2018, Sydney Digital Nomadism: Theoretical Framings
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nomadism. The reading and mapping/classifying of contents within these articles allowed for a critical
assessment wherein three broad themes emerged; these are discussed in later sections of this paper.
Three dominant theoretical framings based on economy, culture, and technology were identified. This
is shown in Figure 1 below. Topics such as digital (computer-mediated) communication and lifehacking
emerged as the most relevant to explore under each broad theoretical framing. Subsequently, it was
necessary to find papers specifically related to each of these topics. The papers under each topic are
shown in Figure 1 around the circumference of the pie diagram in Figure 1 (only a sample of papers for
each topic is shown so that the text is still readable). Papers published at academic outlets such as
conferences and journals are shown in bold text whereas other sources such as newspaper articles and
practitioner books are shown in italics. Referring to non-academic literature was appropriate because
many concepts – for example, lifehacking’ – emerged from such writing (e.g. Allen 2001; Ferriss 2007).
Figure 1. Outcome of the hermeneutic literature review of relevant literature.
3 Theoretical Framing 1: Digital Nomadism as Economic Activity
A portion of the reviewed literature suggests to theoretically frame digital nomadism as a new economic
model. This view focuses on the underlying factors of production and sees digital work such as that
conducted by digital nomads as a new form of economic activity. Digital nomadism exemplifies how
this activity blurs the borders of old dichotomies such as production-or-consumption and customer-or-
citizen. Businesses and governments, the majority of which are modelled on these established traditions,
may find it helpful to adapt to such a conflation of previously separated concerns a conflation that is
not exclusive to digital nomads, but which is saliently exemplified by them.
3.1 Digital Factors of Production
There is a lack of consensus in the literature about what constitutes digital work. Some propose the
definition of digital work as the use of “digital tools to produce digital goods” (Durward et al. 2016; Mrass
et al. 2017). Others propose a definition of digital work as essentially knowledge work; and thus, digital
Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
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nomadism strictly as a type of knowledge work (Nash et al. 2018; Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017).
Orlikowski and Scott (2016) propose a particularly broad definition wherein “work today always entails
the digital; even where the work itself doesn’t directly involve a computing device”.
To understand the implications of digital nomadism as an example of digital work, it is important to first
establish a clear definition of digital work. To this end, the hermeneutic cycles of the literature review
took us to the conceptualisation of work at the heart of the modern economy: work as defined by its
factors of production (Smith 1776), or as Marx (1867) labels them, the means of production. In either
case, there are three factors of production: the labour (human effort involved in the work); the subject
matter (the materials to which labour is applied, alternatively known as “land” or simply “subjects”);
and the instruments (the reusable assets that assist human labour on the subject matter). Digital work,
then, can be understood to be work in which digital technology has transformed factors of production.
This can be seen in the case of the digital nomad. Labour is increasingly organised through distributed
digital systems such as JIRA, Asana, and Google Calendar (Nash et al. 2018). Subject matter is
increasingly digital data forming materials such as documents, statistics, audio/video recordings.
Finally, instruments of work are now less defined by their mechanical configurations like the machines
of the industrial revolution, and more defined by the bitstreams of digital data stored within the
machine: ones and zeroes representing software that defines an instrument’s ability to assist with work.
This definition is important for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a unifying explanation for the different
conceptualisations of digital work: Orlikowski and Scott’s (2016) definition refers to any work where
digital technologies have transformed any factor of production. Their characterisation of modern work
as “always entailing the digital” is therefore very reasonable. Meanwhile, the other definitions refer to
only to work where digital technologies have at least transformed the subject matter, hence the
characterisation of digital work as a subset of knowledge work. Secondly, understanding digital work as
the digital transformation of factors of production clarifies the meaning of “disruptive” technology-
driven phenomena such as digital nomadism. Such disruptiveterminology is often misunderstood by
key stakeholders in large organisations (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu 2012). Clarifying “disruption” in
terms originating in economics tradition, which such stakeholders are more likely to understand, is
therefore likely to be helpful. An example of a research question arising from this could be: How do
digital nomads, in their work, perform factors of production through different materialisations of
digital data?
3.2 Challenging Traditional Dichotomies
Although they are both are essentially providers of services, the traditional conceptualisation of
government is fundamentally different to that of private industry. Digital nomads, however, have been
said to reduce the nation state to merely yet another provider of services, namely residence and
citizenship. This has come about from digital nomads’ ability to quickly move between jurisdictions;
they effectively “hire and fire governments” (Crichton 2018). Even when digital nomads are residing
within a state, the governing bodies may find it hard to exert as much influence as with more permanent
residents. Digital nomadism leverages new technology platforms that are notoriously difficult to
regulate. To obtain affordable and flexible accommodation arrangements, digital nomads have been
known to rely on the grey-market housing service Airbnb (Nash et al. 2018; Sutherland and Jarrahi
2017). Existing literature has demonstrated that this service has significant implications for urban
planning (Sans and Quaglieri 2016), and poses issues for regulation (Leshinsky and Schatz 2018;
Edelman and Geradin 2016). Digital nomads’ finances are also difficult for governments to track. In
addition to moving funds between jurisdictions using payment-processing services such as PayPal and
Transferwise (Nash et al. 2018), digital nomads are actively exploring the opportunities of
cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017), which cannot be regulated by
governments using traditional monetary policy (Middlebrook and Hughes 2014).
In addition to the dichotomy of public versus private organisations, economics tradition has an
established dichotomy of production versus consumption (Ayres and Kneese 1969). This has recently
been challenged by examples such as self-crafted luxury goods (Kim and Kwon 2017), self-service and
peer production (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010), and tourism (Ateljevic 2000). The digital nomad joins
this array of examples, being at the intersection of travel, leisure, and work (Müller 2016; Reichenberger
2018), becoming a hybrid of a travelling businessperson and a backpacker. The implications of these
two very different social figures becoming one “flashpacker” is identified by Müller (2016) as being
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2018, Sydney Digital Nomadism: Theoretical Framings
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relatively uncharted in the literature. There is established literature in that digital nomads are similar to
freelancers in the gig economy (Nash et al. 2018; Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017), wherein an individual
is also an entrepreneur and indeed their own company, and hence required to manage personal brand
image, pursue potential clients (Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017), and build client trust from afar despite a
potentially very unusual working arrangement from the client’s perspective (Leitner 2016). In this
context, it is observed that not only are consumption and production interweaved in a digital nomad’s
schedule, but in some cases, consumption directly enables production, particularly as many digital
nomads work in some sort of journalism (Nash et al. 2018) such as travel blogging, food and restaurant
review, and video-blogging (vlogging). Even when consumption is not directly linked to production, the
interleaving of the two creates a “conflation of perpetual travel and work”, the consequences of which
are not yet fully understood, though existing discourse about the challenges of work-life balance may be
relevant (Haking 2018; Nash et al. 2018). Effectively, these “prosumers” a portmanteau of professional
and consumer (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010) – blend typical consumption activities into their factors of
production: they may repurpose consumer electronics as instruments of production, adapt the domain
of their leisure as the subject matter of their work; and organise labour using the same platforms that
they use to connect with friends and family, e.g. Facebook.
The status quo nonetheless remains that the established production/consumption dichotomy dominates
strategy formulation. Governments still organise territory as residential versus commercial, and
businesses still market products to either consumers (B2C) or other businesses (B2B). Yet those who
have already adapted their strategy to move away from the dichotomy have been successful. A typical
example is Apple, who sell the same products to both consumers and producers, and has reaped the
benefits of doing so: their positive brand image is asserted across both segments, positioning them as a
known supplier for prosumers (Gerhardt 2010). Meanwhile, Apple’s competitor Dell, who in fact
launched a “digital nomads” website in 2008 to promote their business laptops (Shiels 2008), continue
to follow the producer/consumer dichotomy and have since abandoned said “digital nomads” website.
For the strategies of both businesses and governments, digital nomadism therefore represents both
opportunities and threats. The new players like Airbnb and cryptocurrency management companies
have capitalised on the digital nomadism phenomenon and profited accordingly. There is an opportunity
for governments, too, since governments provide a safety net around workers through the provision of
healthcare, aged care, and labour market policies governing workers’ rights such as working hours, paid
family leave, and workplace justice (e.g. outlawing unfair dismissal and unjust discrimination); being
detached from government for the sake of freedom means sacrificing such things for the sake of freedom
(Thompson 2018). Some governments proactively attract digital nomads and thus enhance their
technology sector; notably the example of Estonia, through their e-residency programme (Gat 2018).
However, this has not been without risk; a nomad-friendly business may stumble due to an unfavourable
regulatory climate as with Airbnb in Japan (McCurry 2018), and a nomad-friendly government may
stumble due to an unfavourable business climate as Estonia experienced with their local banks closing
foreigners’ business accounts (Vahtla 2018). As these circumstances unravel, so too will research
opportunities emerge to better understand how service providers including business operators, and
indeed, even the government as a “hireable and fireable” provider of public services might best
respond. An example of a research question arising from this could be: How do traditional service
providers, including government bodies, respond strategically to digital nomadism?
4 Theoretical Framing 2: Digital Nomadism as a Cultural
Phenomenon
A portion of the reviewed literature suggests to theoretically frame digital nomadism as a cultural
phenomenon. Digital nomads fly the proverbial flag of the lifehacking subculture popularised in the
early mid-2000s in a way that is reminiscent of the journeymen of old. It has yet to be fully understood
how digital nomads’ unique positioning within cultures impacts the way they work and do business with
others. However, given the particularly salient cultural contexts in which digital nomads operate, and
the uniquely-positioned concern that these cultural contexts have for work ethic and work-life balance,
it would be quite likely that a deeper understanding of digital nomadism’s cultural aspects would be
beneficial for the strategic decision-making activities of businesses and governments.
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4.1 Self-Actualisation and the Lifehacking Subculture
Lifehacking is a recent subculture emerging in industrialised nations, closely associated with digital
nomadism. Since the label “lifehacking” was first introduced by O'Brien (2004), lifehacking has come to
refer to a worldview in which the challenges of one’s life can be overcome using techniques analogous to
hacking into a computer system. Accordingly, the lifehacking subculture is characterised by an affinity
for autonomy, proactivity, and self-actualisation fulfilled through technical competence (Britton 2015;
Thomas 2015). Digital nomads, who are characterised by self-actualisation (Müller 2016) and autonomy
(Reichenberger 2018), are therefore closely affiliated with the lifehacking subculture. In particular, two
prominent works (Potts 2010) from this subculture have become integral to the digital nomad’s way of
life (Schlagwein 2018): The Four Hour Work Week by Ferriss (2007), and Getting Things Done (GTD)
by Allen (2001). The former popularised digital nomadism (Haking 2018; Schlagwein 2018), and the
latter is a procedure for managing information overload typical of what mobile workers such as digital
nomads experience (Koroma and Vartiainen 2018; Sutherland and Jarrahi 2017) which has become
so influential that it has guided (Chait 2017) the design of the productivity software popular among
digital nomads (Nash et al. 2018). The GTD procedure is notable for introducing the concept of
“actionability” (Allen 2001), referring to the differentiation between, on one hand, information that
represents the organisation of labour, and on the other hand, information used as instruments or
subjects of labour.
There is relatively little literature exploring the impacts of the lifehacking subculture and the GTD
procedure on work practices and outcomes in general, let alone in a digital nomadism context. The
literature that does exist is primarily focused on the cultural significance of lifehacking (Thomas 2015),
techniques to best implement GTD (Hernandez-Capel et al. 2011) and psychological outcomes of both
GTD (Heylighen and Vidal 2008) and lifehacking in general (Potts 2010). One comment that has been
made within the existing discourse, though, is that lifehacking is, at least conceptually, in opposition to
the bureaucratic managerial practices originating in the industrial revolution (Potts 2010). This is
implicit in the “hacking” within “lifehacking”, that there is something to “hack” and challenge. As seen
in, for example, their implications for the traditional structure of economy, digital nomads are indeed
challenging many established institutions to fulfil their desires. Future research may do well to
understand how the digital nomads’ potentially counter-cultural philosophical position affects how they
relate to potentially bureaucratic business partners such as large corporate clients and government
bodies. The findings may have implications for the strategies adopted by both digital nomads and their
business partners to bridge what may be a significant gap in work ethic and working culture. An example
of a research question arising from this could be: How do the values and attitudes within the lifehacking
subculture drive the trajectory of digital nomadism in relation to the role of work in one’s life?
4.2 Digital Nomadism as the New Wanderjahre
Digital nomadism is not the first instance in human history in which post-agricultural societies have
seen the rapid technology-enabled mobilisation of workers; an example of such a historical precedent
can be seen in the Wanderjahre. In Medieval Europe, young tradespeople essentially, the technology
workers of that era had a tradition of “taking to the road” (auf der Walz), travelling from town to town
for a fixed period of two to three years (the Wanderjahre), carrying the tools of their craft, to enhance
their personal and professional skills while free of personal attachments such as marriage (Eddy 2017).
This tradition was spread to other European-influenced regions such as Australia, where the popular
folk song Waltzing Matilda describes a particularly belligerent participant of this tradition (Davis 2013).
These so-called “journeymen” (Wandergesellen) were established within society as parallel to the
merchant class and often taken on board as apprentices by master craftspeople (Smail 1987). Though
the Wanderjahre phenomenon disappeared during the course of the Industrial Revolution and the two
World Wars, it has experienced a renaissance among tradespeople who have continued traditions such
as initiation rites, strict community rules, and avoiding modern always-on connectivity such as mobile
phones. Above all, what one modern journeyman said he appreciated most is the “freedom” afforded by
his lifestyle (Eddy 2017).
There are strong parallels between digital nomadism and the Wanderjahre. Digital nomads are also
typically young and of a particular profession that enables or encourages their travel, and they too value
highly their exceptional freedom (Reichenberger 2018). They are also typically young and single, though
Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
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not exclusively; there are also digital nomads that travel together with a partner or family (Wood 2005;
Reichenberger 2018), and indeed, traditional nomadism is deeply rooted in “the priority of the nomad’s
family” (Dobrinskaya 2016). Yet the lack of attachments remains a persistent theme. Indeed, an
assumption in the “1 billion nomads by 2035” forecast loosely extrapolated by Levels (2015) from public
datasets is that the concept of the family will continue to deviate from traditional views such that by
2035, less than 40% of society will be married. This would ostensibly enable the mobility that facilitates
widespread digital nomadism.
Future research may investigate how, if at all, digital nomads are similar to their journeymen
counterparts. It is, for example, not well understood whether digital nomads are usually committed to a
nomadic lifestyle for their entire lives, or if their intention is usually to have their own short-term
Wanderjahre before settling down into a more traditional lifestyle. If digital nomadism does continue
to grow to be a significant portion of society, as some speculate it will, government policy and business
strategies would do well to adapt likewise, just as master craftspeople adapted to journeymen by taking
them on as apprentices. If the so-called information revolution is indeed as significant in humanity’s
historical narrative as the agricultural and industrial revolution, then the digital nomad, a key figure of
this information revolution (Dobrinskaya 2016), is surely worth fully comprehending. An example of a
research question arising from this could be: How could the trajectory of digital nomadism be better
understood by examining its historical precedents?
5 Theoretical Framing 3: Digital Nomadism as a Technology-
Enabled Form of Working and Organising
A portion of the reviewed literature suggests to theoretically frame digital nomadism as a new
technology-enabled form of working and organising. This section presents the literature review of digital
nomadism with respect to the underlying technological infrastructure, and the significance of
technology for digital nomads’ interpersonal communication. It will be seen that, despite some
optimistic views about digital nomadism in recent times, present-day infrastructure has yet to fully
enable digital nomadism as it was originally conceptualised and the computer-mediated communication
that digital nomads employ has not always been found adequate. Nonetheless, the progress that has
been hitherto made has enabled reduction in regional inequality and brought with it advances in digital
working patterns that challenge established understandings of digital communication altogether, and
business and governments may benefit richly from advancing in step with such progress.
5.1 Telecommunications Infrastructure and Contradictions
At its core, digital nomadism is enabled by advances in technology. Makimoto and Manners (1997), who
first introduced the term “digital nomad”, presented digital nomadism as a consequence of advances in
electronics engineering, defined by the ability to connect any two points on the planet by “video link” to
facilitate exchanges of “people, documents, and pictures”. Two decades later, the proliferation of
internet access has indeed enabled digital nomads to connect to distant points across the planet, and
indeed often by video (Kassel 2018; Schlagwein 2018). Internet connection speeds are crucial since slow
internet speeds limit all three factors of production. Organisation of labour (e.g. task lists) may not be
conveyed due to outages; digital subject matter is not transferred through the digital supply chain; and
even instruments may be rendered unusable due to the increasing preference for cloud-based software
(Nash et al. 2018).
However, fast internet access is not consistently available. Though digital nomads favour “exotic”
locations (Reichenberger 2018), being “exotic” is generally unhelpful for internet access, since
infrastructure is fixed and requires large investments by companies and governments. Nomadism
implies geographic mobility, but “basic physics” means that a wireless connection is almost always
slower than a wired one (Gong and Karlsson 2016). There are hence certain “hot spots” for digital
nomads, and thus present-day digital nomadism has yet to fully fulfil the original 1997 vision.
Nonetheless, the advances that have been hitherto made have already helped reduce regional inequality.
In Australia, for example, there is currently an interest at a national level in reducing regional inequality
(Parliament of Australia 2018). Digital nomadism has already demonstrated a potential to improve
economic productivity in areas outside of capital cities, such as the Southern Tablelands (Black 2018)
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and Byron Bay (D'Andrea 2006). Other countries have seen similar regional rebalancing: in the
neighbouring country of Indonesia, digital nomadism enabled by the installation of fibre-optic
internet connectivity just six years ago has completely so much reshaped the former “village” of Ubud
into a “diversifying international town” such that those once familiar with it no longer recognise it as
such (MacRae 2016). Thus, examples of research questions that could be useful for strategic policy-
setting include: How does the tension between the affordances and constraints of current technology
impact the work practices of digital nomads? How do infrastructure investments such as the NBN
influence the decisions of digital nomads to move to regional areas? What are the impacts on regional
areas when digital nomads do indeed move to them.
5.2 Digital Collaboration and Communication
Of all the factors of production that are being digitally transformed, the organisation of labour has often
been characterised as the most problematic for digital work, being complex and requiring effective
communication. This is particularly so when the organisation of labour is manifested as collaborative
decision-making or as the sharing of advice (Boell et al. 2016). Yet computer-mediated communication
(CMC) is exclusively how digital nomads communicate with their clients. The literature is characterised
by a lack of consensus about the efficacy of CMC in such remote-working arrangements. Müller (2016)
interprets Sheller and Urry (2006) regarding digital nomadism thusly: that, due to contemporary
communication and collaboration systems, it is now the case that “physical presence of the participants
is no longer necessary” (Müller 2016, p. 344). This is at odds with persistent claims (e.g., Brumma 2016;
Fonner and Roloff 2012; Gajendran and Harrison 2007; Ogara et al. 2014) that CMC and virtual
presence are still inferior to face-to-face communication and physical presence, particularly in
teleworking contexts of which digital nomadism is a specific example.
Nevertheless, digital nomads have been able to survive despite the apparent constraints of their
exclusively digital communication. One possible explanation is that traditional perspectives such as
media richness theory (Daft and Lengel 1986) and media naturalness theory (Kock 2005) are excessively
focused on the channel of communication and whether that channel is inherently “rich”/”natural” or
“lean”/”noisy”. Communication is, in that instance, a matter of accurately representing an objective
external reality. In reality, the digital nomad employs a vast ecosystem of technology platforms enabling
digital nomads to conduct their work (Nash et al. 2018): profession-specific tools (GitHub, Adobe
Creative Cloud), general tools (Slack, Skype), productivity aids (Trello, Asana), and online communities
with which to seek new work (LinkedIn, Medium, Upwork, Remoteok) or assist one another
(NomadList, Hacker Paradise; Twitter, meetup.com, Facebook). In this instance, communication is
about co-creating a new digital reality rather than recreating an existing external reality. Authors such
as Nash et al. (2018) and Orlikowski and Scott (2016) argue that best explanation for this phenomenon
is the sociomateriality worldview with its pillars of performativity (reality is co-created rather than
captured) and entanglement (the inseparable intra-acting of people and technology in ever-evolving
“assemblages”). Future research may investigate the sociomateriality of digital nomadism to understand
how digital nomads seem to have achieved what literature often characterises as highly impractical:
work entirely remotely with no face-to-face communication with business partners. This theoretical
discourse has significant implications for business strategies and policy-setting. The business case for
infrastructure investments such as Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is often framed
primarily in terms of video conferencing and being able to recreate face-to-face communication, and the
objection is often framed in terms of whether video conferencing and recreating face-to-face
communication is really the main objective (NBN Co 2017; ABC 2014). A paradigm shift may help these
stakeholders better articulate, and thus leverage, the benefits of the technology. An example of a research
question arising from this could be: How do digital nomads perform effective communication in the
digital space to cope with their limited ability to conduct face-to-face business?
6 Discussion
We have presented the state of current understanding about digital nomadism. Although prior studies
have considered in depth the digital nomads’ personal lifestyles, there has been relatively little in-depth
consideration of how digital nomads fit into broader historical narratives, particularly regarding how
they work, and how this may relate to the strategic positioning of businesses and governments. We have
explicated this as six topics segmented into the three broad theoretical framings of the economic, the
Australasian Conference on Information Systems Wang, Schlagwein, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Cahalane
2018, Sydney Digital Nomadism: Theoretical Framings
9
cultural, and the technological. We have made a number of contributions to Information Systems (IS)
research in relation to each of these topics by highlighting hitherto relatively neglected considerations
and setting a research agenda for them:
To better understand digital nomadism as an economic phenomenon, further develop a
theoretical framework of the digital enactment of factors of production, and further investigate
the consequences of blurring boundaries of public/private and consumption/production;
To better understand digital nomadism as a cultural phenomenon, investigate the influences of
the lifehacking subculture and its related concepts (e.g. GTD) and explicate the fundamental
similarities between digital nomadism and the traditional Wanderjahre with respect to the
future of the digital nomad and the digital nomad’s life plan;
To better understand digital nomadism as a technological phenomenon, investigate the impact
of the constraints of the underlying technological including telecommunications infrastructure
and the configuration of computer-mediated communication platforms.
Our contribution is constrained by the relative recency of the digital nomadism phenomenon and the
consequently relatively small number of papers to consider. The phenomenon is very likely to continue
to shift in unpredictable ways that, as with the current state, call for an interdisciplinary approach as
well as multiple philosophical backgrounds. For example, a deeper consideration of the socio-cultural
issues may likely require insights from traditions in the study of culture such as ethnographic principles;
whereas a deeper consideration of the technological issues may likely require further insights from the
literature on, for example, digital transformation; and a deeper consideration of the economic issues is
very likely to require a serious consideration of the critical analysis of, for example, Marx (1867) in
relation to modern capitalism and how this transposes into the digital era, for example, the contestation
and reconfiguration of established orders of worth and institutional logics (Schlagwein 2018).
7 Conclusion
Digital nomads are teleworkers whose extreme geographic mobility allows them to work and live from
anywhere, enabled by the digitising of their factors of production. They therefore choose to work from
everywhere, living a life of ongoing interleaved work and travel. We may understand digital nomadism
as an example of economic activity, wherein digital nomads challenge traditional dichotomies such as
production/consumption and government/business. We may understand digital nomadism as a cultural
phenomenon arising from lifehacking subculture and fulfilling a modern analogue of the wandering
journeymen of old. We may understand digital nomadism as an example of limited but effective
technological progress, wherein underlying infrastructure and subsequent digital communications are
imperfect but have allowed significant progress to be made in terms of regional inequality and flexible
working. As we continue to refine our understanding of digital nomadism, we open up many possibilities
for businesses and governments to respond strategically to digital nomadism.
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Acknowledgements
One of the co-authors of this paper is conducting this research with the assistance of the Commonwealth
of Australia through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Copyright
Copyright: © 2018 authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Australia License, which permits non-commercial use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and ACIS are credited.
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