On Becoming Nomads

Stephen DeAngelis

December 1, 2008

Earlier this year, The Economist published a series of articles discussing how wireless communications is changing our lives and making us nomads [“Our nomadic future,” 12 April 2008 print edition]. The article claims that you should expect “to see less of your office, more of your family — and still perhaps be unhappy.” I’m well aware how wireless communication permits a nomad’s lifestyle. I’m constantly on the road, away from the office, and, unfortunately, also away from my family. Were it not for wireless communication, I would not be able to run a company headquartered in the United States and continue personally to close business deals in the Middle East. I realize that my situation is a bit unique, but The Economist claims that we should all brace for change.

“Sometimes the biggest changes in society are the hardest to spot precisely because they are hiding in plain sight. It could well be that way with wireless communications. Something that people think of as just another technology is beginning to show signs of changing lives, culture, politics, cities, jobs, even marriages dramatically. In particular, it will usher in a new version of a very old idea: nomadism.”

The article admits that it is wandering a bit from economics and coming close to crossing over into science fiction. Someone once said (claims range from Yogi Berra to Niels Bohr), “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.” Whoever said it, it’s true. The reason it’s hard to predict is that we have a difficult time imagining discontinuities. We are much better at extrapolating the present into the future. The article continues:

“Futurology is a dangerous business, and it is true that most of the important arguments about mobile communications at the moment are to do with technology or regulation—bandwidth, spectrum use and so on. Yet it is worth jumping ahead … and wondering what the social effects [of wireless communications] will be, for two reasons. First, the broad technological future is pretty clear: there will be ever faster cellular networks, far more numerous Wi-Fi ‘hotspots’ and many more gadgets to connect to these networks. Second, the social changes are already visible: parents on beaches waving at their children while typing furtively on their BlackBerrys; entrepreneurs discovering they don’t need offices after all (if you need to recharge something, you just go to Starbucks); teenagers text-dumping their boyfriends. Everybody is doing more on the move.”

Twenty years ago it would have been difficult for me to put together a company like Enterra Solutions® and have much hope of it running smoothly. In the United States, I have employees based in Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC. I also have employees living in northern Iraq. Information age technologies have made all the difference. But The Economist is looking beyond virtual commuters, home offices, and the like and imagines a new class of workers that wanders like nomads.

“Ancient nomads went from place to place—and they had to take a lot of stuff with them (including their livelihoods and families). The emerging class of digital nomads also wander, but they take virtually nothing with them; wherever they go, they can easily reach people and information. And the barriers to entry are falling. You don’t have to be rich to be a nomad (wander round any American college campus if you doubt that). It is getting harder to find good excuses for being offline: … the European Union [now] allow[s] airlines to offer in-flight mobile-phone service, and several carriers have Wi-Fi. The gadgets, too, are getting ever smaller and more portable. A century ago some people saw the car merely as a faster horse, yet it led to entirely new cities, with suburbs and sprawl, to new retail cultures (megastores, drive-throughs), new dependencies (oil) and new health threats (sloth, obesity). By the same token, wireless technology is surely not just an easier-to-use phone. The car divided cities into work and home areas; wireless technology may mix them up again, with more people working in suburbs or living in city centres. Traffic patterns are beginning to change again: the rush hours at 9am and 5pm are giving way to more varied ‘daisy-chain’ patterns, with people going backwards and forwards between the office, home and all sorts of other places throughout the day. Already, architects are redesigning offices and universities: more flexible spaces for meeting people, fewer private enclosures for sedentary work.”

I’m not sure that what the article describes is exactly nomadism. It describes a mobile world, but not one where people periodically move their families and their belongings in a seasonal cycle. They aren’t describing a rootless society but a flexible one. Nevertheless, the next question the article asks is an important one.

“Will it be a better life? In some ways, yes. Digital nomadism will liberate ever more knowledge workers from the cubicle prisons of Dilbert cartoons. But the old tyranny of place could become a new tyranny of time, as nomads who are ‘always on’ all too often end up—mentally—anywhere but here (wherever here may be). As for friends and family, permanent mobile connectivity could have the same effect as nomadism: it might bring you much closer to family and friends, but it may make it harder to bring in outsiders. It might isolate cliques. Sociologists fret about constant e-mailers and texters losing the everyday connections to casual acquaintances or strangers who may be sitting next to them in the café or on the bus.”

That short paragraph addresses a number of serious issues. I can attest to the reality of the “tyranny of time.” The problem increases when you run an international business spread across more than half a dozen time zones. I’m sure the “bowling alone” syndrome is a concern, but in business I’m convinced that face-to-face contacts are going to remain critical. Had I not invested the time Kurdistan convincing government and business leaders of the benefits that Enterra Solutions could bring to them, I’m certain we would not now have an office in Erbil. The article continues:

“As for politics, the tools of nomadism—such as mobile phones that double as cameras—can improve the world. For instance, they turn practically everybody into a potential human-rights activist, ready to take pictures or video of police brutality. But the same tools have a dark side, turning everybody into a fully equipped paparazzo. Some fitness clubs have started banning mobile phones near the treadmills and showers lest patrons find themselves pictured, flabby and sweaty, on some website that future Google searches will happily turn up. As in the desert, so in the city: nomadism promises the heaven of new freedom, but it also threatens the hell of constant surveillance by the tribe.”

In subsequent articles contained in the special report on digital nomads, The Economist admits that it borrowed the term “nomad” to describe mobile workers from the Nomad Cafe in Oakland, CA, and from others such as Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Attali and others [“Nomads at last]. The Nomad Cafe’s owner opened his establishment to service “techno-bedouins.”

“As a word, vision and goal, modern urban nomadism has had the mixed blessing of a premature debut. In the 1960s and 70s Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the most influential media and communications theorist ever, pictured nomads zipping around at great speed, using facilities on the road and all but dispensing with their homes. In the 1980s Jacques Attali, a French economist who was advising president François Mitterrand at the time, used the term to predict an age when rich and uprooted elites would jet around the world in search of fun and opportunity, and poor but equally uprooted workers would migrate in search of a living. In the 1990s Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners jointly wrote the first book with ‘digital nomad’ in the title, adding the bewildering possibilities of the latest gadgets to the vision. But all of those early depictions and predictions of nomadism arguably missed the point. The mobile lifestyles currently taking shape around the world are nothing like those described in the old books.”

I’m not bold enough to predict how mobile technologies will change society only that they will. I can also state with certainty that most of the changes connectivity brings will be for the good. Nevertheless, the benefits will be laced with hazards. Telephones brought us both conversations with our loved ones and with telemarketers. The World Wide Web brought us both valuable information and pornography. Technology will continue to race ahead of regulations and connectivity is likely to restructure the fabric of society in yet to be determined ways. If we are wise, we will embrace the technology and legislate against its abuses. Efforts to restrict upstream content rather than downstream behavior will be alluring but illusive. There will always be critics of change and some individuals will always long for simpler days. Few of us, however, would really trade the benefits of modern technology if we fully recalled some of the challenges that existed in the good old days.