Digital Nomad

 

“Want to escape the office? Top 10 cities for digital nomads.” Headlines like these promoting the seemingly leisurely lifestyle are omnipresent these days, but what exactly does it mean to be a digital nomad? The term digital nomad consists of two separate nouns that both heavily influence its meaning. Digital nomads are part of a larger category of the ‘nomad’, which in its earliest forms referred to groups of people who trekked around to supply their herds with fresh pasture. Currently, the term includes anyone who can be characterized as “[a] member of a people that travels from place to place … and has no permanent home.”

While the use of the nomad word has been mostly stable over time, ‘digital’, on the other hand, has only been on the rise since the last few decades. Interestingly enough, this term dates back to the 15th century, albeit to denote something entirely different. The word, which was then understood as “a whole number less than ten”, is now most commonly used to describe any practice involving digital technology. Not surprisingly, many forms of modern digital technology do still use 15th century digital numbers as input. In order to understand the concept of the digital nomad, however, the current definition of the word digital is especially relevant.

While some claim that people were living as digital nomads as early as 1983, the term only became properly defined in 1997 when Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners published a manifesto by the same name. [1] The digital nomadism they envisioned involved “location independen[t work], mass nomadic-temporary cities, diminishing governments and national borders, project-based work, less material consumerism, [and] a sharing economy.” [2] The current use of the word shares a lot with this idea.

One way in which digital nomadism has been understood is through the types of work, namely digital and gig work, these people engage in. Their work is digital because the tools they use as well as the products they create exist entirely in the digital realm. [3] Moreover, their work tends to be gig work, which means that it is often short term and based on demand. [4] The flexibility that both digital and gig work provide, allow the digital nomad to pursue their lifestyle. Without the invention of either laptops or wireless internet, digital nomads would not have been able to work in the same way. [5] Similarly, long-term contracts do not allow workers the same freedom as gig work does.

The work of digital nomads is distinctly nomadic because it is not only characterized by movement between countries but also between workspaces. [6] The lack of a permanent workspace blurs the boundaries between the digital nomad’s life and work. [7] In contrast with other nomadic workers, the digital nomad does not “travel for their work, … [but] travels while working”, thus obscuring distinction between the realms of life and work even further. [8] Moreover, like any nomad, their non-stationary lifestyle limits their access to resources and support systems. [9] It might also reduce the amount of meaningful interactions, both work-related and otherwise, that a digital nomad has. [10]

Various solutions for these problems have already been designed. Online platforms for digital nomad communities keep emerging, and some governments also actively support the lifestyle. Estonia, for example, launched a so-called ‘Digital Nomad Visa’ which aims to “mak[e] borderless working a reality for digital nomads everywhere.” Coworking might also solve some of the issues that digital nomads face. This mode of work allows workers to temporarily rent desks within flexible community-based spaces. [11] Interestingly, programs like the Estonian ‘Digital Nomad Visa’ have also been created by networks of coworking spaces, and make the transition between these semi-permanent work environments much smoother. [12] Regardless of these initiatives, the potential of digital nomadism still has limits. As more and more workers decide to become digital nomads, the term becomes increasingly relevant for illustrating the present conditions of work. However, if modern forms of work, such as digital nomadism, remain based on requirements like flexibility and borderless-ness, they will not be available to everyone.

[1]  Thompson, Beverly Yuen, “Digital Nomads: Employment in the Online Gig Economy.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1 (2018): 1-26., 1.

[2] Thompson, Beverly Yuen, “Digital Nomads: Employment in the Online Gig Economy.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1 (2018): 1-26., 2.

[3] Nash, Caleece, Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, Will Sutherland, and Gabriela Phillips, “Digital Nomads Beyond the Buzzword: Defining Digital Nomadic Work and Use of Digital Technologies.” Transforming Digital Worlds Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2018, 207-17., 3

[4] Thompson, Beverly Yuen, “Digital Nomads: Employment in the Online Gig Economy.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1 (2018): 1-26., 4.

[5] Saval, Nikil, “New Trends in Office Design” (2014): 1-11, 5.

[6] Saval, Nikil, “New Trends in Office Design” (2014): 1-11, 5.

[7] Saval, Nikil, “New Trends in Office Design” (2014): 1-11, 9.; Janet Merkel, “Coworking in the City” ephemera: theory&politics in organization (2015): 121-139, 126

[8] Thompson, Beverly Yuen, “Digital Nomads: Employment in the Online Gig Economy.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1 (2018): 1-26., 6, 7.

[9] Thompson, Beverly Yuen, “Digital Nomads: Employment in the Online Gig Economy.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1 (2018): 1-26., 4, 6.

[10] Saval, Nikil, “New Trends in Office Design” (2014): 1-11, 9

[11] Janet Merkel, “Coworking in the City” ephemera: theory&politics in organization (2015): 121-139, 122.

[12] Janet Merkel, “Coworking in the City” ephemera: theory&politics in organization (2015): 121-139, 125.

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