Culture & Collectives: Digital Nomads

Source: Jacob Waites on Medium

For centuries, people have migrated to cities to find work, community, and culture.

A new city might become a permanent home, or it might be a stopping point on a search for a better life. This migration is nothing new — during the Great Depression, hobos crisscrossed the United States in search of work. The transformative technology of the railway system enabled a way for people to chart their own course out of economic hardship, and gave rise to a way of life that persisted in hobo culture for decades to come. Eventually, after the Great Depression and as early as the 50s and 60s, people started traveling to work not just because they had to, but because they could.¹ In a very different world than their predecessors, these people had stand-up jobs and families but still chose to live their lives in a manner that didn’t conform to the traditional office workplace standard of society, brought together by a “common disdain for convention.” ²

Today, many of us still move around in search of work, but connective technologies (i.e. the internet) also enable the work to travel with us, so we can work from anywhere. This has given rise to a new type of traveling worker, the digital nomad, who has no permanent home, but lives and works while perpetually traveling. This group covers a wide range of people, from the highly-visible $5,000-per-post Instagram influencer, to the English teacher who sees teaching abroad as a way to travel the world while also living on a modest teacher’s salary.

The term digital nomad might conjure a clichéd image of someone working on their laptop from a beach in the Caribbean or from within a tent parked in a remote location, but a more acute picture might be the person being kicked out of a local cafe for sitting too long without ordering something. This highlights the digital nomad’s cultural problem of finding a place to work that’s receptive to a work style (and, by proxy, a lifestyle) that doesn’t fit traditional norms. (This is a challenge also shared by freelancers, students, and many entrepreneurs.)

Getting to know Digital Nomads

CoLab’s interest in digital nomads was sparked by our explorations of tech-enabled smart cities, which present new ways for citizens and visitors to engage with civic life. Given technology’s potential to isolate as much as it connects, we felt the need to make sure that smart cities maintain (or enhance) community for all users of a city, even those just passing through.

We began with a round of user interviews with digital nomads, researching their day-to-day activities, pain points, and the values they held close after choosing to live life outside of the office.

(We’ll focus on three key learnings below, but a decent primer on the digital nomad life exists here.)

Nomads are nomads for a variety of reasons

For some, perpetual travel is a romantic privilege because they are paid well by tech work or they produce branded content as highly sought-after influencers, but some of the digital nomads we spoke to did not work in tech. Many digital nomads choose this way of life partly because of rising housing costs and lack of permanent jobs at home. Choosing a digital nomad life is still a first-world option, but not all digital nomads have the same level of privilege or opportunities.

Read more here