This article was originally written for and published at N-O-D-E on October 18th, 2016. It has been posted here for safe keeping.
THE EVOLUTION OF DIGITAL NOMADICS
In the Autumn of 1983, Steven K. Roberts pedaled off on a recumbent bicycle and pioneered a new revolution in the way people worked.
Stuck in the drudgery of suburban Ohio, Steve was bored. He had many possessions, a house, and work as a technology consultant and freelance writer. Steve desired adventure and felt like taking a risk, so he sold off all of his possessions, put his house on the market, cut ties with friends and family, and gave up his steady employment. He sacrificed the security he had built up over the years and invested in a custom bicycle, the “Winnebiko” which he would ride 10,000 miles across the U.S. for the next 18 months. “My world was no longer limited by the constraints of time and distance—or even responsibility. The thought was both delicious and unsettling, and I suddenly realized, alone in this unfamiliar city, that I was as close to ‘home’ as I would be for a long time,” Steve wrote in a book about his travels, Computing Across America, published in 1988.
The Winnebiko was not your ordinary bicycle. Apart from the custom frame and hand-picked parts, Steve outfitted his rig with solar panels, lights, radios, a security system, and most importantly a TRS-80 portable computer. Traveling the country from couch to hostel and everywhere in-between, Steve continued to work as a freelance writer, documenting his adventures. Jacking into borrowed phone lines for Internet access in the late night or writing from the comfort of an abandoned chair on the side of a snowy mountain, Steve was working in a way that was unconventional for the time.
Steve coined a term for himself, the “technomad,” combining the concepts of high-technology with traditional nomadics (the latter possibly being influenced in-part by nomadics as they were presented in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a counter-culture publication promoting self-sufficiency and the do-it-yourself attitude in 1968). Later, Steve would construct more complex and technologically-enhanced bicycles for future long-term journeys.
The concept of “telecommuting” was not new in 1983, as the term had been created a decade earlier by Jack Niles, former NASA engineer, to describe remote work done via dumb terminal. By the 1990’s, after Steve’s original adventure, telecommuting had taken the world by storm and continued to grow. By the early 2010’s, almost half of the U.S. population reported to be working remotely at least part time. Remote work was starting to go mainstream.
But then there are people like Steve. What became of this movement to leave it all behind and work from the open road? By the late 1990’s we saw the use of the phrase “Digital Nomad” in the Makimoto and Manners book of the same name to explore the concept of digital nomadics and determine its sustainability. The infrastructure to support the lifestyle was improving as well. We saw the inclusion of WiFi technology in laptop computers and the rise of payment systems such as PayPal to support a generation of online-only workers on-the-move.
As time progressed, we only saw more of the tech-savvy convert to the rambling lifestyle, with bolder individuals traveling all over the world, settling down for days, weeks, or months at a time before picking up and starting all over. Today, more companies are providing this opportunity to their employees, with some outfits never actually meeting their workers face-to-face. Employees enjoy the flexibility while employers enjoy cherry-picking applicants from a larger pool and reduced overhead costs previously spent in office space. Various communities have popped up such as /r/digitalnomad (https://www.reddit.com/r/digitalnomad) and /r/vandwellers (https://www.reddit.com/r/vandwellers) to offer support for the grizzled vagabonds and tips to the bright-eyed newcomers. Here, you may find advice for what to carry, how to travel on a shoe-string budget, and lists of companies that are nomad-friendly.
In popular culture, we see the idea of the digital nomad becoming more prevalent. For example, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One features the character Aech who lives in and works out of a recreational vehicle. As the future comes into view, we can only expect more people to work remotely and live simply, embracing the freedom of change and fighting to avoid complacency. The technology is only becoming more accommodating as equipment becomes smaller, faster, and reliably connected in even the most rugged of situations. We not only see a rise in letting employees work where they want, but also when they want. Now that a network connection can exist within a jacket pocket, we are on the verge of the 24/7 worker, always on call. When your office isn’t anywhere, it’s everywhere. Some day soon, we may see digital nomads living in self-driving vehicles that methodically navigate the city limits while the occupant eats, sleeps, and works. Similar to Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, wherein the protagonist spends most of his day conducting business out of his moving soundproof, bulletproof limousine—a rolling fortress filled with computers and television screens—we may see this concept coming to fruition without the human behind the wheel.
As for Steve, he is still living the technomadic life, but is more drawn to the offerings of the water as opposed to the open road. “I’m now immersed in nautical projects, as well as building some substrate-independant technomadic tools,” Steve writes to me after I purchased a handful of issues of The Journal of High-Tech Nomadness, Steve’s own long out-of-print paper periodical.
Whether you do most of your work in an office or a coffee shop, you cannot deny that things are changing for the modern employee as they become more entwined with technology. “I’m riding a multi-megabyte Winnebiko with dozens of communications options, and more wonders lie just ahead,” Steve writes after upgrading his bicycle for his second journey. “[I]t is no longer very difficult to be a deeply involved, productive citizen of the world while wandering endlessly. Because once you move to Dataspace, you can put your body just about anywhere you like.”
BY MIKE DANK