Digital Nomads: A Concise History.

Let's begin with what all credible researchers do; a Wikipedia definition. According to that beloved source :

‘Digital nomads are people who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living and, more generally, conduct their life in a nomadic manner.’
— wikipedia

Yeah, sounds about right? Are we done here? (not quite, about 5414 more words to go . . . )

It’s uncertain where the whole idea really came from. Humans have been ‘nomadic’ since the dawn of time, and although the history and culture of the nomad is rich and extensive, Digital Nomads really aren’t the same as the Native Americans that roamed the Great Planes back in 1715 to hunt Bison. As much as I’d like to use the introduction of the horse by the Spanish to the Natives as a comparison to modern day digital nomads and the invention of the internet as an enabler to a nomadic lifestyle, I just don’t really think they are the same thing. 

So let's start a little closer to home with one of the first known pioneers of the Digital Nomad movement. 1983 was the year Steve Roberts decided to ditch the office and create a ‘computerised recumbent bicycle’ which he then used to travel around the US while still making a living as a full-time freelance writer. He pretty much had it all sussed back then already;

 
‘I see it every day—the longing, the envy, the faraway look. It’s in the faces of businessmen, sweating under their three-piece suits and regarding me over the remains of expense-account lunches. It’s in the faces of newspaper reporters who realize a few minutes into an interview that I am living their dream. It’s in faces old and faces young, faces barely tanned from a too-short Florida vacation and faces pallid that turn to catch a quick glimpse as I zip past the office window. It’s everywhere, for it’s a universal lust—the lust for freedom.’
— Steve Roberts

But things where a bit different in the 80’s. Steve described his bicycle as ‘an 8-foot-long, high-tech extravaganza that combines the latest in human-powered vehicle research, portable computers, and solar power technology.’ But back then the idea of a portable computer was truly ground braking, laptops and tablets where just a twinkle in a certain fruit loving lads eye and wi-fi wouldn't show up for another couple of years. So the idea of being able to work away from a brick and mortar office was just not feasible at that time. If you needed a computer to work, that computer needed to be plugged in, even if you could unplug it I can guarantee you wouldn’t fit one of those monsters in your carry-on allowance. So what Steve did was truly quite remarkable for it’s time. 

By 1995 there are approximately 20-30 million people using the internet, wi-fi is pottering around somewhere trying to figure out what it is, and two years later in 1997 the first ever publication dedication to digital nomads is born. Digital Nomad by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners explored how ‘New digital technologies promise to enable large numbers of people to work wherever and whenever they wish and to choose between a stationary or nomadic lifestyle.’

In 1998 Paypal arrives and by 1999 the whole idea of actually becoming a digital nomad becomes relatively feasible for the masses. Laptops became more effective and affordable and the first site dedicated to getting freelance work was launched, Elance, with the tagline ‘Changing the way the world works.’ 

 
On Your Knee's . . .

On Your Knee's . . .

 

By 2000 360 million people are now using the internet. Over the next 5 years, launches of online services such as Skype, O-desk (formerly Elance, presently Up work) allow for real-time communication and collaboration between remote employees, it’s business as usual. 

By 2009 the early adopters of this travel/work concept are well established, Tim Ferris wrote the New York Times best seller 4 hour work week, that according to Christine Gilbert from www.almostfearless.com inspired ‘a generation of travellers to take their careers on the road’ Although she also points out that  ‘Almost no digital nomads claim to work only four hours a week.’

Over the next 5-6 years, Digital Nomading becomes a business in itself. The Digital Nomad Academy was started by Cody McKibben offering mentorship and community for aspiring digital nomads. Travel blogging and blogging, in general becomes more marketing focused, with big brands using individual ‘influencers’ or bloggers with large followings to promote products and locations. Was it all just a bunch of pretentious bloggers prancing around the world taking photos of themselves with some new trainers pretending to have an authentic travel experience and perfectly curated lifestyle while actually getting paid for it? 

As the popularity of blogging has slowed over the past 3 years, digital nomadism has appeared to have had a rebrand of its own. The growing community of nomads is made up more of freelancers across many different disciplines rather than just the travel blogger. As technology continues to evolve so does the range of occupations suited to life on the road. Euromonitor has predicted that by 2020 43.7% of the world’s population will be online. Which would suggest that digital nomads, remote working and location independence is on an upwards trajectory and the popularity of this way of life will only increase.

 

Laura Geyer

Dundee, Scotland