Of tectonic socioeconomic shifts happening under our cultural ground, one of the most visible but misunderstood social trends is digital nomadism. In its modern sense, “nomadism” is a chosen lifestyle of location independence, of travel with intermediate stays at hostels, homestays, AirBnBs and so on. The “digital” aspect refers to how this lifestyle is financially sustained through remote work that can be done from anywhere with a computer; it also implies participation in global cosmopolitan culture via the internet. I will argue that digital nomadism will remain a relatively fringe lifestyle, but that it reveals the possibility for alternate ways of living and being in the world.
We will begin with a brief history of homeownership. Even an incomplete account shows that the relationship of people to their homes is both flexible and malleable—subject to change by natural evolution, and more importantly, by design. The person-home relationship has been pursuant in particular to economic and political movements. As we will observe, it has been modified even in the last century through both hard and soft technologies, and we may expect such changes to continue. But given the fringe-ness of digital nomadism today, can it ever outgrow its place on the outskirts of socially acceptable lifestyles? Venkatesh Rao’s behavioral model of product-driven disruption will illuminate how digital nomadism may be revised and incorporated into mainstream culture. We will end with speculative continuations of our historical account, and peer into the future of the person-home relation.
Anglo-American Homeownership Then and Now
In the United States of America, the values of the sedentary homeowning lifestyle are reflected everywhere in pop culture, and seem to be an intractable part of our society. However, this was not always the case. The normalcy of the American single-family home is the result of several discontiguous but related ideological and economic projects. For example, from 1917, the U.S. Department of Labor maintained a large-scale, decades-long promotion effort called “Own Your Own Home,” which saw the person-home relationship as an important site for anti-communist propaganda (Cannato). Economic policies furthermore contributed to the growing value of homeownership. The FHA and FNMA (Fannie Mae), created during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, were established to stem mass home foreclosure brought on by the Great Depression. They did so by turning short term loans, common in the day, into long-term mortgages. This dramatically lowered the cost of purchasing a home and reduced the risk of lending, providing a significant stimulus to the economy. Beneficiaries of this stimulus were not only lending institutions, but also real estate, construction, and related industries tied to the creation of new infrastructure (Shlay). These are two examples, but homeownership as a contrived aspect of the American dream can be traced at least as far back as the Homestead Act of 1862.
America is not the only Western culture in which such events transpired. Roberta Marcaccio of DSDHA describes similar events in post-WWII Italy. There, tutti proprietari (“everyone a homeowner”) was a policy used to stimulate the economy by providing work and low-cost housing for unskilled laborers left unemployed after the war. In the UK, the culture and economic impact of homeownership is being explored by the REAL Foundation, its publications, and associated critics. These few examples are sufficient to show that the “single-family home” has been woven into the cultural fabric of the West by various political and economic projects; but they also reveal the broader phenomenon that is our focus. Our relation to home—in terms of assumed cultural values and in the organization of the lived environment—is not inevitable. This perspective reveals an opportunity space for new cultural and material infrastructures to be designed. To what degree could digital nomadism fill this space? Does nomadism represent a serious challenge to traditional models of living? Shall we explore in the next section?
Nomadism on the Fringe
In 2013, UK journal New Statesman introduced “Generation Rent” in an article that lamented the difficulty for young people to achieve homeownership. Two months later, Mic posted a response which has (despite being low on facts) become one of the most cited articles on the topic, with the matter-of-fact title: “Home ownership doesn’t make sense for millennials in 2013.” Indeed, in the wake the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, growing cosmopolitanism, and with the world trending toward access-based models for everything, it is no surprise that alternative modes of living have begun to emerge. Co-living, as exemplified by WeLive and GA founder Brad Hargreaves’s Common, is seeing an enormous surge of interest. And, of course, nomad culture is stronger than ever.
Nomadism is somewhat of an oddity among niche lifestyles. What it lacks in relative size, it makes up for in noise. The most audible of the nomad diaspora command large social media presences, broadcasting a heavy mix of content marketing and updates on their emancipation from the 9-to-5. Although nomads of this persuasion are unlikely to be in the majority, it’s hard to deny the cultural overlap between digital nomads and the “entrepreneurial social media guru tech bro” demographic of Silicon Valley (male stereotype chosen here intentionally; critically). While many digital nomads are indeed freelancers or self-employed business owners, Silicon Valley’s evangelism of entrepreneurship has amplified the nomadism hype to levels that drown out most unbiased writing on the subject. Some select titles I found while researching for this essay:
And my personal favorite:
Nomadism is certainly growing, but its outsized visibility obscures actual growth patterns. Today, the biggest digital nomad group on Facebook has 21,000 members; the digital nomadism subreddit, 27,000 subscribers. Still, many are bullish on its potential. Union Square Ventures, well-known for its hypothesis-driven approach and its high performance, includes “The Nomad Stack: tools for global living” in its list of major product trends it follows. And to USV’s credit, there are certainly a growing set of services effectively targeting the nomad lifestyle, such as Outsite and Roam, two businesses which mix co-living concepts with digital nomadism.
For what it’s worth, USV and nomadism advocates are on to something. What I suspect they see in digital nomadism is its successful incorporation of technological capabilities and cultural trends that have yet to make it to mainstream society. On the technology side, digital nomads are perhaps the only group to fully realize the potential of remote work. Unlike traditional nomads, who moved in pursuit of economic opportunity, and urban citizens, who attract and agglomerate opportunity into one space, digital nomads can pursue economic opportunity from anywhere, a capacity which is likely to diffuse across society. On the cultural side, the digital nomadism phenomenon is a strong indicator of burgeoning global cosmopolitan culture. It is ostensibly a lifestyle that breaks down ingrained cultural perceptions, opens boundaries, and widens perspective, while reaffirming some universal values (although there is an argument to be made in resistance to its somewhat colonial overtones). Finally, digital nomadism reflects the prioritization of “experiences” over other value markers (goods, relationships, careers, etc.) which everyone seems to agree is going on these days.
Despite these forward-thinking aspects of digital nomadism, it’s hard to imagine today’s version achieving the huge growth USV and other venture capital outfits are seeking. Actually adopting the nomad lifestyle, or going “full nomad” as it might be useful to call it, has significant barriers for regular citizens. Going full nomad, in the sense discussed so far, involves several high-liability actions. Giving up possessions, relinquishing stable work, and leaving one’s fixed (including rented) home are just a few requirements. Cultural inhibitions present an equal if not greater challenge. The “1 billion digital nomads” piece mentioned above does provide some data (although refutable with cursory Googling) to back up its claims around growth of freelancing and decline in homeownership; but it fails to address the cultural perspective. Non-Western cultures strongly prioritize the strength of familial connections and intra-family economic support. Even the American mentality, which fantasizes about giving up the standard work week and claiming its independence, has relatively conservative and institutional attitudes about the workplace. Last but not least, as explored in our historical account, homeownership is strongly tied to consumerism, which is tied to GDP. As long as this is the case, we are unlikely to see an organized effort from the government or other capital interests to celebrate and normalize the nomad lifestyle.
If nomadism is then destined to remain niche, perhaps it still gives us a clue as to a mode of living that might fill the space we identified. To explore this possibility, let’s venture to Ribbonfarm land.
A Behavioral Model of Disruption
Venkatesh Rao gives us a model for understanding how digital nomadism might be brought to the mainstream. Various parts of this model appear in different essays across different eras of his blog, but it’s most clearly defined in 2014’s Product Driven versus Customer Driven (see the Are.na link in the references section at right for other key pieces).
In his piece, Rao defines “customer” as a “novel and stable pattern of human behavior.” This sets the stage for understanding the difference between product-driven and customer-driven businesses. Customer-driven businesses are experts at identifying and capitalizing on stable patterns of behavior. The traditional version of disruption is premised on this type of thinking: recognizing underserved patterns of behavior and prioritizing them. Paired with some sort of cost-cutting or technological innovation and good marketing, one can reorganize a market around this pattern. Yet this type of business can only steal customers from other businesses in the same market—it does not fundamentally grow or create new markets, because it fixates on existing behaviors.
Product-driven businesses, on the other hand, establish new stable patterns of behavior. They do this by adding structure to unstable and non-patterned areas of human activity, which Rao calls “anomie.” This creation of new behaviors has the effect of creating entirely new markets. Rao is light on examples, so let’s explore one. AirBnB is the perfect example of a business that structured anomie (the lack of stable behavior) to create a compelling product offering. Before AirBnB, there were plenty of people couchsurfing, and probably even some renting out rooms in their home to friends or travelers. However, these activities were regarded as fringe: on the couchsurfing side, seen as an edge lifestyle “hoboing around;” and on the renting side, most likely as a weird thing your hippie neighbors did. But AirBnB created a product that normalized these fringe activities and made them as easy as booking a hotel. It added the needed structure to an irregular, outlier pattern, and turned it into a novel, stable behavior. Another example from the history of disruption might be Sony’s original Walkman.
As Rao notes, hobbies, “play,” and other fringe activity without defined cultural or economic patterns of behavior make prime targets for structuring with a market-creating product. Is this beginning to sound familiar? An empty, “anomic” space created by a lack of alternatives to the dominant forms of the person-home relationship; a fringe activity, an unstructured and ungoverned nomadic lifestyle. With this model, speculations toward our guiding question are beginning to take form.
Our Speculative Pseudo-Nomad Futures
Nomadism today is a fringe, unstructured behavior, much like renting out one’s home when on vacation was before AirBnB. However, due to the inhibitions mentioned earlier, even significant product-focused innovation is unlikely to cause rapid, widespread adoption of the nomad lifestyle. Leaving one’s home and giving up many of one’s possessions is a huge economic and mental risk, and As Rao says in Future Nauseous, “the future arrives along the least cognitive effort path.”
The gap between renting and the nomad lifestyle here represents the several “open spaces” we have discussed so far. It is an unoccupied space in the broader context of person-home relations, a space without economic and cultural precedent; similarly, it is also a pattern-less, “anomic” area of human behavior, a void between structured modes of living and comparatively unstructured nomadism; finally, it is also gap in the market that comprises all living spaces and home-seeking activities. As the ideological constraints of the 20th century deteriorate and technology further enables distributed everything, this gap’s presence has become more and more perceptible. Where before there was nothing, we now can sense the possibility for new lifestyles neither fully nomadic nor fully static, nor even “rent-locked.” “Migratory” and “transient” both feel like the wrong way to describe this potential behavior space, so let’s return to the language we used earlier. What we are groping for is a new, more fluid relation between people and homes.
The Mic piece gives us a hint of what such relations might look like. The author’s interviews with millennials revealed that younger generations “openly imagine themselves living and working in not just different parts of the country throughout phases of their lives, but in other nations as well.” But this movement could happen on shorter time frames as well. What about spending a few months working remotely from another country with the ability to return to one’s home without losing rent? AirBnB enables this outcome, but is not explicitly designed for the use case. A product that allows for flexibility of movement while mitigating the user’s economic risk and maintaining their current apartment or living situation would resolve the cultural and cognitive liability inherent in full nomadism. Such an innovation would allow new prevalent modes of living, hinged on a semi-fixed home base with fluid extensions and increased freedom of movement. Spending time working in another country with the ability to return to one’s home base without losing money in the process is an opportunity many would jump at, if made available in a safe, compelling way. What is the AirBnB of this mode of living? USV has invested in a company called Jobbatical, which connects talent with one-year employment gigs abroad. As a project in creating a culture of movement and exploration, it’s an intriguing project that shows the possibility for a new market ecosystem built around new patterns of spontaneous and dynamic movement. This ecosystem of products will, like Jobbatical, incorporate the progressive aspects of nomadism while disposing with its extremeness.
I have argued here that the relationship between us and our homes is constantly changing, mediated by technological and socioeconomic change. I’ve suggested that what we understand as a “nomadic” lifestyle today is really just an extreme version of a more fluid way of relating to personal and urban space. And I’ve proposed a specific model for thinking about how this mode might emerge. Still, dedicating critical thought in efforts to bring about this future is essential. The effects of previous design endeavors that we are experiencing today show the necessity of a thoughtful and historically grounded approach to any such project. Marcaccio identifies the outcome of compelled homeownership, and furthermore the goal of the 20th century fiscal technology of mortgages, to be the production of an indebted citizen. Another Italian architect and urban theorist, Dogma’s Pier Vittorio Aureli, locates these innovations in a greater historical trend. Providing examples from medieval Europe, he suggests that property has always served the function of tying individual to legal and economic power frameworks. In 2016, the economic and cultural value of homeownership is beginning to look exhausted. Understanding the debt-based relation to our homes as a form of governance and oppression is a call to action for digital designers, architects, and yes, entrepreneurs to propose forward-thinking, spontaneous, and unrestricted ways of being.