They call themselves digital nomads. And their mission is to wander the planet, working globally, as they sell ebooks and courses about how to wander the planet, working globally. Or how to run eCommerce stores, selling drop shipping products on Amazon. They’re travellers with MacBooks and portable power banks and a carefully designed and manicured social presence.
The digital nomads live off the land, by which I mean — economies where the US dollars they harvest in their PayPal accounts can buy with five times the power of the local currency.
It’s an evolution of the same bloody opportunism that our ancestors used to take advantage of, steal and strip the rights from the countries they “discovered”; it’s a form of neo-colonialism that profits from the exploitation and brutality of invaders who took what they wanted and left shattered, manipulated or abandoned economies in their wake, primed for use and abuse by moneyed up, bright eyed tech travellers.
The digital nomads have a message for you. You too can live a life of luxury in the untouched wilderness. As long as your conscience is kept at bay and you don’t think too hard about the role your own past and cultural history has played in allowing your selfies on a pure sandy beach.
And overwhelmingly, the digital nomads have abandoned their cheap lives of luxury and their #officebeaches as soon as the pandemic hit, demanding their countries fly them home as they evacuated, walking away from the places they’d so willingly taken advantage of without a moment’s hesitation.
With travel bans in place around the world and airlines grounded, we’re likely to see the death of the digital nomad culture. But their impact will still be felt.
These are folks who did not have to become a part of the infrastructure of their chosen homes, because they were citizens of another home entirely, working digitally in that home, and not becoming a part of the communities who supported them with discounted services and comforts. Now that their money is gone, and their one contribution to paradise is removed — cashflow — they haven’t left a legacy of care behind. That’s the concern.
They were able to be a part of a beautiful place only as long as it suited them. Their responsibilities ended there.
It’s symptomatic of the digital nomad approach; advantage over disadvantage.
We can say that the digital nomads support the local economies by paying for cheap drinks and cheap villas. We can say that they contribute to the economic growth of their newfound homes in the tropics. And there is some truth to that.
But there’s more truth, if you look for it. There’s truth in saying that if their ancestors hadn’t pillaged and burned their way through every non-western country they could get their blood drenched hands on, the digital nomads wouldn’t be able to afford jack-shit in truly sovereign nations.
There’s truth in saying that it’s only the impact of unnecessary wars fought by Western empires over resources that never belonged to them in the first place that allow those resources to be enjoyed through a half-price cocktail hour at a tourist themed tiki hut while the sun sets over the bay.
And there’s truth in saying that money made in those economies, at a bargain, taken back home to the US or another western country isn’t going to help them recover from the pandemic while the digital nomads stay at home — hopefully, for their sake in relative safety.
What’s the solution? If you’ve profited, give back.
I don’t think we need to look too far for the solution here. If you’ve profited as a digital nomad, and you’ve enjoyed the comfort of someone else’s home, you should be looking to give back to their recovery efforts.
You should be searching your heart and your bank accounts and — let’s be honest — your crypto holdings for anything you can give to help the economies that gave you berth to recover as soon as they can. And in the meantime, you should be looking for a way to support their health systems and their structures of care to look after their own folks as much as they can.
It’s not enough to simply live somewhere. You have to become a part of its institutions, or you’re no more than a tourist. The nomadic lifestyle might sound all well and good, but you can’t just take whatever you want, and not be prepared to give when need arises.
Every economy will suffer after the virus. That’s absolutely the case. I’m not denying that. I am saying that giving a damn about a place that you call home only as long as it’s convenient to you, only as long as you can take advantage of it, is colonialism at its worst.
When the Nomad eBooks go on sale, and the promise of those “today’s office” Instagram posts showing laptops on tanned legs start to seem appealing, I can’t help thinking of what it really means.
And who we really are.
And who we’ll become if we maintain our kleptocratic ancestors’ approach to the riches of countries we don’t understand, and never really can without examining our ongoing relationship to them. And what it means if we’re more than willing to walk away in a moment of global need.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.