On the Origin of Digital Nomads

May 31, 2021 by Yihwan Kim. 5 min read.

Digital nomad. Location independence. Remote work. Words that seemed foreign even a few years ago have tumbled into the mainstream — with no signs of slowing down. Where did they come from?

Nomadism has been a part of human history for millenia, so the “digital” part came naturally enough. We just needed the tools to enable it.

Wikipedia1 tells me the first documented use of the term “digital nomad” may have come from a book by the same name: Digital Nomad, by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners.2 The book opens with this note from the authors:

Times are changing. The driving force of change in the world is technological advance. It has forced companies to downsize, merge, de-merge and acquire to obtain the capabilities they think are needed.

Times are changing, as over a year’s worth of talk about decentralized “no-HQ” corporate models, “remote first” workforces, and “the new normal” has shown.

But this book wasn’t published in the midst of a pandemic. It wasn’t conceived as an e-book to boost newsletter subscriptions. Digital Nomad was published in 1997, back when Amazon only sold books.3

Makimoto and Manners propose June 21st, 1995 as good of a date as any to mark the beginning of the Digital Nomad Era (they call it the New Nomadic Age). Whatever you call it, this brave new era started with a hijacking.

ANA Boeing 747 on airport tarmac
Some say this is where the first digital nomad was born. 📸: Ken Fielding via Wikipedia

A lone hijacker took control of ANA Flight 857 on what was supposed to be a short domestic hop from Tokyo to Hokkaidō, holding 365 crew and passengers hostage for sixteen harrowing hours on a tarmac in Hakodate.4 The hijacker apparently refused to speak to hostage negotiators, but passengers made a dozen cell phone calls to inform the police about the hijacker’s movements aboard the aircraft, how he was dressed, and most importantly, that he seemed to be working alone and was only lightly armed.

Based on this crowd-sourced intel, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama authorized police to storm the aircraft. The police took the hijacker into custody without major incident, though “one of the passengers, pop singer Tokiko Kato, complained of being ‘worn out and wanting to sleep’” while another sustained minor injuries that required an ice pack.5

The mobile telephone, Makimoto and Manners say, had altered the course of human events. It was one of the earliest tools of the New Nomadic Age, and this was just the start. It’s a fascinating idea, ensconced in a dotcom era that feels practically ancient and far removed from the dropshippers of Chiang Mai or YouTubers in Canggu.

If you can point to the dotcom boom as the origin of the digital nomad, could we reach even further back?

Chef and flight attendant serving food in vintage SAS first class
Seems chill. 📸: SAS Scandinavian Airlines via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, cell phones played a key role in the hijacking of ANA Flight 857, but so did the aircraft itself, in this case a Boeing 747. Jumbo jets, which in a way were early adopters of “digital” technology in the form of improved instrumentation and electronics, had been flying for decades by this time.

Jumbo jets ushered in a new era of air travel, one that was far less luxurious than the plush opulence of the Golden Age of Flight — but far cheaper too. Previously, airlines could only fly to certain cities or even charge certain prices set by the government. In the United States, that changed with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978,6 and airlines suddenly found themselves able to compete more freely, including on how cramped a seat consumers would bear.

So was it the deregulation of the airline industry that ultimately enabled the digital nomad lifestyle? It’s hard to imagine location independence really taking off when “it was illegal for an airline to charge less than $1,442 in inflation-adjusted dollars for a flight between New York City and Los Angeles”.7

Where does digital start and nomad begin? Humans have been nomadic for as long as they’ve been around, and wanderlust — or the desire to travel for travel’s sake — dates back centuries, at least. Humans wandered on foot and horseback, sailboats and junks, steamships and trains, cars and planes — and later with laptops and extra power banks in hand.

The means by which we move and the tools we carry have changed, but the desire to explore and even uproot oneself completely for unknown lands has been constant.

It’s hard to put a definite origin on the digital nomad. It could have been an act of Congress, an airplane hijacking, or even a global pandemic. But when you consider digital nomadism in the broader context of history, it seems less an upstart “movement” or “revolution” and more a natural extension of what humans had already been doing for practically forever.

What about now? Will we see a spike in digital nomads in the coming years? Is this time different?

Maybe, especially in scale and speed. Just as the jet engine and airline deregulation opened up travel to the masses, a year-plus of mandatory work from home made many realize they didn’t have to be in an office all the time to get things done. People migrated out of cities, companies ostensibly became more “remote friendly”, and some packed their lives into bags, untethered to long-term leases and early-morning commutes, and ventured out into the world — their new office.

Or maybe not. People moved out of cities, yes. But many also moved in. Remote asychronous work is great, but it’s hard to replicate the magic of spontaneous ideation through scheduled Slack messages or genuine camaraderie through methodical documentation alone. And every year, some of the more dewy-eyed digital nomads reckon with the stark reality that the location independent lifestyle may not be just about laptops and sunsets on the beach after all.

Bikini-clad woman lounging in beach chair and looking at laptop
Disclaimer: Not an actual digital nomad. 📸: Damir Spanic via Unsplash

Some predict an “explosion” of digital nomads in the decade to come, but I’m not as sure. I think location independence and remote work will ebb and flow, rising with catalysts (like a pandemic) but also reverting back to the mean to form a more gradual uptrend. We should also avoid conflating digital nomadism with remote work generally, as they are two very different things. Change is coming, to be sure, but what that change will look like is anybody’s guess.

It’s often said that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.8 Could the same apply to digital nomadism? Digital nomads originated from the adoption of new technologies that enabled us to do what we’ve always done — just differently. This didn’t happen overnight. The change was gradual and spanned decades. That change seems to be accelerating today, but what awaits us down the road?

I’m excited to find out.

  1. There’s an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the term “digital nomad”. For some reason, I find the lead picture hilarious.
  2. I think Digital Nomad was (is?) a textbook because it sure has a textbook price!
  3. Amazon started selling music CDs in 1998, the year after Digital Nomad was published. The New York Times called it “a move indicating that its [Amazon’s] aspirations extend to selling far more than books over the Internet.” Indeed.
  4. I sourced most of this information about ANA Flight 857 from Wikipedia, though this Washington Post article offered more fascinating details. I first learned about the incident by reading the first chapter of Digital Nomad, available as a free preview on Amazon.
  5. Pop singer and ice pack details taken from Digital Nomad.
  6. Policy nerds, like me, might find the Wikipedia article on this Act interesting. Others, probably not.
  7. Quote from The Atlantic. Also I found cool pictures showing how air travel has changed through the 20th century here.
  8. Known as Amara’s Law, named after American scientist Roy Amara.

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know! @yihwan 🐦

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