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The Ideal of the Digital Nomad

In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner analyses how digital technology came to be seen as capable of liberating the individual, freeing them from the shackles of petty attachments to organisations and places. This is a complex story but it’s one in which cultural entrepreneurs figure prominently, carving out modes of living which later percolated through the emerging cyberculture as ideals to be imitated. One early such figure was Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, described on loc 2677:

As LSD and a beat-up school bus had once freed Kesey to roam the American landscape with a tribe of friends, so digital technologies now allowed Negroponte to turn work into play. “Some of us enjoy a privileged existence where our work life and our leisure life are almost synonymous,” he told Brand. “More and more people I think can move into that position with the coming of truly intimate technology.

The personal charisma of a figure like Negroponte plays an important part in their coming to serve as an exemplar, embodying a desirable form of life which invites explanation in terms of emerging notions of digitally-driven social change and in turn contributes to these changes through cultural elaboration. From loc 2685:

If the Lab demonstrated the way a “wired” world might look, then Negroponte was the image of the social possibilities such a world might offer. Mobile, wealthy, handsome, some, completely networked in both the technological and the political sense, Negroponte was a new kind of man. As an echo of Marshall McLuhan, though, he was also the reincarnation of an earlier generation of hero. Like the Media Lab he headed, Negroponte was the living bridge between the legacy of cybernetics and the legacy of countercultural experimentation.

George Gilder was another figure who was glamorised in this way. As Turner observes on loc 3353, his hectic schedule was held up as embodying a liberated life. His peripatetic working patterns were exciting and profitable:

Much as other Wired writers had celebrated brated the members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Global Business Network for their social connections, Bronson dwelled at length on Gilder’s hectic schedule of appearances, his migrations from tech company to tech company, and his twenty-thousand-dollar speaking fees. Gilder appeared peared to be a pattern of information, shuttling from node to node along a web of elite institutions. In case the reader missed the point, Bronson depicted picted Gilder literally speaking in the machine language of zeros and ones.

As Turner puts it on loc 3366, “Wired had offered the freelance lance lifestyle of a high-profile consultant as a model of the independent lifestyle ostensibly becoming available to the digital generation as a whole“. This equivocation is an important one, seemingly at least a little bit dishonest when we consider how aware Wired were of the particular demographic they were pursuing. From loc 3233-3241:

In a 1992 business plan, Rossetto and Metcalfe had described their target audience to potential investors as “Digital Visionaries.”.” With annual incomes averaging $75,000 a year, this group represented “The top ten percent of creators, managers, and professionals in the computer puter industries, business, design, entertainment, the media and education.” In the coming years, Wired reached this group with extraordinary success. Less than three years after the first issue appeared, for instance, when Wired was selling 300,000 copies a month, its readers were 87.9 percent male, 37 years old on average, with an average household income of more than $122,000 per year. In a reader survey, more than 90 percent of subscribers scribers identified themselves as either “Professional/Managerial” or “Top Management.”

The idiots so wonderfully satirised in Nathan Barley are the children of these visionaries, sufficiently immersed in the emergent culture that any sense of transition has been lost. But the ideal of the ‘digital visionary’, something to which the ranks of digital nomads might find themselves aspiring, has a currency all the more powerful for it having lost touch with the conditions which gave rise to it.

This bullshit came from somewhere and it felt a certain way to the people who first encountered it. We can’t explain its subsequent iterations, as well as the cultural power it has exercised, without appreciating these origins. But it’s still with us, identifiable in the propensity to find certain people shiny and certain lifestyles alluring.

It intersects with other cultural trends, such as the ‘road warriors’ explored in Up In The Air, lending them an epochal lure by association, as if living life in this way leaves one at the bleeding edge of social change, bringing the new world into being through the very act of living one’s life:

I’m interested in these lifestyles, valorising acceleration and the pleasures associated with it, as forms of life which emerged under conditions of socio-technical change. They became logistically possible, financially possible for some (though not others) and represented in popular culture. What effect did this have on how people saw the options available to them in life? How has it shaped our unspoken understandings of what it is to live life ‘fully’? What political work has this inadvertently achieved?

As Turner describes on loc 2582, what now seem to many like regressive views (valorising the freelance economy as inherently liberating to workers) were at the time radical cultural sentiments, at odds with the prevailing socio-economic order:

But Barlow’s account of cyberspace also mingled the countercultural critique of technocracy with a celebration of the mobility and independence required of information workers in a rapidly networking economy: I’m a member of that half of the human race which is inclined to divide the human race into two kinds of people. My dividing line runs between the people who crave certainty and the people who trust chance…. Large organizations and their drones huddle on one end of my scale, busily trying to impose predictable homogeneity on messy circumstance. On the other end, free-lancers and ne’er-do-wells cavort about, getting by on luck if they get by at all.

In its most extreme versions, this liberation could be from embodiment itself: as Barlow once wrote, “In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one foresakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone”.

This was a radical and profound freedom, particularly in the context of a post-60s counterculture that had raised itself on a hostility towards the stifling bureaucracy of post-war American life. But these lofty, even metaphysical ideas, emerged alongside networked employment, providing a powerful framing which obscured the specificity of economic relations that would soon be generalised throughout the social order. However, the challenge is to recognise this ideological function while nonetheless acknowledging the novelty of this form of life. From loc 867:

Only the freestanding individual “could find the time to think in a cosmically adequate manner,” he explained. Fuller himself lived accordingly: for most of his career, he migrated among a series of universities and colleges, designing projects, collaborating with students and faculty – and always claiming the rights to whatever the collaborations produced.

This image of “an entrepreneurial, individualistic mode of being that was far from the world of the organization man” (loc 775) is still with us. Living freely, living passionately, living everywhere. It’s a powerful ideal, floating free within our contemporary culture, with specific roots in a peculiarly American tradition.

Categories: Cognitive Triage: Practice, Culture and Strategies The Intensification of Work The Technological History of Digital Capitalism Thinking

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