A Discussion on Origins and Historical Roots of Digital Nomadism

By Frederik Haentjens

England is a majestic place with a rich history and a modern lifestyle. It is a place where history, beauty, and modernity come together. With the diverse Yorkshire moors and seaside, to the historical sites of Cotswold’s, its cities offer vibrant and fast-paced lives, whereas its countryside and beaches provide beauty and serenity. There is no denying that it is a popular destination for digital nomads. While many of the digital nomads escape England to enjoy the summers and sandy beaches of Bali and Bangkok, a portion of them come here to enjoy its culture, historical sites, museums, and seaside. Both urban and rural settings offer diverse and opposite experiences for digital nomads and travelers alike.

For digital nomads such as Edward, a US-based digital nomad, living in Newcastle is a dream come true. It is the home of stunning architectural wonders such as Grey Street, Millennium Bridge, and Tyne Bridge, as well historical site of Hadrian’s Wall, Newcastle Castle, and Victoria Tunnel. Famous museums include the Great North Museum and the Discovery Museum.  These popular sites are not the only offerings. The city offers a unique and modern lifestyle that is evident from the availability of wide-ranging nightclubs and bars, which are visited by tourists to socialize.

I had the pleasure of meeting Edward during my trip to Newcastle, England last summer. As I had been interested in digital nomadism, I had the pleasure of meeting Edward through Mark, whom I had met while traveling to Canggu, Bali. We met at Central Bean Coffee House. Our discourse was primarily on Digital Nomadism and its history, the technological, business and travel trends that influenced its development and a brief discussion on HR nomadism.  This exchange made me understand its historical roots and captivated me to further my research on it.     

A Brief Introduction to HR Nomadism

Online and remote HR jobs have been present since the early 2000s. In recent times, many of the digital nomads have been employed as HR nomads. Although currently in development, the situation has improved. Some of the other available jobs include talent acquisition managers, HR Assistant, Employee-Relations Consultant, HR Manager, and HR Consultant. The majority of the jobs that are most suitable to digital nomads are either related to recruitment or consultancy.   Therein need to have access to resume databases. In Edward’s own words:

The origins of Digital Nomadism

Since the 2010s, the term digital nomadism has been acknowledged as an important term used to define remote jobs that empower individuals to balance their professional and personal life. With the presence of online communities such as Nomad List, digital nomadism is gaining momentum. During the 2000s, remote working arrangements initiated when IT companies employed software developers from remote locations. This trend accelerated with the development of online job platforms such as Elance, Upwork (formerly ODesk) and Freelancer and Tim Ferris publication, The 4-Hour Workweek. The term itself had been coined and defined extensively by Makimoto and Manners in their book, Digital Nomads.

The origin of digital nomadism is linked with traditional nomadism. Since the dawn of human civilization, nomads have been present. They were different from migrants and settlers, in the sense that they did not have a permanent location as they moved from one place to another for a given period. They were primarily shepherds, who were motivated to change their location to search for food and pasture for their cattle. Although a grey area is prevalent when it comes to defining the term, nomads are generally defined as a group of individuals that constantly move and change their location as a way of living. Historical analysis suggests that traditional nomads can be classified into various groups:

Hunter-Gatherers: These nomads moved within their area to search for food.  

Pasteur’s: These nomads moved from one place to another with their cattle and livestock.

Peripatetic Gatherers: These nomads were involved in creating handicrafts, which they sold to earn income. 

As indicated in history, the majority of the nomads belonged to the first category of nomads. This trend has changed over 8000 years as the inception of agriculture and domestication of animals, allowed people to transition from nomads to settlers to grow food through farming, domesticate animals and settle in a place permanently. Moving forward, the creation of states and industrialization further accelerated the process of settlements and therefore, human beings abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and began to live as settlers in settlements.

Early History of Digital Nomadism

The concept of digital nomadism dates back to 1960s. In 1962, author McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, in which he discussed the concept of a global village. According to McLuhan (1962), human society will soon become a global village as technological innovations will improve communication and reduce physical boundaries. McLuhan (1962) did predict the Internet but did not coin the term. He further asserted that when communication and physical barriers are removed, social functions will combine to change the face of human society.

In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler classified the developments in computer technology as the driver of the information age, which has been attributed as the Third Revolution in terms of technological innovation and development.  Toffler asserts that the rise of computer technology has allowed humanity to enter the information age. This era is characterized by the ample visibility of digital technology within human society. He also highlighted that as technological innovation will continue to progress, spatial boundaries will be removed. The removal of these boundaries will allow employers to hire remote workers.

In our previous blogs, we had mentioned the works of Makimoto and Manners, who co-authored Digital Nomad. They state that  “the 21st century will be the millennium which resurrects for humans a dilemma which has been dormant for 10,000 years – humans will be able to ask themselves: ‘Am I a Nomad or a Settler?’” (p. 3). The authors revisited the concept of nomadism and digital nomadism, highlighting that it is an inevitable phenomenon.

As the internet evolved, mobile phones and laptops became increasingly common. Laptops equipped with wireless networks gained popularity during the 1990s, and therefore, the face of human society began to change gradually. With the emergence of different models, such as open source and crowdsourcing, platforms such as Amazon Affiliates, Freelancer, Upwork (Odesk) and Elance also emerged to allow individuals to generate income without leaving their home. With Paypal, Skrill, and Payoneer, individuals were able to retrieve their payments online. With these developments, digital nomadism remained unidentified, but its phenomenon had been acknowledged.  In a 1999 New York Times article, the term technomads had been used to define travelers that connected with their friends through their blogs and mobile phones. However, the term had not been associated with online work. Technomads were primarily travelers, who had a passion for traveling and used ICT to communicate with their family members and friends.

During the 2000s, the internet development accelerated with lower costs and the inception of new internet technologies in Cable Internet Access, Fiber Optics, Digital Subscriber Lines such as DSL, ADSL and VDSL, and Multilink Dial-up. Furthermore, the development of Web 2.0 technology further contributed to the growth and development of digital nomadism as it allowed users to generate, modify and share their content on social networking sites, microblogs, wikis and RSS feed. Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr emerged as social technologies that allowed users to communicate with their loved ones more easily. In 2003, Skype had been introduced to support video conferencing Voice over Internet protocol calls. These ICT tools allowed nomads to connect and communicate with users, while at the same time, permitted them to share their experiences with them through Good AdSense. The 2000s also witnessed the emergence of internet cafés and co-working spaces. All these technologies and trends paved the way for digital nomadism to flourish and grow.

In 2007, Tim Ferris published a series of books that discussed the endless possibilities of working online. His publications included The 4-Hour Work Week, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich. All of these publications focused on traveling, remote working and escaping conventional employment practices. For many, Ferris’ work offers a diverse and innovative perspective on balancing a professional and personal life, while working remotely.  

The trend of digital nomadism gained momentum in the 2010s as new social media networks emerged including Instagram and SnapChat. Instagram primarily focused on sharing visual media. As the ICTs evolved, the use of laptops and smart devices such as smartphones and tablets increased. Laptops and smart devices that were previously equipped with wireless internet technologies have now been equipped with 3G and 4G networks. By using these networks, users can remain online 24/7. With increasing connectivity and online platforms, the number of remote workers increased with co-working spaces available abundantly. Digital communities such as Hashtag Nomads and Nomad List emerged. Today, digital nomadism is no longer a dream but is an actual reality. Co-working spaces, online markets, and webinars have supported digital nomadism extensively and have led to its growth and development. The internet has allowed these nomads to travel, while at the same time, has given them power, autonomy, and independence to work online. The restrictions of physical boundaries and time is no longer a threat to personal freedom and autonomy. For others, it is not yet a reality. However, for a dreamer, it is an experience that makes him or her a vagabond.   


About the Author:

Frederik is the founder of theHRnomad.com, a digital platform that is one of its kind. HR Nomad connects remote workers and clients alike for on mutual objective: to harness the power of information communication and technology and to balance between professional and personal life. He is also the author of the book HRnomad (published April 2019). Further, he is the managing partner of the Organization Design consulting firm boxolog.com and international keynote speaker about organization agility, design thinking, and Digital nomadic working.