The Nomadology of Digital Nomads

Tom hates his job. 

After trudging to the office at 9:00am, day after day, Tom takes calls from customers of the cellular service provider for whom he works, helping to resolve each person’s problems as efficiently and politely as possible. His sales numbers are good. His performance evaluations are glowing. His salary and commission earnings allow him to live in modest suburban comfort.

But Tom has had it. Like so many middle-managers before him, Tom has finally succumbed to the tedium of white-collar capitalism. So, he’s decided to break free, upend his family’s anodyne dinner table discussions, and join the business craze about which the trendy marketing websites he frequents have been buzzing: digital nomadism.

On its surface, digital nomadism would seem to imply exploration. YouTube is rife with videos unpacking the purported financial benefits of technological nomadism, like Nomad Capitalist’s “How to Become a Digital Nomad” and “Citizenship by Investment.”

Yet, these explanatory vlogs also demonstrate the double-edged econopolitical precarity of fashionable digital nomadism. To begin, in escaping the mythical “marketplace,” digital nomads are also severed from labor protections, like organized unions, and inserted into the precarious workforce, which is insecure and often poorly paid. 

In turn, the financial precarity in which digital nomads find themselves reproduces exploitative vectors of 21st Century technocapitalism, including hastening automation and information inequality. Communities that lack the basic cybernetworks and technology, as well as the means to build cyberspaces and acquire digital tools, are exiled from digitally nomadic culture, while those who are privileged to professionalize digital experiences foster the literal and figurative dehumanization the workplace by supplanting them with an occupational reliance on the same technological processes that accelerate the displacement of human labor. 

Yet, it’s not simply work, but network connectivity that defines digital nomads at their core. As Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan and Snezhana Nosova of Tomsk State University contend, “In order to become a digital nomad, it is not necessary to be a dedicated traveler or to move from one place to another in a common, physical sense. The major point is to be always ‘plugged’ to the Net through some sorts of gadgets. This ‘plugging’ is the key factor which determines a digital nomad.” 

Is it possible, then, that a democratic nomadic resistance could be birthed through all of this networking activity? In Nomadology: The War Machine, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari posit nomadism as a way of life existing outside of the organized state. Nomads, in their view, are characterized by movement and change, freed from the state’s systems of organizing society. In this way, nomads deterritorialize the space of statist authority, spawning the liminal and hybridized space of becoming from which an emancipatory politics can be articulated.

A paramount instrument of Deleuzean nomadism is the “war machine,” which provides a “pure form of exteriority,” in contrast to the interiority of state appropriation. Here, the struggle between inside and outside becomes a battle between assemblages putting different desires into play. In the “war machine,” nomads resisting state domination preserve space for dissent from and contestation of the state’s own political aims, whereas the state attempts to forge a military out of these nomad-warriors for the sole purpose of immobilizing perceived threats. 

Deleuze and Guattari acknowledged that the navigational freedom offered by an information-based economy, if commodified, could compel the state, itself, to become nomadic. At the same time, the philosophical duo couldn’t have conceived of the extent to which information networks would allow the state to extend its sphere of influence in the present day, when “cultural innovation,” “community sustainability,” and “triple bottom line” are protest-pacifying slogans of global finance.

Digital nomads, for their part, retain the power to expose and oppose state hierarchies by undermining the state’s claim to authority over geographical and digital space, so long as they simultaneously resist the kind of cooptation and commodification exemplified by the aforementioned Nomad Capitalist. If the “war machine” can be animated against any political dispensation, then the mobility of digital nomads can disrupt the state’s effort to prefigure ordered systems of relations that continually subordinate populations to the competitive marketplace by pitting the interests of one position against those of another. 

In other words, digital nomads need not be just another passing fad for Business Week columnists to cover. At their best, digital nomads can point toward new forms of political agency, to which governments may have difficulty consecrating their sovereign role. They can replace venture profits with adventure politics, posting naturally lit selfies to Instagram to document their strategic alienation from corporate control. 

And that’s a project even Tom could enjoy. 

 

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