Obsessed with infinite freedom, the reality for digital nomads can be a ‘lonely’ and ‘miserable’ existence

Becoming a digital nomad

I first heard about digital nomads in 2015 while chatting to Thom*, a seasoned traveler in Koh Phangan. Thom was neither expat nor tourist, and rarely seemed to return home. I asked him how people survived while constantly traveling. Later in the conversation, he paused and declared, “You’re talking about digital nomads.” He also detailed a laundry list of problems, from hassles subletting his apartment in Hamburg to his bank stalking him for a permanent address, and the hell of navigating visa rules.

“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of them,” he laughed. “It’s someone a bit like me but who thinks the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is fast Wi-fi instead of shelter. There’s a digital nomad conference happening in Bangkok in a few months. Let’s go.”

Two months later, I was walking up Rangnam Road in Bangkok on a humid morning, looking for the DNX conference. Just off the plane and struggling with jetlag, I visited a coffee shop and overheard two German men discussing the conference. Fabian, who was dressed in camo cargo shorts and a black T-shirt, told me he was giving the keynote speech. He planned to share his experiences of driving across Africa playing guitar for charity, and of setting up a borderless tech start-up while traveling through South America.

At the conference venue I found crowds of people checking-in using Eventbrite apps. Lanyards with the slogan “I CHOOSE FREEDOM” were handed out. At this stage, I didn’t question what kind of freedom.

Most attendees were casually dressed men from the global north in their 20s and 30s. Although most carried small backpacks, no one looked like a backpacker. The men were in shorts and navy or khaki polo shirts. The few women present wore neutral sundresses. No one would have looked out of place in a business meeting in an international hotel lobby.

Digital nomads vigorously differentiate themselves from tourists and backpackers. One nomad told me, “I’d be bored shitless if I hung around on the beach all day getting stoned.” Nevertheless, these two tribes often collide in locations like Ko Pha Ngan or Chiang Mai.

Talks at the conference often repeated the word “freedom”. Freedom to live and work anywhere, freedom from the rat race, entrepreneurial freedom, freedom to take control of your life and destiny. Other well-worn themes included productivity tools and “life hacks” enabling nomadic businesses to function efficiently on the move, the role of co-working spaces, and inspirational travelogues.

In the conference introduction by DNX founders Marcus Meurer and Feli Hargarten (also known, respectively, as Sonic Blue and Yara Joy), a YouTube video entitled The Rise of Lowsumerism played. The video claimed that excessive consumerism was being replaced by a superior sharing economy which “prioritises access over ownership”. This is what Razavi now calls “subscription living”.

Despite the video’s critique of “mindless consumerism”, it used a visual style that could have been selling luxury apartments. It all sounded fun and expensive. The video ended with the phrase: “Earth is not a giant shopping center.” The conference was hosted in a mall.

Some talks got into the gritty minutiae of global living in surprising detail. Natalie Sissons, whose personal brand is The Suitcase Entrepreneur, used her presenting slot to share her digital productivity strategies, projecting her yearly schedule on to the vast conference screen. She explained how her digital calendar app, Calendly, automatically translated timezones, flattening national time differences into global, bookable and productive meeting slots and projects. She was also a volleyball champion and loved doing handstands.

Then came Fabian Dittrich’s keynote. He was billed as a traveling tech entrepreneur, walked on to the stage still dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and was sincere and intense. He recounted how his school careers advisor told him he needed to “fit in like an adjusted citizen” – but that he “rejected the system and a well-paid job in London [because] it was a work style, not a lifestyle”. He linked his dissatisfaction with office life to his rejection of his national identity.

Both Dittrich and Sissons appeared to be living incarnations of the lifestyle extolled by Tim Ferriss in his seminal 2004 self-help book The 4-Hour Work Week. Their logic pathologised the office and the nation state – both were cast as threats to untethered freedom.

In the closing section of the conference, Dittrich turned his anger directly on the nation state. He clicked to a PowerPoint slide 25-feet wide that parodied the Ascent of Man. His visual depicted human evolution from an ape to a digitally liberated human taking flight, presenting digital nomadism as a future trajectory for humanity.

His next slide showed two globes: the first covered with national flags headed “What people think I am”; the second without flags titled “What I really am”. Dittrich explained that his personal identity had nothing to do with his nationality. His performance made me think of Diogenes’s proclamation: “I am a citizen of the world.” The audience erupted into applause.

After the conference, there were after parties and workshops. I found out that many delegates were new to the nomad scene. Everyone wanted the secret formula of a blissful life combining work and global travel. Then it was over.

In my imagination, everyone all jetted off to some tropical hammock. I trudged back to the UK winter, my day job, and to my mother’s hospital bed, which I’d left four days earlier. I found her in the same bed, recovering from the cancer surgery that saved her life and was provided by the National Health Service.

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