Book Review: “Digital Nomads” by Esther Jacobs and André Gussekloo

Digital Nomads: How to Live, Work and Play Around the World by Esther Jacobs and André Gussekloo

 Jacobs and Gussekloo live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, and want to us to understand, and to dare to try it, too.

Esther Jacobs is not only a “digital nomad”, she is something like a stateless person. I’m sorry to hear that she is locked in dispute with the government of Netherlands. She has left her home and now travels the world, “living, working, and playing” wherever she wants (except, perhaps, dotNL).

I cant help but think how ironic and sad it is that millions of refugees are literally dying on the road and sea, hoping to live somewhere like NL, whatever the rules. Recent news stories about Panama also make her offshore companies and “flags of convenience” strategy seem a lot less whimsical fun and more of a small fish swimming in company with multinational corporations, billionaire scofflaws, and dictators of many nations

This unfortunate history is important because it helps explain a lot about where this book comes from, and much of the advice contained within. Jacobs is absolutely “walking the walk” she talks about, though her reasons may or may not represent all “digital nomads”.

Coauthor Gussekloo has a more straightforward story: he studied Tourism Management (  don’t know what that is), but discovered that he could be a permanent tourist and work as a writer. With a new infant, he is not quite as footloose as before, at least for now. He, too, is walking the walk, with his own motivations.

Considering motivation is very, very important because this book is very much a “how to”, and it really matters what you are trying to do, and why you want to do it.

The most important single piece of advice in the whole book is this: “Most people don’t want or need to become fullfledged PTs [(’Perpetual Travelers’)]. Pick and choose what feels good to you, what fits your situation best.” (p. 40) Learn from this book to understand some of your choices.

Why?

In the spirit of all good “how to” books, J & G are enthusiastic.

Distance is an illusion” they say, obviously meaning psychologically: technology enables rapid travel and instant communication anywhere on the planet. This means that it is easier than ever to wander, and to live a life unconstrained by particular locations.

They give us 8 reasons why to go nomad (pp. 26-30):

  1. Break from the template lifestyle
  2. live cheaper
  3. follow the weather
  4. work from inspiring locations
  5. travel the world (duh!)
  6. meet like-minded people
  7. grow!
  8. Because you can

The last one is telling: young people in the first world have great opportunities, so why not?

Reason number nine is even more interesting: “The digital nomad lifestyle has even become a status symbol.” (p. 17)

Fundamentally, then, this is about being happy.

People are much happier when they spend their time doing things they’re passionate about while living where they want.” (p. 14) The book tells the point of view of young nomads (most under 40) who are passionate about traveling, with little interest at all in long term “settlement”, and positive disdain for cultural or historical ties (AKA, “allegiance”).

I’ll add one more reason to hit the road. A la the testimony of Laura Viviana (pp. 186-190), sometimes stuff happens. Bob’s Pretty Good Psychotherapy ™ advocates the healing practice I like to call, “split for the coast”. Any coast. If you are unhappy and having trouble, take charge, get out of town, try something new.

How?

Nomadism is scarcely new, but historically is has usually been the fate of the poor, itinerant, homeless people, with no choice but to wander. Tramps, immigrants, and refugees have lived the life on the road, powerless and penniless.

Contemporary Digital Nomads do not seek to emulate the millions of homeless people in the world. Instead, they admire the jet set rich and off shore honchos, who “optimize their residency” to avoid taxes, do whatever they want, and enjoy life.

The crucial enabler is, of course, the Internet, which means that many people can work from anywhere. On the Internet, no one can tell you are a dog, nor can they tell whether you are in Manchester or Majorca or Mandalay—and it generally doesn’t matter.

Digital Nomadism also depends on rather specific historic and political circumstances. “[The digital nomad] subculture leans heavily on geoarbitrage (that is, taking advantage of currency and price differences between home country and destination)” (p. 260). There is an element of “regulatory arbitrage” as well, as J & G explain where to claim residence, incorporate a business, cache your money, and operate a business, all arranged to minimize tax and other overheads.

Live, Work, Play

The main sections of the book are organized into the three topics, Live, Work, and Play. Each section offers “how to” advice interspersed with testimony from actual Digital Nomads.

Many of the tips are good advice for anyone. Minimize your “stuff”. Keep good records. Etc.

However, if you are going to more or less permanently travel, there are specific issues to deal with. J & G expound their view that “smart, freedom-seeking individuals should not be bound in their allegiances to just one government.”, so you should “arrange different facets of your life to fall under the jurisdiction of separate countries or ‘flags’.” (p. 37)

In other words, you are moving “off shore”, so you will need to do a lot of work that on shore folks never worry about because there is no option. If this section doesn’t scare you off, maybe you have the makings of a Digital Nomad.

The “digital” aspect of Digital Nomad refers to the ability to do many jobs from anywhere in the world, via the Internet, a key technological enabler. After all, “[t]o make your mobile lifestyle sustainable and not just a temporary trip, you need to find a way to create an income” (p. 174) J & G give many examples of paying gigs which can be done “nomadically” if you desire to do so, such as Tax Advisor, Author, Poker Player (!), or ‘Infopreneur’.

The perfect job for a digital nomad is something you love to do that you can do digitally. For instance, copywriting can be “emailed in” from anywhere—the customer doesn’t know or care where you write. (In fact, if you can be in an inspiring and accommodating locale, it is probably good for your writing, no?)

In the end, the advice here is pretty much the same whether you are wanting to be “nomadic” or not: you need to figure out a sweet spot in “the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what people are willing to pay for”. (p.177) This is good advice, and really isn’t about “digital nomadism”, per se. Except, I guess, if you are thinking you want to go nomad, you may be open to discovering new things about yourself.

There is tons of detailed advice here. Jacobs describes “Four Ways to Make Money Online” (pp. 179-201). This is something she really knows about, and teaches (an example of one way to make money…). There is also advice about cross border payments, tax issues, and other business details.

They also give a lot of advice about “working smart”. This is good advice in general, but, as they point out, “[w]e became digital nomads to enjoy more freedom and live life more fully, not necessarily to relocate our over-crowded workdays to a sunnier location.” (p. 223) In addition, nomadism has its own challenges including distraction, unpredictable infrastructure, and lack of a stable workplace. All the more reason to minimize, simplify, automate, and delegate.

Coworking spaces are an obvious asset for Digital Nomads. They offer:

  • bandwidth
  • a work environment (rather than the boredom or chaos of home)
  • catering
  • social support
  • networking
  • professional setting for meetings

Obviously, part of the point of nomadism is to “play”: the point of going nomad is not to work someplace different, but to be someplace different, no? If you go to the trouble to bebop over to Bali or wherever, you want to spend some fun time there. I mean, c’mon!

J&G encourage us to dare to try it. There will never be a perfect time, and you’ll never be certain. Take a chance, take the plunge, she encourages. The have an extensive rundown on the nomadic lifestyle, though the overriding principle is “do your own thing”. They consider some global “hotspots” for digital nomads – inexpensive, friendly, bandwidthful places.

Analysis

Jacobs and Gussekloo give a rich and interesting picture of the Digital Nomad lifestyle. Their enthusiastic explanation both gives us much to think about, and raises questions.

Social Disconnection

J&G and several of their profiled nomads acknowledge that social relationships are a challenge in nomadic living. When you decide to up stakes and take off, you leave behind your family, friends, and home. Traveling continuously precludes many personal relationships. Nomads need to deal with loneliness. “You meet lots of great people, but everybody leaves at some point. Many nomads complain that relationships are shallower.” (p. 168) “You become somewhat unattached to people, and even places, because everything becomes temporary.“ (p. 154)

Nomadism is not easily compatible with conventional family life. J & G argue that it is possible to travel with kids, and can be an amazing way to grow up. But that doesn’t apply to aged parents, extended family, and all the other context of “a home town”.

Above all, going nomad is about abandoning one identity (include national allegiance), to take up another. This is not just about passports and taxes, this about the core of personal identity: for many people, family and home are central to their own meaning and happiness. Being “from somewhere” is a big part of who we are.

Returning to kids: kids can survive nearly any damn thing parents do, but each kids is different, and each has a right to be different than their parents! All kids need to develop friendships and build things besides memories. Some kids thrive best in a situation where they feel they “belong”, or need to feel “normal”. I would think twice before forcing kids to be homeless.

The other side of this coin is revealed in the section titled, “how to meet other nomads”. “Nomadic” does not mean “loner”—far from it—but digital nomads are certainly a distinct “tribe”. “One of the key success factors for us online entrepreneurs is to surround ourselves with like-minded people.” (Quoting marcus meurer , p. 276)

“Like-minded people”? “Smart, freedom-seeking individuals”? “Web developers, bloggers, drop shippers, anti-bosses, startup founders, renaissance revolutionaries, freedom philosophers, and financial hackers?” (p. 272, referring to NomadHouse.io) Clearly, there is a sense of identity here. But little allegiance to conventional nations or social groups.

Beyond traveling a lot, there is a question of whether and when you may decide to say “I am a Digital Nomad”, and take up this new tribal identity.

Sustainability

I have some serious reservations about the sustainability of this Digital Nomad lifestyle, in several dimensions of the term “sustainable”.

Digital Nomadism isn’t a particularly low-impact lifestyle. While eschewing a lot of “stuff”, and living a “simple” life is good, it is far from clear that couch surfing is or is not eco friendly. You might not own a car or house, but if you rely on others who do, then the balance sheet is complicated. In any case, air travel is really, really bad for the planet. Nomads who fly long distances multiple times per year have a huge, huge carbon footprint—far worse that their sedentary cousins back home.

I am also skeptical about the economic sustainability of J&G’s version of Digital Nomadism, which is based on a combination of geoarbitrage, free lunches (“Who needs newspapers, magazines, etc., when you can get all info online for free?” (p. 77)), and the gig economy.

Are there really enough jobs/income for more than a few Digital Nomads? Just how many web designers, Search Engine Optimizers, and motivational speakers can the world support? Worse, Digital Nomads are competing against all the freelancers on the planet. In the end, while it is true that anyone can be a Digital Nomad, it simply isn’t possible for everyone to be one. (At least not with anything like our current technology.)

I note that J&G’s notion of what “good pay” for work is rather low by my standards—certainly not enough to afford a house or kids education or save for retirement, regardless of geoarbitrage. Similarly, when Jacobs outsources, she looks to poor countries and pays paltry wages. Overall, this sounds like a poverty-stricken life, with little safety net for everyone involved. This is cool when you are young and single (and/or wealthy), but I have to worry whether it will work for everyone, or for a significant time.

We might also wonder just how long the favorable political confluence that allows a handful of young first worlders to travel and work so freely. The politics can surely shift, possibly quickly. Russia doesn’t seem like such a cool destination as it did twenty years ago, and Europe is scarcely welcoming to dark skinned nomads this year. Anywhere nomads congregate could become hostile in one or more ways that would surely ruin the fun.

For that matter, governments of all stripes have been cracking down on off shore business. As one or another “flag of convenience” is forced to share data and enforce banking laws, it will become more difficult for small time Digital Nomads to game the system. Pitfalls and penalties will proliferate, and many people will face the choice of either “staying on-shore” or permanent exile. This is not so fun at all.

For the last few years Internet connectivity has become generic and ubiquitous, and it truly has been very simple to connect anywhere in the world and actually work.

But will that continue to be true?

As a technologist who has created and lived through several generations of “revolutionary” digital technology, I tend to laugh at anyone who naively projects today’s technology forward more than a year or two.

One thing that will surely happen is that increased surveillance and countermeasures will make connectivity more complex and less assured, and businesses and organizations will need to be far more careful about digital communications. You’ll probably still be able to collaborate from anywhere, but you’ll need to be a whole lot more careful about your network access, and have a lot better cryptography and authentication. Many companies will not feel safe accepting connections from “some coffee shop somewhere in Asia.”

Besides the technology getting less fun to work with, I have to wonder if the jobs described by J&G will still be needed. Many digital nomads (and freelancers of any type) have been able to make easy money or barter for service such as “setting up a web site” for people, and there seems to be quite a few writers who make money doing “search engine optimization”. These activities are really, really specific to the current techno-economy. Will these be meaningful jobs in five years? Who knows? Will there be decent jobs for anyone, nomadic or not? Who knows?

Morality?

Finally, I think there are significant moral questions to be faced.

Digital Nomadism is a first world lifestyle, primarily chosen by the young and unattached. Living under “flags of convenience” to reduce taxation and other burdens may be “freedom” for these elite kids, but it is also a rejection of responsibility.

I think that “geoarbitrage” is a new name for an old lifestyle: colonialism. Rich first worlders enjoying world travel, marveling at the lovely people they find there. Are these “hotspots” basically theme parks for Digital Nomads?

By no means are we suggesting that digital nomads should feel guilty for their lifestyles. On the contrary, chasing happiness is a good thing, while spending money in a foreign country (when done in a respectful way and at local businesses) contributes to the local economy. Even without making a conscious effort, digital nomads are making the world a better place.” (p. 253)

Well, that is what J&G want to be true. But I sincerely doubt it works that way. Just chasing happiness and spending money doesn’t make the world better here at home, why would it do so somewhere else?

On this front, we can ask whether (voluntary) Digital Nomads are contributing anything positive in a world filled with desperate (involuntary) migrants, and increasingly savage border controls. The offshore, wandering lifestyle doesn’t look nearly so cool in places with hundreds of thousands of refugees in detention camps. And isn’t the free travel of a few privileged digital workers a slap in the face to homeless people fleeing war zones?


  1. Esther Jacobs and André Gussekloo, Digital Nomads: How to Live, Work and Play Around the World, Amazon.com, Self Published, 2016.

 

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