Opinion: I'm a digital nomad (and so are you)

How digital technology changes life as we know it
  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 14 July, 2012 11:06

Everything I own is packed into one of three backpacks -- or a storage facility in San Jose, Calif. I have neither a mortgage nor a rental agreement. I work from wherever I can find both caffeine and Wi-Fi.

My wife and I have finally achieved our long-held dream of extreme location independence. As I write this, I happen to be in New York City. Next week I'll be in Greece. I hope to spend Christmas in Kenya. A year from now: Who knows?

No, I'm not on vacation. And I'm definitely not retired. In fact, I've never had more work and I've never worked harder. Rather than being a distraction, my lifestyle enables me to put in many more hours than people who own houses and work in offices, because I don't have to maintain a house and don't have to commute to an office.

I might fit the definition of a digital nomad. I use the Internet and mobile technology to "telecommute," and I do work that has no connection to or requirement for any specific location.

But that definition the term "digital nomad" is obsolete and misleading. In fact, the overwhelming probability is that you're a digital nomad, too.

Let me explain.

What is a digital nomad, exactly?

A digital nomad is simply someone who can use digital technology to work from alternative locations.

It's not about traveling. It's about choice. So if you can work from another town or another country but choose not to, you're as much of a digital nomad as someone who does make that choice.

Unfortunately, the whole digital nomad idea has been hijacked by a certain kind of digital nomad, namely the young, traveling blogger and freelancer-type digital nomad.

That's why it may surprise you to learn that the majority of digital nomads aren't bloggers. Of course, you don't hear about nonblogging nomads because they don't blog about it. In general, digital nomads are older, make more money and work in more traditional professions than the digital nomad blogosphere would have you believe.

It's about choices and trade-offs

The biggest concerns people have about life as a traveling digital nomad are financial: How do I make a living? Can I afford it?

Those are impossible questions to answer specifically. Only you know your career, circumstances and skills. However, it is possible to generalize.

Telecommuters can often work from anywhere there's an Internet connection. If you can work from home, you can work from Rome.

In many cases, people can do exactly what they're doing now, either for the same company, or another company that will let them do it from abroad -- or a foreign company where you would work locally.

In still other cases, people can consult, teach, write about or otherwise temporarily convert a career from doing to teaching or helping.

And, of course, there's always the possibility of changing careers.

Many people say: What I do can't be done over the Internet or by phone. Dentists, building contractors, teachers, IT professionals and others believe they're chained to their current locations. However, many digital nomads have found temporary work in foreign countries doing the same job. Sometimes they make less money, sometimes more. (In general, the more desirable the location, the less money you'll make.)

The most common objections feel like showstoppers, when in fact they are merely expressions of preference.

For example, some people say they can't work abroad because they might make less than they make now. But that's an expression of preference: They prefer the security of a higher salary to the freedom of working abroad.

And there are people who say they can't work abroad because they have young children. In fact, raising your kids in your home country and keeping them in conventional schools is a preference.

Digital technology gives us options, enabling us to make choices. But these choices involve trade-offs: money vs. freedom; spending time with existing friends and family vs. making new friends; stability and security vs. adventure; and so on.

But what about money?

There's a myth about foreign travel that's so pervasive that it must be addressed here. It's the belief that living abroad is expensive and threatens financial security.

When you live a conventional life in a highly industrialized country, your biggest costs tend to be fixed costs: There are the expenses that go with living in a building -- rent or mortgage, plus utilities, trash, Internet, water etc.; then there are transportation-related expenses, usually car payments, insurance and gas; and then there are taxes, payments on debt and some others.

If you have fixed costs like those but your income isn't stable, you can end up in financial trouble if your pay suddenly drops, as many found out the hard way during the Great Recession.

However, when you're living abroad and renting a room somewhere, you have more flexibility and you can dial down your expenses quickly. If, for example, you're living it up in a fancy rented house in Europe and suddenly lose your biggest client, you could probably move quickly to Eastern Europe -- or somewhere else where the cost of living is much lower -- and rent more modest accommodations until you replace that client.

When you're living abroad as a digital nomad, your costs are as flexible and variable as your income might be.

Why now? And with what technology?

I enjoyed two major digital nomad trips -- four weeks with my wife and two kids exploring Mayan ruins in Central America and southern Mexico in 2006; and four months living in Greece with my wife in 2008. In both cases, I maintained my normal workload, finding Internet connections where I could.

Since then, the number and quality of products and services that facilitate life on the road as a digital nomad -- and foreign travel in general -- have increased radically.

Here's what's new.

Alternative housing sites. A new generation of websites help you find rental housing. The leader, Airbnb, lets you plug in a city and add your criteria, including price. If you want to be stunned, check out what you can rent in Spain for $40 per night or less (include Wi-Fi).

Much of the rental housing is available at steeply discounted weekly and monthly rates.

Note that you can use these sites not only to find accommodations abroad, but also to rent out your own home to offset your costs.

Social networking. Yes, social networks existed in 2008. But most people weren't on them. Now they are.

By far the hardest thing about moving abroad is being away from family and friends. Social networks like Facebook and Google+ keep you in constant contact.

Google+ in particular is great for people who want to live and work as digital nomads, in part because of Google+ Hangouts, in which 10 people can engage in a free, unlimited video chat. This lets you take part in meetings, give presentations and keep in touch with colleagues, family and friends.

Google+ is also very international, so it's a great way to meet people abroad and get advice about living in foreign countries.

Language translation. In the past few years, a number of instant language translation services, such as Google Translate (also available as a mobile app), have come online. There are multiple audio apps that let you carry on a conversation with someone who speaks another language: You press a button, say something, press another button and the app repeats what you said in a language you preselected. Then the other person does the same and the app repeats what he said in English. My current favorite is an iOS app called SayHi.

Cloud computing. Everyone was talking about cloud computing four years ago, but consumer-friendly, all-purpose cloud services were hard to come by. Today, we have Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive and many cloud-based backup options like Carbonite.

Cloud computing is great because the risk of damage or loss of your main PC increases by an order of magnitude when you're abroad. It's great to have your data safe online and to be able to access your stuff from random computers.

Touch tablets. Devices like the Apple iPad and the Google Nexus 7 are dream gadgets for digital nomads. They're small, their batteries last a long time, and they have plentiful apps -- making everything better while working abroad.

Internet-based telephony.Skype existed in 2008, but Google Voice didn't. Google Voice is a great service for digital nomads because when you're in another country, you can't connect it to a phone in that country, but you can place and receive voicemails and texts via the service. You can also associate your Google Voice number with your Skype account.

The benefit is that your phone number stays the same no matter where you go. So while you're in the U.S., your phone number can ring your landline and cellphones. Abroad, that same number lets you keep getting voicemail and texts.

Voice-cancellation headsets. One of the challenges of working abroad is that Wi-Fi is often found in crowded, noisy locations like coffeehouses and cybercafes. You might even have to deal with street noise, like yelling, honking and sirens, outside of the rooms you're living in.

That's why a new generation of noise-canceling headsets is so welcome. The very best I've found is a product called theBoom E headset from theBoom. (Here's my demo.) The noise cancellation is so good, you can be in a nightclub or any room full of shouting people, and it sounds like you're in a quiet office to others on the line. It works with laptops, tablets and phones.

These are the tools we digital nomads can use to make our lives better, whether we choose to live abroad or not.

So whether you're working from a local Starbucks or a cafe in Spain, tools designed for digital nomads give you unprecedented freedom and flexibility to remain connected and productive no matter where you choose to live and work.

Yeah, you're a digital nomad. But are you taking advantage of all your options?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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