The rise of the digital nomad

Nomads have historically been seen as a threat, but several countries around the world are now actively seeking to attract this growing digital legion through new remote work visas

Shaun Busuttil, University of Melbourne

Shaun Busuttil

Published 31 August 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has nudged the world into a transitory twilight, suspended between the death throes of a pre-COVID existence and the unseen emergence of a post-coronavirus era.

But already perceptible in the half-light of this new world is a changing geopolitical landscape.

For centuries nomadic people have been seen as an existential threat to the integrity of the modern state. Picture: Wikimedia

In recent years, especially over the last 12 months, several countries around the world – from Iceland to Mauritius, Croatia to The Bahamas, Malta to Dubai along with many others – have introduced remote work and digital nomad visas to attract an itinerant community of digital workers.

This is a community that’s set to grow exponentially as the global pandemic continues to untether workers from offices and cubicles around the world.

On top of this radical change in traditional work practices, an equally significant development has begun to emerge in the international geopolitical order.

For centuries nomadic people have been seen as an existential threat to the integrity of the modern state and its monopoly of citizenry control, ordering and containment.

Transcending local, regional and national loyalties, nomads were ascribed with immoral intent and a challenge to the power of the state that functioned on bounded and bordered communities. With no addresses to their name, rootless nomads were not so easily controlled.

But the introduction of these new visas is helping to revalue and reinterpret the nomad from a foe to a friend in modernity: from figures feared and kept out, to a new class of nomadic capital that’s invited in with open arms.

What we are witnessing is an attitudinal shift towards mobile people and a change of policy that challenges the traditional exclusion of nomadic people – well, at least a certain kind of nomad.

In 2021, digital nomadism has become a reality and a way of life. Picture: Getty Images

While COVID-19 moved remote work into the spotlight over the last 18 months, working remotely has been around for years – at least, for a lucky segment of business travellers and a small, but growing, group of digital nomads.

For these (mostly) tech-savvy millennials from the Global North, travelling the world while working online has been a reality for more than a decade.

In 1997, technology visionaries Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners forecasted a future where computing technology and the proliferation of Wi-Fi would untether workers from their offices. This would allow them, for the first time since the agricultural revolution over 10,000 years ago, to indulge humanity’s natural proclivity to wander and roam.

In this tech-mediated mobile future, they argued, people would form ‘tribes’ or communities based on shared goals, interests and values in different pockets of the world. This would mean people would no longer base their identity or stake their loyalties on where they came from or where they were born.

As a result, nationalism and the nation-state would lose their relevance in a world of unhindered global mobility, and countries would compete against each other to attract these itinerant workers and the resultant revenue, capital and tax dollars they’d bring ­– or so they argued.

Fast forward to 2021 and digital nomadism has become a reality and a way of life. In the USA alone, more than 10 million people identify as digital nomads, and by 2035, this number is expected to reach a billion worldwide – and that was before COVID-19.

In the USA alone, more than 10 million people identify as digital nomads. Picture: Getty Images

But it’s only been in the last few years that several nation-states, such as Georgia and Estonia, have begun positioning themselves as nomad-friendly destinations in order to attract these new kinds of nomads. And many other countries have since followed suit, spurred into accelerated action on account of the pandemic.

As businesses around the world responded to the imperatives of social distancing and isolation by looking to the cloud and transferring their operations online, millions of newly untethered workers were suddenly free to work from wherever they wanted.

Suddenly, traditionally tourism-dependent economies, like Barbados, were faced with a stark choice: adapt or decline.

Seeking to capitalise on this newly untethered global workforce and offset the losses of a dwindling tourism sector, many countries – such as Greece – are now branding themselves as digital nomad hotspots (along with favourable tax schemes) and not just somewhere to go on a holiday.

In doing so, these nation-states and their newly minted digital nomad/remote work visas are overturning long-held exclusionary practises towards nomads – albeit with a focus on economically, socially and politically privileged groups of mobile people.

Indeed, nomads are no longer exclusively seen as threats to keep out, but, viewed through the lens of economic rationalism, they’re now a hot commodity and look like continuing to be so well into our post-COVID future.

Banner: Getty Images

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