The History of Digital Nomads: From Predicting the Future to WFH Life

It’s a term that wasn’t very commonly used only a few years ago, but today is quite popular: digital nomad. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic thrust into reality the downsides of working in physical offices and the advantages of having remote workforce, digital nomads have become mainstream.

The two words, though, combine the old with the new. The word “nomad” has been around for hundreds of years in the English language. Most experts agree that it came from French in the 16th century, but before that, it had Greek origins. The term “nomad” came from the classical Greek word nomás and nomos. These words were understood in the context of roaming and wandering, especially to find pasture. The term generally applied to hunter-gathered types, and those who cared for livestock on the move.

The Internet and Coming of Age

By the 20th century, when the word “digital” came into the lexicon, it was possible to combine the two. This is believed to have happened in 1997 in the book “Digital Nomad” by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. It’s not clear if the duo coined the term or borrowed it from something that already existed. When “Digital Nomad,” the internet was still in its infancy, yet some futurists had been predicting the future of remote work in the decades earlier.

Author Arthur C. Clarke, famous for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” commented in 1964 that the transistor and other high-tech communications will make possible “a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.”

A decade later, in 1974, Clarke furthered his futuristic vision in saying that computers would — gasp! — be able to fit on a desk.

Digital Nomad on a Bike?

The person who is first believed to be the first actual digital nomad did so on a bike. Steven K. Roberts, a writer, built himself a seemingly insane contraption of computer gear on an 8-foot recumbent bicycle. It even included solar power.

In 1984, Roberts wrote the following about his endeavor in Popular Computing magazine:

“It’s my home, with the three-bedroom ranch in suburbia now just a memory. But beyond that, it’s my office as well; as I pedal a 14,000-mile loop around the United States, I am maintaining a full-time freelance writing profession. Thanks to a carefully integrated quartet of support facilities, I can present the illusion of geographic stability when the need arises — and simultaneously juggle book and article manuscripts while having the adventure of a lifetime. Those support facilities comprise a widely applicable technological infrastructure for almost any kind of information business — on the road.”

Digital Nomads Becoming More and More Common

In the years following Roberts’ journey, computing started to get more commonplace and more powerful. Milestones like Microsoft Windows came to market, and wireless internet first became a reality in 1997, the same year Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners wrote their “Digital Nomad” book.

By 1999, The New York Times caught on to some of the digital nomad trends. The international newspaper of record observed, “But now a new breed of techno-nomad is taking to the road. These travelers are fortifying themselves with things like laptops, personal digital assistants, telephone adapter kits, digital cameras, photo-editing software and Web-design tools. They’re using the Net not just to take care of pesky daily matters — like paying credit card bills — but also to trade tips with fellow travelers on the road, scout out resources in countries to be visited and post on-line travelogues.”

By 2000, there was an “e-lance economy” to network what we refer to today as freelance or gig workers. Skype emerged in 2003 to make free voice calls over the internet. The iPhone came out in 2007 and changed mobile phones forever. New terms came to the fore like “neo-nomads” before www.digitalnomads.com established itself in 2008.

It would take until 2010 and beyond for the digital nomad norm — as well as the lifestyle and benefits with it — to become more of a reality. But the WFH (work from home) life would all but need a pandemic by 2020 to be more accepted and embraced.

While some companies and managers may contend that organizational culture and creativity still need people gathering in physical places to happen, others say this quite the case and that there is no proof of that. The benefits of working from home, anywhere (and sometimes anytime) outweigh the drawbacks.

What seems clear is that WFH/digital nomads are here to stay. And they’re expected only to grow as a younger generation gets used to the idea and the lifestyle. They’ll always prefer a laptop with an ocean view to a cubicle under fluorescent lights.



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