Web Culture

Life on the Road: The History of Digital Nomadism

Rob Nightingale 23-12-2014

Depending on where you went, you may have noticed them during a recent vacation. A few Y-Gens hunched over their MacBook Air in the local coffee shop, incessantly tapping away.


You might think they’re tourists getting their Facebook fix, what would you say if I told you these were members of a growing movement? A group of people who work from coffee shops, hammocks, hostels and beaches around the world to run businesses, earn salaries, and to conduct their entire lives from wherever they see fit, provided there’s reliable wifi?

Welcome to the location independent world of the Digital Nomad.

In 2004, when Cody McKibben was 24 years old, two of his close friends died. This prompted a fresh assessment of everything he thought was important in his life. By 2006, Cody had quit his job and from 2008 began working on his business in earnest from South East Asia –where life was cheaper, and seemingly that much sweeter. By starting off as a freelance web developer and consultant, then moving toward launching the successful Digital Nomad Academy,  Cody has been able to fund a pretty enviable, profitable global lifestyle.

When Jodi Ettenberg set off an a one-year jaunt around the world, she was journaling her adventures on LegalNomad.com. On TheNextWeb she explains:

As the site grew, I began to receive offers for freelance writing and figured ‘why not see where it goes?’ I decided to keep the site ad-free (it still is) and in 2010, I moved it from blogger to WordPress. I started to build a routine that involved winters writing and eating in Asia and summers in North America, speaking at conferences and doing consulting work for social media.

Whether this idea inspires you to pursue something similar, or doesn’t appeal to you at all, it’s kind of amazing that it’s even possible. Let’s take a  look at the history, benefits and drawbacks of this movement.


A Brief History of Digital Nomads

This digitally enabled nomadic lifestyle is one more and more people are attempting, but it hasn’t been possible for very long – arguably only since the early ’80s. Prior to this, nomads had very little (if any) reliance on anything that’s digital.

It was way back in 1983 when Steve Roberts set out on his computerised recumbent bicycle to cover 14,000 miles around the US. On it’s own, this would be an impressive enough feat. But while simultaneously peddling around the US, Roberts was also maintaining his full-time writing career.

In the early ’80s, this was nothing short of revolutionary.

It’s in the faces of businessmen, sweating under their three-piece suits and regarding me over the remains of expense-account lunches. It’s in the faces of newspaper reporters who realise a few minutes into an interview that I am living their dream. It’s in faces old and faces young, faces barely tanned from a too-short Florida vacation and faces pallid that turn to catch a quick glimpse as I zip past the office window. It’s everywhere, for it’s a universal lust—the lust for freedom.

(Popular Computing Magazine, August 1984)


Whether Roberts’ odyssey was the genesis of the ‘Digital Nomad’ movement The Intrepids: 5 Inspirations From 5 Digital Nomads Who Work & Travel Thanks to the Web, we can take inspiration from the many who actually have escaped from the cubicle and have stepped out further with globetrotting. They are the intrepid breed called "the digital nomads". Read More is arguable, it certainly serves as a legitimate starting point for this brief exploration into this ‘technomadic lifestyle’ – a term used by Roberts, and picked up by the NY Times in 1999, that for some reason never caught on.

Back in the early ’80s, one of Roberts’ main concerns was how to save his articles with the rudimentary kit available. Using his standalone Model 100, “The memory would fill up halfway through the first feature-length article”. Shortly thereafter, in 1983, the satellite system ‘Motosat‘ allowed nomads to connect to the Net much easier. A decade later, as internet users burgeoned, and digital nomadism became a conceivable option that increasing (yet still relatively small) numbers of tiresome workers were considering, the first book on the topic, ‘Digital Nomad‘ was published, in which a very apt, hopeful prediction was made.

“Within the next decade, for the first time for 10,000 years, most people will find that the geographic tie is dissolving. It will happen gradually and people will be slow to realise that a revolution is occurring, but by the end of those ten years, most people in the developed world will find themselves free to live where they want and travel as much as they want”.

(Digital Nomad)

Although that prediction still hasn’t been realised, the ‘tech revolution’ post-publication accelerated phenomenally, allowing swathes of previously geographically-tied workers to at last become digital nomads, at last quenching that universal “lust for freedom”, provided their careers allowed for it. A far from exhaustive list of potentially nomadic careers can be seen here.



This acceleration of the movement may well predominantly be credited to the simplification of low-cost financial transactions thanks to Paypal (1998), the launch of freelancing sites such as Elance (1999), and the ease and reduced cost in keeping in touch with those back home and at the office thanks to Skype (2003). Not to mention more recent developments such as AirBnB (2008) and Slack (2013).

When Tim Ferriss launched his hugely successful NY Times bestseller “The 4-Hour-Workweek” (2007),  the idea of digital nomadism (or location independence) reached a far wider audience. The book sold in excess of 1.3 million copies, and stirred countless readers to radically alter their lifestyle in search for that elusive, nomadic dream.

It’s these tools, and this bestselling book, that inspired the lifestyle upheaval of a large number of popular nomadic bloggers – there are now more than 200. These writers, in turn, are inspiring the next generation of dissatisfied office-dwellers to tread a similar path.


During my own nomadic journey, it’s become clear that an increasing number of global citizens are definitely taking advantage of the location independent options (privileges) available. This may be in the form or perpetual travel, or simply more regular, longer breaks away from home. For those who aren’t yet location independent, it seems that almost all those I’ve spoken with are interested –n joining the ranks, but don’t see how this can be accomplished.

That being said, digital nomadism is far from mainstream. And it definitely isn’t a ‘revolution’ just yet, despite the predictions of people like  Mike Elgan and The Washington Post. Take a look at the search traffic for the terms ‘Digital Nomad’ and ‘Location Independence’ for the last ten years to see what I mean.

Digital Nomad

A revolution? Definitely not. A slowly percolating movement? Definitely.

What’s really interesting, though, is not so much the the ‘how‘ of this movement, nor the exact numbers of people opting out of a more traditional lifestyle (which are impossible to calculate anyhow). What’s interesting is the ‘why‘.

Why Is It So Attractive?

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 18.35.35

Why are so many people feeling such an urge to take this route? Why do so many people think it’s such a dream? Why are so many people so dissatisfied with their current condition?

When Roberts alluded to that “universal lust – the lust for freedom”, he was referring to what he saw as a fundamental Truth. It’s that lust for freedom which engrains in us a resentment for anything that restrains us from its realisation. It’s this lust for freedom that fills so many with a burning romanticism for the aimless wonderings of Kerouac, or the literary globe-trotting of Hemingway.

As this literary fantasy becomes ever more possible, and ever more visible on our Facebook and Instagram feeds via those travel-related #humblebrags Travel The World With These 10 Instagram Accounts If you can't actually get out and about yourself, there's no better way to travel the world than through photography. And while Instagram might be often (and unfairly) better known for food photos, or even... Read More of our friends who’re already on their way to, or already living, that freedom, we can’t help but think ‘why not me?’

I asked friend and fellow Digital Nomad James Schipper his thoughts on this topic:

Within that deluge of information [that we’re all victim to] come those other possibilities people didn’t know about only a short time ago. “Wait, you mean those kids on their laptops in Starbucks were actually making a living doing that, and not just playing around on Facebook?”.

Access to information also makes it harder to ignore the ache they may feel about the life they built not living up to their expectations. It’s easier when everyone else is doing the traditional work life. But when you start realizing how many other ways there are to experience life and still pay your bills (if you choose to have bills at all), then it gets harder to motivate yourself to do that 9 to 5.

Or maybe it’s just the sheer adventure of it all? An unattributed quote that Julia Safutdinova recently sent over to me was “don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life“.

On a more pragmatic note, perhaps, living this way is just cheaper. As the world becomes smaller, and the freelance economy continues to explode, and the currencies we get paid in remain valuable, we see the real attraction of geo-arbitrage (a “financial concept where disparities between markets are leveraged to generate or broker a return”- AltLifeHack). We understand that if we performed our work-tasks on the other side of the globe, our lifestyle would be that much better. A bigger apartment, better food, more adventure, and more sun, all for a smaller price-tag. Or, simply, we could save more money for when we eventually return home.

After all, I’ve personally lived pretty comfortably in cities such as Chiang Mai, Thailand for less than $800 USD per month. Belgrade, Serbia for around $1000 per month. Cebu, Philippines for around $900 per month. The list goes on.

And then there are the side-benefits that you might not realise before you set off. The myriad friends, the fascinating conversations, the most random of situations you’ll find yourself in, the ‘broadening’ mind, and the enforced minimalism that life on the road necessitates.

Where I love to “collect” (hoard), frequent moves require more focus on ‘what do I actually need?’ which in turn gives a fun push towards creativity: ‘if I have these x things, what can I do with them?’ instead of getting lost in unlimited options. Being a nomad is a great way to refocus and declutter in all areas of life.

Maria Galloway

The reality, as ever, is likely a mix. A mix of this romanticism and pragmatism- the dream for freedom, and the rational desire to have a better lifestyle for less cash.

But There Are Drawbacks


A life of travel and apparent freedom may look like a string of positives, and the perfect escape from the daily grind, but the term ‘perfect’ doesn’t quite fit here, and is a topic I think deserves far more attention than it’s received up to now.

I’m not sure most people realize the reality of day-to-day life on the road, especially when you have to work as you go to keep the money coming in. For example, I’m here in Cartagena, Colombia right now, and I’m working twelve hour days to finish a big project. I won’t have time to do most of the fun tourist stuff before I leave.

Even when people hear this kind of thing though, they still fantasize about the digital nomad lifestyle. Again, I think it’s because it’s so different, and it feels like an escape from the default lifestyle that most people just fall into. I’ll admit that the digital nomad lifestyle does have its moments, and I certainly prefer it to my old life working 9-to-5.

But as they say, with great freedom comes great responsibility. If you want to sustain a life of travel, you have to be disciplined, creative, and willing to make big sacrifices. You can have everything you want, but you can’t have it all at the same time.

(Niall Doherty)

Harry Guinness, a fellow MakeUseOf writer and traveler talks of trials and tribulations on the road:

1. Distraction: When I was traveling with people who weren’t working while travelling, and were just travelling while travelling, there was huge temptation to just say sod it and drink. Even aside from booze which was a full 24 hour right off, there was lots of other shiny new stuff going on that takes away from a desire to do some actual work.
2. Connectivity/Wifi/Battery:  I was on a boat for a month and unless we were docked or had the engines running we only had 12 volt power. Enough to just about charge a phone but not enough to even keep the lights on on a laptop (see image below).
3. Home: Facebook in particular makes it way too easy to stay in contact with home too much. If I wasn’t careful I could easily kill an hour or two just  aimlessly chatting with mates online utterly defeating the purpose of being away.

When you’re income relies on a reliable internet connection, who would have thought a simple ‘web page is not available’, and other infuriating techy problems for freelancers 17 Techy Travel Tips for Globetrotting Freelancers Dead laptops, weak batteries and the hazards of the road can make your life miserable. Worse, the perils of travel can crush your professional life. So how did I manage to not get fired? Read More image could cause so much stress?!.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 18.37.46

That being said, if you ask virtually anyone who’s turned to a nomadic way of life, the thought of returning to a 9-5 grind often fills them with anxiety and dread. Sure, there are days and weeks which suck, but for digital nomads, the opportunity cost of choosing to be no longer nomadic is not a cost they’re willing to pay. The thought of life ‘before’ is usually enough to dissipate any temporary temptations to go back to life ‘as it was’.

But digital nomadism is not a life for everyone. Not everyone would find being away from friends and family for months (sometimes years) at a time something they would enjoy. Not everyone would enjoy never knowing where they might be in a months time. Not always being able to easily cook for yourself, get online, relax, have a quiet life and a place to call ‘home’. Not everyone could hack only being able to travel to places that have ‘good’ wifi- what about those remote villages and national parks where the word ‘Internet’ has never been muttered, but which hold surprises and treasures for the intrepid travellers who venture those ways?

And along a similar note, not all digital nomads see themselves as being nomadic for the rest of their lives. For many, there may be distant plans of a return to ‘home’, or thoughts of settling down in a city they’ve fallen in love with. Yet this often comes with entrepreneurial plans to maintain financial independence, and more often than not, location independence, in order to retain that freedom they’ve worked so hard to build.

In all though, the opportunities that the digital revolution has afforded us are many, and digital nomadism is but just one. This is a young, minority movement still in its early stages that holds a romantic attractiveness to virtually anyone who hears the tales of nomads after an arduous days work in the office.

Can You See Yourself As A Nomad?

What do you think of this lifestyle? Is it something you would consider? And would it even be possible in your line of work?

If you want to learn more about the lives of a few other digital nomads, check out our article The Intrepids: 5 Inspirations From 5 Digital Nomads Who Work & Travel Thanks to the Web, we can take inspiration from the many who actually have escaped from the cubicle and have stepped out further with globetrotting. They are the intrepid breed called "the digital nomads". Read More .

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  1. Sten Tamkivi
    June 3, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    Thanks for pulling this backgrounder on Digital Nomad movement together. I think there is a gradient between someone who truly self-identifies by being "nomadic" to the typical "normal person" who changes their address once in 5-7 years on average (US stats). And there is a _massive_ explosion of people somewhere in between, becoming gradually more mobile first, and eventually location independent: maybe just taking a few days a week off commute, working in a distributed team of 10 people in 3 cities and inevitably ending up spending time in all of them, etc. Very exciting space. As you seem to care for this changing nature of work in general, you might be interested about what we're building at Teleport.org to enable this shift. Would be happy to chat more.

  2. Matt
    April 14, 2015 at 5:09 am

    Great article Rob - I've bookmarked it for future reference. I'm interviewing digital nomads on my new site http://www.secretnomads.com - I have over 70 applicants typing their interviews right now. Some of the comments you make are very true and have been mentioned by many of the nomads in the responses they have been sending me.

    Now....to explore all those interesting links within the article!

    • Rob
      May 1, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks for the kind Words, Matt. Good luck with the new project!

  3. Working Nomad
    December 25, 2014 at 12:08 am

    Some people question how I can sustain being nomadic for a decade and hold down a business. Well I can't exlain but there is something inside me that's awaken when I am on the move. It's only then do I feel truly alive.

    • eric jay
      December 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

      wow! congrats on that.

    • Rob
      December 29, 2014 at 11:24 am

      I second Eric- congrats on maintaining this lifestyle for so long! Out of interest, what's the biggest challenge for you personally when it comes to living this way?

  4. Kelly
    December 24, 2014 at 4:57 am

    Great article. :) I tried out the digital nomad lifestyle all last year and it was awesome, but I definitely learned of a lot of challenges most people don't realize until they do it. It all seems so glamorous and fun, but it's still a lot of work.

    • Rob
      December 29, 2014 at 11:23 am

      Thanks for the comment Kelly! So pleased you enjoyed the article!

    • Matt
      April 14, 2015 at 5:10 am

      So true Kelly - most people don't even think about the challenges. To be honest, I moaned about the heat in SE Asia way more than I should have. You don't see that in the photos when researching your trips!

  5. wle
    December 23, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    the 'list' of nomad-possible jobs is just silly..


    trapeze artist?

    Balloon Artist

    Consultant- in what?

    Camel Trainer

    Why not be a camel trainer?

    Brand/logo designers - uh

    Virtual Assistant-what?

    Property Manager-someone else does all the work?

    Dancer - ha ha



    • Rob
      December 29, 2014 at 11:23 am

      I think the article was pretty tongue-in-cheek, just showing the range of 'possible' jobs. Each is in the list as it links to a person who actually does that job nomadically, and is there mainly to get your creative juices flowing :)

  6. wle
    December 23, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    yep, lots of jobs need special equipment, or hands-on with stuff that can;t be moved, or face to face meetings..


    • Rob
      December 29, 2014 at 11:22 am

      I agree there are some positions where this simply won't work, but with regard to Face to Face meetings, I think the need for these is falling very rapidly, and eventually these meetings will be a rarity.

  7. Jon Green
    December 23, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    For limited professions, and limited lifestyles - yes.

    I'm a consultant embedded software engineer. Even if my clients could tolerate me coding away from their premises (most won't), I need a mixed-signal oscilloscope and a two-output desktop power supply just to run and test the hardware. Hard to do that in a coffee shop. The vast majority of professions, even information-based professions have their own, different but similar, limitations.

    And just try the nomadic lifestyle when you've school-age children - and a spouse who likes their home comforts and to see their partner. Been there, done that: the marriage survived, but no-one was happy, and all were relieved when I was back living at home.

    For the vast majority of people, nomadic working is a pipe-dream; an impossibility without changing their job to "Full-time writer".

    • Steven Gomez
      December 27, 2014 at 7:34 am

      Hi Jon,

      You make some valid points about living the life of a Digital Nomad. For most people, it isn't a practice lifestyle. It involves making some hard choices about what is important to you. That decision is even harder when you are married. Sometimes what you want doesn't match up with what your partner wants, yet your partner may be hesitant to voice these concerns until too late. If you aren't completely on the same page, it can be disastrous.

      I think that a nomadic lifestyle is something that should be carefully planned out. There ARE ways to work with some industries. Some travel-hacker sites recommend you using credit cards that include rentable "time-share" workspaces that are just as advanced as your workspace at home, right down to the coffee maker.

      As for young students, I can't imagine a better schooling situation than a year (or more) of "home study" abroad. It can truly be the adventure of a lifetime, or even the gateway to a life of adventure.

      I agree it isn't for everyone, and that there are many serious considerations you would have to face before attempting such a lifestyle, but if it is in your heart, if it touches your soul, than you owe it to yourself to face those considerations and see if the journey is worth it.

    • Rob
      December 29, 2014 at 11:20 am

      I was just about to respond, but Steven beat me to it! I think there are creative ways around plenty of careers that enable for those jobs to be done in a way that's independent of location. Sure, not all careers fit into this bracket, but as more and more tools become available, more and more careers do subscribe to this potential.