A privileged escape that’s hurting communities at home and abroad
.. The privilege of digital nomads
The World Domination Summit (WDS) takes place annually in Portland, Oregon and serves as a gathering place for the lifestyle-entrepreneurship, do-what-you-love (DWYL) community that has grown around the writings of Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, and the other gurus that dominate the niche.
In its early years, Amanda Palleschi wrote about the event for the New Republic, calling WDS out for being attended primarily by white people who “have advantages or significant successes that enable them to see the world through DWYL-colored lenses (and to pay for the $500 entry fee to WDS).” Guillebeau himself even acknowledged that he was “mostly attracting other Westerners” and told Palleschi, “[j]ust because we have privilege doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our lives.” The summit has advertised a more diverse set of speakers in recent years, but that doesn’t mean its audience is significantly more diverse. As the community has grown, there were bound to be minorities who did well within it, just as in regular society, but that doesn’t mean they make up a sizeable chunk of its followers.
The reality is that the promise of digital nomadism is built on a quasi-libertarian worldview that’s closely related to the ideologies of Silicon Valley titans. In short, certain measures to promote social progress might be acceptable, but many believe that the government needs to take a hands-off approach on economic matters and not interfere significantly in the market.
DWYL is a privileged orientation focused on individual success, which ignores programs in developed societies the were designed to promote collective wealth and well-being. Miya Tokumitsu, a Jacobin contributing editor, called it “the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.” The movement’s gurus make a gesture toward charitable causes to not seem too selfish, but their initiatives often forward their worldview: helping others to escape the tyranny of traditional work and life structures by building their own lifestyle businesses.
The fierce individualism of digital nomads is damaging to communities, both at home and abroad, because people who feel “liberated” from space have no stake in improving their local area. They’re far less likely to work toward positive local change, fight for the rights of disadvantaged peoples, or be interested in halting the gentrification that displaces long-term residents — to which they usually contribute — because those issues don’t affect them.
.. Into this situation come the digital nomads, looking for locales that are inexpensive by Western standards, but where they can easily outspend residents to maintain a quality-of-life that would be difficult to achieve on local salaries. Chiang Mai, Thailand and Bali, Indonesia are some of the leading destinations for those seeking the location-independent life, causing a predictable development: developers chasing Western money.
.. The gurus talk of finding destinations where one’s money will go further, ignoring the consequences for local people because the only thing that matters is the achievement of their personal success.
.. Even though digital nomads come from developed countries and benefited from taxpayer-funded education, health, and social programs throughout their lives (and expect to in the future when they return to their home countries), they rarely feel any obligation to give back. Similar to tech libertarians, they do all they can to minimize their tax burden by finding the jurisdiction or country with the lowest tax rate to establish their business and, depending on the tax rules of their country of citizenship or residence, move often enough that they aren’t obliged to pay income tax.
.. Rhetorically, digital-nomad gurus say that everyone should follow their hearts and pursue their passion, but it’s clear that their message is only meant for a particular group of privileged Westerners, as their lifestyles are made possible by people rooted to place and not necessarily enjoying their work.
.. They may achieve an additional degree of freedom and enjoyment from structuring their lives in an unconventional way, but that’s only possible because they ignore the consequences of their actions by surrounding themselves with people who have similar levels of privilege and an unquestioning adherence to an ignorant, individualistic worldview strongly influenced by Silicon Valley’s brand of libertarianism.
.. Low-cost destinations exist because rich countries looted and plundered the rest of the world for centuries through colonialism and unequal trade relationships. The privilege to even consider becoming a digital nomad is a result of legal structures and high-quality public services that are funded through the wealth generated from those centuries of global dominance.
.. Privilege allows digital nomads to ignore all these things and live in a fantasy world where they need only worry about themselves. They take full advantage of their positions to live more fulfilling lives, while trying to avoid the responsibility to contribute to the society that granted them their privilege in the first place and actively augmenting the forces displacing locals in the places they treat simply as destinations, rather than communities. Digital nomads do not care about the societies they live in, and for that reason they have no place in the future.