The term “Digital Nomad” has been beaten to death over the years, but it still means a lot to those of us who have identified with that label.
James Clark is certainly one of those people.
He’s been a full-time nomad since the early 2000s, and we’ve shared many great memories with him around the world.
James is also the author of a brilliant blog called Nomadic Notes, where he recently published an article that captured our attention.
The post was titled Digital Nomad History, and in it he chronicles the start of the digital nomad movement through today, touching on all of the most important milestones.
James joins us on today’s podcast to talk about the history of digital nomadism, what inspired him to write that blog post, and a whole lot more.
Listen to this week’s show and learn:
- Why James chose to document the history of Digital Nomadism. (6:11)
- Where the term “Digital Nomad” originated. (18:51)
- The profound impact of The 4-Hour Workweek. (25:15)
- Why bloggers were so important to the growth of digital nomadism. (30:05)
- The current state of affairs for digital nomads in 2021. (43:43)
Mentioned in the episode:
Before the Exit – Our New Book
Partner With Us
The Dynamite Circle
Tropical MBA on YouTube
Post a Remote Job
Dynamite Jobs – Remote Recruiting Sales Page
Let’s Talk High-Level Podcast Strategy for 1 Hour
Digital Nomad History
Arthur C. Clarke
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Digital Nomad by Tsugio Makimoto
Free Agent Nation by Daniel H. Pink
The Gear of Life Nomadic – Tynan
The Art of Non-Conformity
Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin by Damien Walter
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Dan & Ian
Dan: Happy Thursday morning, welcome back to the pod. I absolutely loved recording this episode. Because it’s about a subject that has changed my life, I know so many of your lives as well. It’s about digital nomadism. A term that’s used, abused, debated, meaningful, meaningless, whatever. But to me, it’s been really, really important. I’ll try to sum that up just really quickly – when I was in my mid 20s. And working my first “quote”, real jobs, I had two sort of big issues that felt very separate in my life that I needed to contend with. The first was to become a competent earner, I had never made money, I didn’t have any money, and I had a lot of debt. So I needed to figure out a way to make a good living. And I wasn’t doing that at the time. So that was a very, very big issue.
But the bottom line is the term digital nomadism did matter a lot at the time. And it has mattered to us over the years here at the show, because there were so few people doing it. We all wanted information regarding it and how we could make it work for us. So in order to talk about the history of digital nomadism, I am so happy to have someone on the show who I’ve shared many bowls of Pho with over the years, and who has recently written an amazing piece about the movement’s trajectory. It’s titled somewhat unsurprisingly, ‘Digital Nomadism History’. And the author’s name is James Clark. He’s the creator of the Nomadic Notes blog, which he started in 2009. And has been a huge inspiration to me over the years. But most importantly, and relevant to today’s conversation. He’s been more or less a full time Nomad, experiencing different cultures and countries since the early 2000s. So let’s just jump into it. Because I gotta say this one was really, really fun.
The reason we’re talking today is he wrote this brilliant piece called ‘Digital Nomad History’, it’s quite long form. And you quite literally do a better job than of anywhere else that it currently exists, of mapping the history of this trend, and or this movement, rather. And we’re going to take the time today to walk through that history and share some of the key points. But first, I’d like it if you could give us some context as to why you did this and what inspired you.
James: I’ve been a Digital Nomad since 2003. So I’ve had a great interest in the subject. And I’ve been watching the movement grow over the years. So it’s sort of been fascinating to see how it keeps developing. And then now, especially in the pandemic era, in 2020, things just changed. I think we can say safely now that digital nomadism is now in the mainstream. I mean, we’re at the point where we had this enormous movement of people, millions of office workers were being told to work from home. And instead, they just discovered they could work from anywhere, which is basically what a digital nomad is.
So you’ve got that movement on the one side, and then on the other side, governments all around the world are starting to realise that, hey, this would actually be an ideal kind of visitor to our country to have people who are already making income to just come here, rent a place and work for a while. So we’re now at the point in history where last year, in 2020, Estonia was the first country to offer a digital nomad visa, and it was called digital nomad visa. And now there’s like several countries which have offered that and there’s more news every day of more countries that are now planning to offer the same thing. So we’re at the point now, where countries are going to be fighting to attract digital nomads.
So with this, you know, enormous amount of interest in it, I thought, well, it’d be good to have a look at how we got to where we are today. I’m locked down in Vietnam at the moment, I thought, what the hell? I’ve got a lot of time on my hands, so I’m going to go through this and research the hell out of this. So I had a great time researching this topic because I’ve been around for like 15 odd years of it and to see that it went back so much further was very fascinating to have a look to see how it developed.
Dan: Is that the main thing that surprised you in your research is how long the concept has been around?
James: I guess so. In the 90s, when it was first sort of formulating, I wasn’t even an office worker, I didn’t even know how to turn a computer on at that point. But I knew that when I saw the Internet – okay, this is what I’m going to do with my life. I want to somehow work with computers. But going back, there were people before the internet was a thing that were predicting that this was going to happen. And the most fascinating one I found was Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction author and futurist.
Dan: So let’s then James, talk about this, make sure the article that you wrote is laid out in a timeline. I want to make sure that we pinpoint or attach our commentary to the timeline itself. So Arthur C. Clarke, who I’m not overly familiar with, let me just quote a few things. So we’re talking about 1964. Arthur Clarke, you talk a little bit about your process. And one of the things you point out, which is a theme of the TMBA, and I love this, you said, ‘Another problem is that this’, i.e. the history of digital nomadism on the internet, ‘Only represents the tip of the iceberg. The submerged part of the iceberg, i.e. 90% are digital nomads who never write about being a digital nomad’. And I love, love, love that part of it. Because I think part of what we’ve both seen being out on the road and meeting people, IRL, so to speak, is that that’s where all the secrets are. They’re not really on the web.
James: The truth is, it’s probably less than 1% of an iceberg, which is not even physically possible. But you get my point. The most successful digital nomads are not going to try and sell you an ebook on how to be a digital nomad, because everybody worked it out and are just quietly getting on with their life. So I’m just working with the information that’s been published. And that’s sort of a whole other topic. Because, after reading this, I feel like people need to write more about their experience.
Dan: Why is that?
James: Because it’s really important information, I think just quality information, like I went through so many articles, and there’s like so many articles on, ‘How To Be a Digital Nomad in Chiang Mai’, or something really cliched like that, but there’s hardly any articles on the thoughts that people had, maybe they had an observation of what they saw. So the more of that, which may not get as many readers now, but I think over time, those sorts of articles become more important because it sort of becomes a record of history.
Dan: Lots of observations from expat authors that one of the things I’ve been toying around with, I guess I’ll just drop this kind of concept here. Because it’s something I’ve just been thinking a lot about is this concept of ‘relative wealth’. So the idea is, when you think about it, we’re at the intersection of business and travel. And, I love these kinds of hardship posts, expat literature, where, for example, in the colonial days, you’d send some low level bureaucrat who wasn’t doing so well in London or whatever you’d send them to India or whatever, and they’d be a local Prince. And they might not have had the wherewithal to do that in London. But they were able to do it by their educational advantage, by the power of their currency etc.
And so when you think about having more freedom via purchasing power, you can climb a hierarchy of wealth generation in a first world country, or you can earn in a first world country and downgrade your lifestyle to a place where you’re automatically in a wealthy class. And I think that that’s part of the story of digital nomadism. I remember when I was first making $50,000 a year as a freelancer, which makes me for my age, say, and education level, not a very powerful consumer in a first world country. It literally puts me in the investment wealth class in South America or Southeast Asia or in China at the time. I think one of the interesting themes of digital nomadism is offering you a chance to become a more powerful consumer and investor without necessarily spending more time building more wealth or climbing a career hierarchy. Do you have any thoughts on that?
James: True. It took a while to get to that point, I think, obviously, we use ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ as this sort of milestone event in digital nomad history where people realised that that’s how you could do it. So before that, there was a lot of groundwork to be laid out where people were just working out, you know, working remotely first. So once there was a groundswell of people working remotely, then the next step up was, ‘Okay, we can now do this anywhere, so why not do it’.
Dan: It’s almost like, ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ turned what was maybe a bunch of emotional things for freelancers and entrepreneurs into a very mathematical thing. And perhaps COVID did that for workers, because there are a lot of emotional and social ties to working a knowledge work job in New York City or San Francisco. And it’s been interesting for me to watch people in the tech community not really be turned on to true remote work. Even the opportunity to like work from home wasn’t synonymous with the opportunity to work from anywhere just yet. They still had to make that leap. Because there’s such a strong social network of, ‘Hey, we’re centred around this geographic area and this type of lifestyle’, for that matter?
James: Absolutely. I see that in this history that I wrote, where most of the blogs were all like these, like Bay Area tech workers talking about going down to their local cafe, instead of working at the Google office. And so it wasn’t like they were even going, ‘Oh, you know what, I’m going to go to Thailand for a month’. It’s like, ‘Hell, I can go down to Java Joe down the road. I can plug in my computer with this cord they’ve got there set up for me, I don’t have to be at the office’. So that’s the tip of the iceberg of the people that were writing, because there were all these tech workers, they’re the only blog post that sort of exists today, that’s the only experience that I could find so far.
And I guess going from my own experience. I went digital nomad in 2003. And I was living in Ireland at the time. And then I went to Switzerland of all places, and I was just living there. And then working online and in the only place I ever used to go were the webmaster forums like ‘Webmaster World’ and stuff like that, and just learning about when the next Google update is coming out because I was like living on the monthly Google updates. I was just immersed in that scene and no one ever talked about where they were. Most of them were probably just kids in their mom’s basement. I never stopped to think, ‘Hey, I’m in Switzerland, isn’t amazing’. Nobody else is really talking about it. So I think it was that ‘Four Hour Workweek’ moment, which was a thing where it was – you can go to San Francisco to work or go and work in Thailand instead, and give yourself permission to do that. Why not just tell your boss you’re going to work at home for a while, but then go and work overseas and just experiment. So there’s more experimenting about where to work. So I think it took a long time for people to realise that, but we’re there now.
And the big thing too is it’s going to change the status quo of offices as a necessary thing. You have these huge campuses, where companies build these places where everyone has to work. And now, people have realised that you know what, I’m just as productive at home, and I get two hours in my day back, because I don’t have to commute anymore. This is history playing out now, which I don’t know the answer to, because we’re still in that thing. So if I update this in 10 years time, we’ll be able to go, ‘Oh, wow, it’s so obvious that in 2021 the office was dead’, or something but for now we’re still fighting it out, companies still want people to go to the office because they’ve spent so much money on it. But people are going, ‘You know what, I kind of like my own office, I got a nice coffee machine here and I can do what I want’.
Another thing about digital nomadism too, is like most people aren’t going to be long term nomads. I’m sort of an outlier in that regard. I don’t promote myself to do this lifestyle. I look at it as if it’ll become like a gap year or an experience year, where people go away for two years and come back home and leave there permanently. I guess, Bossman Ian is a good example. We did these years of digital nomadic and now he’s got a really nice home base set up in Texas, but I think that also is a great experience for people. I think that’s why Australians have this great idea because so many of us go off, we take advantage of these Working Holiday visas so we go off and work in the UK or in Ireland or skiing in Canada or what have you. So it gives you a head start into living abroad. And I think that’s going to be open for people that have never had that opportunity before.
Dan: So let’s take a deep dive into the history of digital nomadism. And for me and you a little walk down memory lane as well. So your digital nomad history starts in 1964 of all places, can you let us know why you selected this year and what happened?
James: There was a very good quote from Arthur C. Clarke, who is a famous science fiction writer, you probably better know him for the movie ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, so he wrote that book, and that became a very famous movie. He was just fascinated with technology and how the future is going to look. He was in an interview, and he was saying, look in 50 years time, we’ve got all this technology coming up, we’ve got satellites that have just been launched, where we can talk instantaneously to people, and technology is going to improve so much. And he said in 50 years time will be, you know, possible that someone could do their work in Bali, rather than in London. And I thought, wow, that’s a really an amazing quote, then we have, almost 50 years later, Mr. Dan Andrews of TMBA is the first digital nomad to set up in Bali, so I thought that was kind of fascinating.
Dan: According to the internet, I’m the first one. According to the internet.
James: Well, there’ve been a lot of expats, of course, a lot of people written about Bali that go back to the 1930s. What we’re doing isn’t new in regards to foreigners living abroad, but this new class of people that are using technology to live and work anywhere, as far as I could tell, you’re the first one to write about it. Maybe there were other digital nomads there, but they weren’t writing about it. In the early blogs, people weren’t even really sure what was going on. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve just arrived here, I don’t know how this works, we’re just going to try it out. The internet’s not very good, but we’re going to try and make it happen’.
Dan: Part of my blogger ethos is, ‘history doesn’t go to the victors, history goes to the ones who take the time to write the history’. Let’s move on to the next date that you feel is critical in the history of digital nomadism, James,
James: I will just go back to one more predictor, we had Robert Noyce, from Intel, who said ‘People are going to choose to work where it’s conducive to live, wherever they live, where it’s conducive to work’. Instead of being next to a factory in a cold, boring city in the middle of nowhere. They’re like, well, I’m gonna work on the beach and do my work here. He had his hand in helping reduce the size of computers. So he obviously saw it coming.
Dan: This was 1981.
James: Computers were still pretty bulky at that point. But they had been, you know, he was the CO inventor of the integrated circuit. So he’s obviously helped bring down the house size computers down to sort of a box that sits on your desk. And not currently portable yet, but we’re a hell of a long way to getting there.
Dan: Let’s fast forward then to the next. Obviously, there’s many critical dates, but one that you think would be interesting to the audience.
James: I think the next point up is 1997. So a few things happened here. So Wi Fi became available and even though it wasn’t really important at the time, there was a book released called ‘Digital Nomads’. So that seems to be the first instance where digital nomad was outed as a phrase and that talks about people going to go back to doing what they love, travelling and being able to work wherever they want. So they saw that coming, but I think even then, the concept was still a bit far out at the time. But by then you have another offer Dan Pink who wrote an article in ‘Fast Company’ called ‘Free Agent Nation’. And that was, I think, a more relatable article because there was a great movement of people that were starting to work online at that point. So, that was sort of focusing more on the people that were becoming online entrepreneurs or contractors for companies that could work at home rather than someone who has to go and work at the office. So this was bringing millions of people from the office into their home office. That was sort of a stepping stone to becoming digital nomads, it’s like, well get it get you out of the office first. And they end up writing a book a couple of years later, ‘Free Agent Nation’, which continues on with that, where he wrote about these free agents who were just working at home, and he occasionally talked about some people who are just travelling as well. But that wasn’t really the main point of it, at that era.
Dan: I was using computers at that time and thinking about you had this generation of foreign correspondents who were able to sort of – they weren’t quite allowed to be anywhere, typically. But you know, they could be somewhere. And then you had like a generation of salespeople who were able to do this, but they kind of had territories typically. So salespeople were sort of this next generation of people who were like remote workers, leveraging technology. But I think what Daniel Pink hit on is this sweeping reform that comes through when all of a sudden all of these job classes are in a remote category, like administrative support, sales support. And I think that that’s what happened with the Wi Fi revolution in 1999, and portable computing, and stuff that all of a sudden, it wasn’t these very specific types of jobs, it was just a whole whole host of categories of jobs that became remotable.
James: And I think that’s the point is there’s so many of these jobs that are brain jobs, where you don’t need to be in a physical location, you’re not labouring or manufacturing something. So it was an idea that was so ripe to happen as soon as it was technologically available to do so it just started happening organically over time.
Dan: When you say technologically possible, in 1999, maybe we could point to a few things – you had high quality OSs, all of a sudden you have like something like Windows 1995, which exploded across, I remember that coming out in America and making like these computers, we had in our homes much more usable and useful. You had Wi-Fi, which means that you don’t need to contract with some cable company, if you’re going to move somewhere remotely or go to a cafe. And then you have kind of consumer internet maturing as well, at the same time.
James: So you’ve got Windows 95, in 95, obviously, so by 99, we’ve had four years of very solid growth. There were already people lining up in the stores to buy the software where you would line it up with your CD ROMs. And so you’ve got four years of people that are now familiar with, you know, the Internet, and obviously, AOL was sending out their CDs to everyone, so you can get your AOL email, and hotmail as well. There were so many people online that it was ready for people to go, ‘Well we’ll just work online, let’s take our job home’. And then people started making businesses online as well. So that was a really fascinating time.
Dan: One of the big critiques of the crypto verse is that first off, it’s a bunch of people you don’t know where they are hanging out in Webmaster forums and whatever similar. And then it’s a bunch of people breaking the rules. And like I remember at that moment on the internet, creating fake credit card numbers, buying AOL accounts, buying credits, and little rewards online with these credit cards that we would make up by finding banks and it just opened. So the internet wasn’t ready for consumer level applications. Let’s then go on to the next moment in history that you find compelling.
James: So I think 2007 is the next pivotal point. And you start in 2007 with the first iPhone being released, which was sort of like a major milestone in technology, computing in the pockets, the sort of stuff that Arthur C. Clarke would have dreamed about. And then a few months later, you’ve got ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ by Tim Ferriss, which sort of gave people the permission and idea to work from anywhere. And you could start using the cost of living to start living somewhere else, or outsourcing stuff. And all these things that are related to being a digital nomad were sort of put down into one book. And I think that was a huge turning point for our movement, at least, where people are now realising that they can do this anywhere.
Dan: I think Tim was the right person to do it. And it was the right book too. His personality, his, you know, willingness to maybe be a little annoying or look past the rules are something that I think is important, because there is this undercurrent that, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t the right thing to do’. There is this iconic clastic nature to .. and you still see that undercurrent today in the critiques of digital nomadism. It’s gentrification, it’s this. It’s that or whatever. And I do think, as a culture, we sort of needed the permission and the blueprint to say, ‘You know what’s really clever – making money in a first world country and spending it in a developing country? That’s clever. That’s not weird. That’s just smart. That’s just good business’. And that is what Tim Ferriss would say. And I feel like that was an empowering message for a whole generation of tech workers.
James: That’s the important point – there were a lot of ideas that were already available, but he just lashed all together into one easy to read package, which hadn’t been done before. This package sort of came out at the right time, perhaps by the right person that delivered the message, obviously, a touch of marketing genius as well helped in that regard. That’s also kind of a big point in, you know, blogging at that point. And I also noticed, while going through all these blogs, he lit a spark for the lifestyle design movement. That was his thing, he wasn’t he wasn’t really a digital nomad, or he doesn’t really talk about that. But he talks about lifestyle design. So there’s a lot of bloggers that came after him who were life hacking, if you will, trying to work out how to get more out of life with less.
Dan: I’d like to insert what I’ve always thought to be a critical convergence in the history of digital nomadism. Skype launched in 2004, but I think Skype in and out launched in like 2006 or seven, around the time ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ came out. And I think that those two things, and related technologies were this very powerful bind of, you know, the difference James between making a living on the internet like you were doing through affiliate marketing or through web mastering, or these various sort of knowledge work/internet related things, versus being a freelancer that maintains a relationship via telephone to their employer, or to their clients, is dramatic. I’ve seen on the ground that the amount of people that essentially make their living through the telephone is many multiples more than people who are pure internet income earners. And so I feel that one of the biggest and understated sparks of the digital nomad movement was the ability to make affordable voice calls globally. And Skype really enabled a lot of that.
James: Absolutely revolutionary. Because that was the biggest problem as a traveller, I’d buy these phone cards and it cost like $2 a minute to call Australia or wherever, something ridiculous. Then all of a sudden, I can now just plug in some headphones, and I’m talking into my computer to my family in Australia or whatever. And you can live anywhere. And that was absolutely a big point.
Dan: Did you see the effect of’ ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ on the ground as you were travelling around?
James: Definitely. It was a lonely life. I mean, I had friends, obviously. But, as an online worker, I just didn’t know that there were other people doing it. So I’d just turn up at an internet cafe and do my work. I don’t even remember how I found out about ‘The Four Hour Workweek’. But someone read it somewhere. And I was back in Australia at that point. So I went to the library and borrowed it. And I was like, ‘Okay, it’s interesting, this is really going to change things’. And then sure enough, 2008 and 2009 people were travelling and working and writing about that lifestyle. So that’s why I started ‘Nomadic Notes’ in 2009. I wanted to put myself out there, I didn’t really have a smoke signal to tell people we’re where I was. So I just used that as a way to go, ‘Well, this is where I am, come and find me’ and I ended up looking for other people as well. And from 2010, I think that’s when people are really identifying as digital nomads exclusively. Before that there were sort of travel bloggers or doing some other thing, but now they’re sort of adding this tag as well as being a digital nomad.
Dan: You write that, “In 2008, the post ‘Four Hour Workweek’ era, 2008 to 2009 was the golden age of lifestyle design blogs, along with travel blogs, they would help foster the digital nomad movement to create its own identity”.
James: I used in that example of you’ve got Tynan.com, who is like a classic lifestyle design blogger who would just talk about the hacks he would do to live like a millionaire basically on a regular person salary, which is sort of what Tim Ferriss was doing. And then you know, I used the Tynan’s, ‘digital nomad packing list’, which is like one of the first of its kind. And so you had these people that were sort of lifestyle designing. Maybe there were other people doing stuff like, you know, getting your finances in order or just finding somewhere cheaper to live. And then I mentioned Chris Guillebeau’s ‘Art of Nonconformity’. He still has his site, but at the time, he was travelling a lot, he was on his ‘visiting every country in the world’ quest. And he was doing it through travel hacking, by getting frequent flyer points, by getting all these credit cards and, and then going to all these places, and he was writing about the process rather than, ‘I went to Hong Kong and he’s 10 sites that you see in Hong Kong’, he would go, ‘I went here and this is what I was doing as someone who travels like I do’, so it’s a very different style of blogging at that point. And you know, a lot of the stuff that digital nomads do, it’s not new, so travel points are not a new thing. People have been collecting frequent flyer points as long as you can collect frequent flyer points. So it’s not something a digital nomads invented but it was sort of brought to a new audience and reimagined for the digital nomad age.
Dan: You might look back, I remember waiting for Tynan’s packing posts to get published because this was almost like you’re clamouring for a financial newsletter to give you a stock tip or something. I was waiting for Tynan to publish stuff. And now it might look ridiculous in the age of Instagram and social media and stuff, but at the time, it was actually really useful because you couldn’t pre book on Airbnb or on Agoda affordable housing and so what you brought in your bag to both like enjoy a backpacker lifestyle and to make a living successfully was a pretty big consideration. Because you would often arrive in a city and have to spend a few days walking around figuring out what would be reasonable accommodation for you to keep your budget in line. And you had a lot of requirements as a digital nomad, whether it be cameras, and not everything was completely in an iPhone at that point. I remember I had basically, as a digital nomad in 2009, I had one full backpack that was essentially an iPhone: books, headphones, cameras, video camera, all that kind of stuff.
James: I think that’s the point. There would have been packing lists. There’s always something before us. But yeah, those packing lists were like, ‘Well, you’re going on a vacation for two weeks. Here’s your enormous suitcase and this is what you’re going to put in it’. So we needed someone for our time so those Tynan posts were great because it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I can do all these things with as minimal stuff as possible’. So at that time people are experimenting, ‘Okay, what can I do? This is how I can do it’. It was just travel hacking, I guess, before coworking had started in the 2000s. Someone had invented the name co working and they set up a space for remote workers to live. But at that point, it wasn’t widespread everywhere. You worked there that you could get like the Regis pass like those stodgy old kind of school office places we have to work with, like corporate people, but they give our passes for free if you sign up or something like that, so I was like, ‘Oh, there’s an office you can go to on an emergency’. So those are sort of early digital nomad hacks, I guess you could say, that were people were sharing.
Dan: I think it depends on who the reader is and what the content is. But I remember this golden age of blogs as something that’s very important to me, because not only did we clamour for the information, and for the community, ‘Oh my gosh, look at so and so publishing this about that. It felt secret and powerful, but also sort of important because it was pre social media publishing, where simply everyone could publish all the time. And you could triangulate information through a variety of online booking sites, and TripAdvisor and Instagram and Facebook and things like that. You really relied on people publishing things, to blogs and to forums to understand what the heck was even going on.
James: Definitely. It was uncharted territory at that point and blogging was different at that point, because it wasn’t social media. And you would check your RSS news feed when someone has posted, your little thing would light up there. But yeah, it was also to the Age of Discovery of like, okay, we’re just working out how we can do this with like, ‘Oh my god, I can like, you know, do some work at this airport, it’s got WiFi’, the age before airports had WiFi everywhere. So it was kind of an exciting time. We’re at the frontier. So I loved reading all these articles going, ‘Okay, this is kind of an interesting thing that’s happening now’.
Dan: And thank you for also identifying this very pod as part of that golden age. Certainly we were right in the mix, amongst all of it. In 2010 you write that, ‘The digital nomad era had begun in earnest digging through the historical archives. 2010 is like a Cambrian explosion event in the digital fossil record. More digital nomad theme sites start appearing and people are identifying as digital nomads’.
James: So it was quite an interesting time because I was sort of around at that point. I was in Chiang Mai between 2010 and 2012. I’d already been online, seeing what everyone’s doing. And for some reason, the digital whisper was like everyone’s going to Chiang Mai. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go there’. And sure enough, I think it was the first time I met people of my kind. I’m a backpacker at heart and I’ve been to so many you know hostels and stuff and, in one regard, I would identify as a backpacker back in those days. But I would never meet people who are doing what I’m doing. So that was sort of the first community experience I had where I turned up and there were people who were digital nomads. They were like, ‘Hey, I’m running a website online. I’m doing some graphic design, freelance graphic design, and I got this blog as well. And all these people are like, full on, have a full time job on their computer and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing’. So now in that year there were people writing full on articles like how to be a digital nomad, how much it costs to be a digital nomad. What’s the best place to live as a digital nomad? And then courses. So lots happening.
Dan: So maybe the 2010 to 2014 era there’s a couple things I’m hearing which is the professionalisation of it, even if it’s at a small scale, you’re seeing the early digital nomad bloggers turning their stuff into courses into ebooks, into professional articles that they’re launching. So instead of, ‘Here’s my photo of where I’m at today, and here’s the coconut I drank’, or whatever, it’s ‘Here’s five ways to be a nomad’, five this, five that, this kind of professionalisation of ‘I’m trying to build something here to grow a business potentially someday or grow an audience’. You’re also seeing, you mentioned it, you went to Chiang Mai, and you saw other people identifying as digital nomads and meeting as digital nomads. That’s something that starts to happen after 2010 where now we all identify as this thing, and we’re gonna meet up as this thing. And so you start to see events like that mirror what you experienced in Chiang Mai. Now all of a sudden, you can buy tickets, and go to events as a digital nomad, that started happening. Our first event was in 2011. Our first sort of public event was 2012. And I think that we were right there. And that explosion of like, lots of people were doing the same thing at the same time.
James: Absolutely. So I went through your archive, and you’re basically the first for many things. So I saw your first meet up in the Philippines. Maybe they were informal digital nomad meetings, like I was going to, but no one was putting out a blog post going, ‘Hey, here’s where we are. We’ll just informally meet up’. And then you obviously have your own DCBKK in 2012, which is more entrepreneurialism. And then from there, you have more and more digital nomad meetings popping up everywhere.
Dan: For those listeners, who can take the time to jump over to the Nomadic Notes and go through the article. It really is like a double coffee, like multiple hour, deep dive, so many wonderful artefacts, digital artefacts, and blogs, and creatives, that were really important to me, there’s always this kind of idea of how important is this? Is this frivolous, is this mockable or whatever? But looking back through the history and the articles you’ve linked to great blogs like ‘Spartan Traveller’, a piece by David Hehenberger, Tynan, like you mentioned, just wonderful eye opening pieces about just how people were reimagining the career script.
James: I think that was part of the reason why it took so long to write because I ended up falling down so many rabbit holes of reading old blog posts, and having a bit of nostalgia at the same time. And so, looking forward, I hope people write more about their experience and write about what they’re doing. And even if you think that it’s boring, and no one’s going to read it, this is a historical archive, because so much information just gets lost over time, blogs die, and we lose the pieces that put together how we got to where we are. I feel really passionate about keeping the historical archive like that. You’ve always been an advocate for finding a medium, whether it’s starting a podcast or blogging or whatever, just get out there and do it and talk or write or video about what you’re doing.
Dan: A few more things I just want to flag up here in terms of the history, there was an important piece written by Damian Walter called ‘Slouching towards Nimman’, one of the reasons for me it was important is that it was the first PC piece about digital nomads, someone who understands how to write a piece and maybe send it off to some fancy magazine took the time to write a piece about digital nomads.
James: When I was putting this together, I had maybe a dozen articles that I remembered, you know, seminal pieces in digital methods to go. Yeah, that Damien Walter added. I’m going to put that in there. And there was that one about this one there was in the New Yorker, for example, where there was a digital nomad scandal, for example, but yeah, that article about Nimman was ‘Wow, this is not just some random blogger who’s just hacking together an article about his experiences, someone who can put words together and explain what we’re doing in a very elegant way’. So that started happening more and more as, as the movement became known, more people were intrigued about what’s going on. More, I guess, astute observers would come to a place and notice that we’re a bunch of people working in the cafes and hear about what’s happening and then chronicle what’s happening there.
Dan: One of the observations in the tendrils that Damien identifies is – he reminds us that all this literature that so many of us are familiar with, with the expat community in Paris in the 20s, that one of the primary reasons they were there is a currency arbitrage that actually, you could live a really good lifestyle if you were able to earn a more powerful currency. Obviously, Europe was in a difficult time at that time. There is this sort of expat expat kind of culture that the digital nomad is borrowing from and participating in. This is a story that’s a lot older than Timothy Ferriss in 2007, with, ‘The Four Hour Workweek’. And I think that that was part of why that piece was successful. It sort of grounded things in a way that was just a step beyond the five part listicle about what you’re putting in your backpack, it’s a little bit easier to shrug off or laugh off.
James: I think that’s probably why I have fond memories of those early years of Chiang Mai. It was the first time I discovered a movement. And so going back to the American writers in Paris, when they were living there on the cheap so they could knock out work and have a good time at the same time. And then you may be looking at New York in the 60s when it was sort of bottoming out at that point as a city and it was like a dangerous place and rent was cheap and it was just bringing artists from all over America because you could just live there for nothing and just you know, live a grand life and then living with people like minded people and knocking out history with your art. So, I feel like when I’ve met other digital nomads, I can now talk about what we’re doing and how we’re living this life. At some point, you might say, it’s just frivolous of what we’re doing. But no, this movement has now grown to a point where governments recognise that, hey, you know what, it’s desirable to have people coming here and working for a long time, if they’ve got a stable income coming in. You see all the bad articles about digital nomads, like the bromads who talking loudly in cafes and stuff like that, and in behaving badly and riding around the motorbikes with helmets and being idiots, but once again, there’s 99.99% of people who just got their heads down and working and spending money in the economy. So now you’ve got something like 12 or so countries that have official digital nomad visas, because they realise that they have to spend a lot of time to get someone to come to the country for one week. But a digital nomad, once they’ve got some money, they stay for a whole year. So the economics work out better to try and bring in that digital nomad as well.
Dan: I know you commonly bestow awards in your articles, and I am very proud to bestow upon you the award for ‘Best blog post of 2021’. I absolutely loved how generous it was, and all the treasures that you dug up, and that we can go and enjoy. And I’m curious if, having gone through the process of writing this article, if it changed your sense for maybe the future of digital nomadism, or give you a sense for what might be next.
James: Part of putting this together is just to see where we are now. Because we are at such a tumultuous point in history where we’re still not a long way out of the pandemic yet. And we don’t know where everyone’s going to end up after it’s finished. Maybe it’s going to be a couple of years away yet. So it’s sort of nice to take stock and count the wins, you know, and count the wins that even as we speak, this week, Costa Rica signed you know, law saying that they want to let digital nomads in they’re just they’re just waiting for the prime minister or something to sign it. Now Sri Lanka has said they want to bring in a one year digital nomad visa. So these are on top of the other dozen or so. So there’s more and more coming in. So at that point it’s still a work in progress. So we’re just experiencing history unfold very rapidly at the moment. And I would hate to make a prediction about that, other than hopefully there’s more interesting places to end up. For example Croatia became one of the first digital nomad visa countries and this was a really interesting story because it was just a digital nomad from the Netherlands wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister of Croatia and asked her to do a nomad visa. And the Prime Minister responded and said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it’. So they now have a digital nomad visa section on their travel page as well. It’s become a travel experience. So, you know, we become advocates for the digital nomad movement. It’s sort of like to like the cities in America are now going to be competing for digital nomads, I think maybe the high watermark of corporate sponsorship in America where you had like Amazon Headquarter Twor when they were building that and all the different cities were competing to, to get that office in their city. And now we’re tracking all sorts of tax credits at them to try and bring them there. And that might be the last time that happens because now offices are going to become less attractive. But now cities are going to try and compete for digital nomads and remote workers. So you had recently the mayor of Miami put up a big billboard saying, ‘Hey, come and move to Miami, DM me’. So he’s talking in our language and he’s realised that like, you know what, bring all these people in, it’s like, instead of the Miami Tourism Board, you know work plugging their guts out to bring in millions of tourists for one week bringing in hundreds of 1000s of remote workers for one year. The economics makes sense. So having those savvy leaders who are going, ‘We need a digital nomad visa. And we need people that are going to talk directly to people that are writing letters to them rather than ignoring them’. That’s what we’re going to see more of, I think.
Dan: Very cool. Well, James Clark, thanks for writing the article. And thanks for having this leisurely. digital nomad coffee conversation with us today.
James: Thanks for having me.
Dan: Big thanks to James Clark for coming by the show. Check out that amazing article ‘Digital Nomad History’ at Nomadic Notes dot com. We would love to hear your thoughts on this one. I hope you can tell how much I enjoyed it and an extra special sauce shout out to James Clark. We’ve had wonderful meet ups all around the world. And he’s inspired and informed so much of the strategies, the ideas, the thoughts behind what’s happened on the show over the years. So it’s just wonderful to have him on the show to talk about some of this history that fascinates us so much. That’s it for this week. We’ll be back as always, next Thursday morning. 8am. Eastern time talking crypto. We’ll see you then.