Recently, an article called me out. In “Here’s To The The Digital Nomads. And The True Cost Of Their Freedom,” a viral story going around Medium, tech writer Jon Westenberg hates on digital nomads — people (like me) who work remotely online while traveling through less expensive countries.
“The digital nomads live off the land, by which we mean the poorer economies where the US dollars they harvest in their PayPal accounts can buy with five times the power of the local currency,” he writes.
Specifically, he points out that digital nomads can only enjoy luxurious lifestyles because they’re from wealthy countries that oppressed most of the world to stockpile that wealth.
“There’s truth in saying that if their ancestors hadn’t pillaged and burned their way through every non-western country they could get their blood drenched hands on, the digital nomads wouldn’t be able to afford jack-sh** in truly sovereign nations,” Westenberg writes. “There’s truth in saying that it’s only the impact of unnecessary wars fought by western empires over resources that never belonged to them in the first place that allow those resources to be enjoyed through a half-price cocktail hour at a tourist themed tiki hut while the sun sets over the bay.”
And for him, digital nomads send a troubling message.
“You too can live a life of luxury in the untouched wilderness,” he adds. “As long as your conscience is kept at bay and you don’t think too hard about the role your own past and cultural history has played in allowing your selfies on a pure sandy beach.”
Being something of a digital nomad myself, I felt challenged to a fight. Not that I hadn’t thought of Westenberg’s ideas. I was in Morocco recently, where I lived cheaply in a beachside village. Had France not “expanded its sphere of influence” to Morocco in the 19th century via a whole lot of cannons, I could never have bought lunch for a dollar there.
What I think Westenberg gets wrong is his frame — it’s too small. Sure, digital nomads may benefit from colonial powers turning the world into a private playground. But the truth is, everyone living in wealthy countries does the same thing. Americans get more oil, meat, medical care and electricity than Papua New Guineans. An accountant living in Illinois enjoys the same inequality as a digital nomad living in Colombia. That’s because the kind of conquest our ancestors embraced is still going on, and it’s happening on a much larger scale than a couple computer programmers on a gap year.
Digital nomads aren’t exceptionally cruel, ignorant or selfish. They may indeed contribute to the exploitation of other countries, but not more than other Americans. They’re just some of the few people who face their inequality directly.
It’s easy to condemn techies drinking margaritas at exotic beaches. But on some level, we’re all drinking those cheap margaritas. Literally — I can buy a bottle of margarita mix at Walmart for $2.97 because thousands of people in Bangladesh work in crowded food production factories for low wages.
Jon Westenberg, next time you condemn a digital nomad’s Instagram of a half-price cocktail at a foreign tiki hut, take a look at the man in your own selfies.
Yes, digital nomads thrive on exploitation. But so does everyone else.
I respond to a recent viral article hating on digital nomads.