Is the Digital Nomad Lifestyle Just Colonialism 2.0?

Kathleen Wong

It’s sobering to realize the majority of my life is spent sedentary, hunched over my desk, pushing burnout eight hours a day, five days a week. (Heck, sometimes I don’t even take a lunch break, so let’s make that nine.) In a way, it can feel like I’m wasting away in front of a screen.

And with only two to three weeks out of the entire year available for vacation, taking one feels like a mere glimpse at a different life, one where I’m more relaxed and feel more alive. Although I’m incredibly grateful for the privilege to have a job that supports me, I often find myself wondering if Drake and his YOLO model of only living once would be disappointed in me. Joining the growing flock of creative professionals telecommuting from around the globe is definitely tempting. Could I just easily just pack up my laptop, quit my job in favor of freelancing, and start country-hopping?

This curiosity is exacerbated each time I scroll past another influencer-freelance-creative hybrid gazing up at Petra in Jordan or standing on top of the Duomo in Milan with his or her arms open wide. There are about 4.8 million Americans who call themselves digital nomads, according to the 2018 MBO Partners State of Independence in America Research Brief. Most of these are creative professionals, but many also work in IT. With 17 million Americans saying they aspire to become a digital nomad, it’s safe to say this trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The rising cost of housing in the United States; easily accessible, high-quality Wi-Fi; and social media have all contributed to the rising lifestyle trend, according to Robert Litchfield, associate professor of economics and business at Washington & Jefferson College and co-author of “Digital Nomads: Location Independence, the Search for Freedom, and the Continuing Significance of Community.” But the appeal is easily understandable: For many people, the digital nomad life promises adventure and an increased quality of life.

But I don’t think I’ll be doing that anytime soon. In reality, taking up the digital nomad lifestyle isn’t all just harmless #LiveYourBestLife glamor. Too often, it involves dropping into another—most often, developing—country for a short amount of time, noshing on the cheap food, snapping some photos, and then packing up your things to go.

Another day, another “Silicon Bali”

Litchfield and his fellow researchers explore this topic in their book. “One can argue that any kind of activity (tourism, working, etc.) that aims to allow people from wealthier nations to buy a level of privilege they couldn’t attain at home by living in or visiting lower-cost nations can be viewed from a neo-colonialist angle,” he says. It takes a simple glance at Bali and Chiang Mai—“nomad hubs,” he calls them—to see a somewhat disturbing wealth gap, where the Western visitors are essentially living like kings and queens. In fact, a 2014 BBC article dubbed Bali as “Silicon Bali” because of the amount of remote tech workers there.

Some countries are embracing the traveling worker boom. For example, Estonia will offer a visa for digital nomads by the end of 2019. “We want to attract the talented people, entrepreneurs that are beneficial to our society to our economy,” Killu Vantsi, a legal migration adviser at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior told CNBC earlier this year. But others have their doubts about the long-term positive impacts of the trend. A 2019 quantitative analysis by Chinese researchers found that while a boom in tourism can boost the local economy, it can also catalyze the exploitation and mistreatment of World Heritage Sites. (Just take a look at the much-protested proposed airport for tourists to have easier access to an already crowded Machu Picchu). In Botswana, tourism was found to cause the “resettlement of traditional communities.” In Fiji, the local community found an influx of backpackers to be disturbing to their way of life, specifically with religion, culture, and drinking.

As someone who grew up in Hawai‘i, a place constantly touted as “paradise” by outsiders, this sentiment strongly resonates. While definitely a beautiful place, the entire state is built on a history of colonialism and desecration of a sovereign nation. By 1840—62 years after Captain James Cook arrived—the Native Hawaiian population had declined by 84 percent. Just recently have those numbers been on the come-up. The results of this colonialism can still be felt today: More Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live in poverty than the rest of the state’s population and are overrepresented in prisons and jails. Hawai‘i is also tied with New York state for the highest per-capita rate of homeless people.

But these facts aren’t typically on the front end of someone itching to visit white sandy beaches and lush hiking trails while working from an island “paradise.” Often, the digital nomads I encounter don’t know much about local life or how their lifestyle affects it. For example, that the presence of Airbnbs in U.S. cities raises local housing costs.

Currently in Hawai‘i, Airbnbs and short-term vacation rentals—such as those frequently used by digital nomads on their travels—remain a contested topic. In 2019, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell passed a strict law limiting these rentals—the violation of which carries a hefty fine—in order to protect neighborhoods, the supply of long-term housing for residents, and reduce traffic. Across the world, like in Europe, Airbnb has been notoriously protested against for driving up home rental prices for locals.

The kicker is just how easy it is to partake in the digital nomad lifestyle. Find a place to rent, either on Airbnb, VRBO, or another digital forum (usually much cheaper than what you would pay in the United States), grab a cheap plane ticket—made easy by the proliferation of sites such as Scott’s Cheap Flights—and you’re off. Even if the country you’re living in has restrictions to how long you can spend there without a visa, they’re easily circumvented: Just spend two or three days in a different country and head back. Harsha Reddy, a digital nomad who started his own digital marketing business after graduating from college, says: “I have been to numerous countries in the past few years and I’ve only enjoyed the perks of the place I visited. I didn’t need a work permit or anything, even though I worked all the time.”

In other words, due to the nature of remote work, most of the money made by the workers doesn’t go back to the country from which they are operating. This is basically the idea of “geoarbitrage”—so dubbed by Timothy Ferriss in his book “The 4-Hour Workweek”—essentially serving high-paying clients while taking advantage of residing in a low-cost environment, ultimately boosting your own savings. Yes, you spend money on boarding, food, and other superficial expenses, but the majority of the money you make doesn’t flow back into the local economy. Even better if you can keep a home base (say, your parents’ house) that allows you to keep bank accounts in your home country, meaning you can still easily work for U.S.-based, higher-paying clients and live anywhere. Plus, where nomads decide to file their taxes is a gray area, and coming up with policies has proven difficult for local governments.

How to be an ethical digital nomad

The good news is that it is possible to be a smarter, more ethical digital nomad—and traveler. It starts with caring about your business spending, professionalism, and the way you treat locals in the countries where you work, according to Litchfield.

For Joe Flanagan, a remote software developer, this means limiting your spending at chain companies and in favor of local businesses. He also likes to stay in local houses and apartments rather than hotels. “This also has the benefit of gaining a greater understanding of the local culture and customs while helping to maintain the local economy,” he says.

Most important, Flanagan makes an effort to ensure there’s cultural exchange by forging bonds and relationships with locals he meets. It gives him a better understanding and respect for the places he’s been to, so they’re not just like a postcard come to life. “I’ve met some fascinating locals in almost every place I’ve visited. I believe this has helped build bonds between cultures, something I believe a digital nomad should be doing wherever they visit,” he says.

This is what I ask people do when they visit Hawai‘i as well: Educate yourself on the history, culture, and people before stepping foot on the land. (And if you can, donate to organizations or causes that benefit that place and its people to give back for all those awesome Insta snaps you gather.) Our world is a wondrous place that we should all be lucky enough to see, but making money off weaker economies without giving anything back doesn’t mean you’re gaming the system; it means you’re a colonizer.