Portable Technologies

9 minutes, 13 links


Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

In March 1983, a recently-formed technology company called Compaq Computer Corporation shipped an exciting new product: the world’s first portable computer, the Compaq Portable.

Despite a price tag of US$3,590 (equivalent to around US$9,500 today), the model sold upwards of 50,000 units in its first year. This beast of a machine weighed 28 lb (13 kg) and folded up into a luggable case the size of a portable sewing machine. Crucially, it was designed to be taken as carry-on luggage. The tech journalists loved it. In 1982, PC World Magazine ran a cover story titled “Traveling with the IBM PC’s First Portable Competitor.” It features a photo of a man seated beside a swimming pool, transfixed by the rectangular screen of his bulky Compaq Portable. Next to him is an empty cocktail glass. This just might be the first portrait of the work from anywhere movement we know today:

Figure: PC World Magazine, 1982.

When this image was shared on the r/digitalnomad subreddit in January 2021, it garnered 1.1K upvotes and a 98% rating, meaning that almost everyone who saw it gave a virtual thumbs up. In today’s context, the scene feels familiar. We’ve all seen Instagram posts from social media influencers sitting by the pool or the ocean, a tropical drink beside an open laptop, living the dream and ignoring the screen glare. Whether the images are honest or not, the concept of combining work and play in paradise has been an aspiration since before the Compaq hit the market.

While the definition of “portable” has changed a lot over the past 40 years, the recognition that technology would uncouple work and location—challenging the foundations and certainties of 20th-century society in the process—has been clear for decades. Every generation has thinkers and tinkerers who dream of connecting seamlessly across borders, locations, and time zones—and some go the extra mile to articulate what that world might look like.

Figure: In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke predicted a world “where we can contact our friends even if we don’t know their physical location. … It will be possible for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.” (Photo from 1965.)*

As far back as the 1960s, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted the emergence of global remote work, speaking specifically about nomads working from Bali in the 2010s. Fifty years before I arrived in Ubud, Clarke had anticipated the presence of people like me in that part of the world, using digital tools to do exactly what I was doing.

In 1973, a former NASA engineer named Jack Nilles proposed telecommuting (an earlier name for remote work) as a solution to congestion in US cities and the deepening global oil crisis. He was the lead author of a paper arguing that technology meant workers no longer needed to commute from the suburbs to downtown offices, but could work from home instead.* Today, Nilles is celebrated as “the father of remote work.” Of course, not all remote workers choose to become digital nomads, but remote work is almost always the gateway drug. By 1981, Intel co-founder Robert Noyce spoke about the end of commuting, the rise of remote work, and a future where people locate “where it’s conducive to live, not where it’s conducive to work.”

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The earliest digital nomad, though, wasn’t equipped with a smartphone or even a laptop. Between 1983 and 1991, Steven K. Roberts traveled 17,000 miles across America on a bicycle.* He was working as a tech writer in Columbus, OH when one day it dawned on him that he didn’t much like his city or his expensive lifestyle. So, he sold his house and left.

Roberts wasn’t just a nomad—he was an inventor, too. When I spoke to him for this book, Roberts talked about hacking together his custom bike with a four-button keyboard and LCD screen on its handlebars. Solar panels, connected to batteries, powered everything but the wheels: “I carried a RadioShack model 100 laptop, 5 watt solar panel, and had an account on CompuServe that I used to communicate with my base office,” he told me.

With this admittedly janky tech setup, Roberts could now work while he cycled.* He spent eight years living as a nomadic freelance writer. His bicycle received various upgrades over the years, ultimately becoming an object worth $1.2M by 1991.* Today, it resides in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Roberts’s pioneering journey was an early experiment in a new way of living, made possible by portable technologies.

Just a few years after Roberts completed his journey, “digital nomad” entered the lexicon. The term originated in a 1997 academic textbook of the same name, by Tsugio Makimoto, a celebrated Japanese technologist whose contributions to the field of computer science earned him the nickname “Mr. Semiconductor.” The author’s note in the front of the book summarizes its main argument:

Times are changing. The driving force of change in the world is technological advance. It is pushing in two directions: towards smaller, cheaper, more portable personal tools, and towards the imminence of cheap, high capacity, global communications networks.

Technology does not cause change but it amplifies change. Early in the next millennium it will deliver the capability to live and work on the move.

The world’s major technology companies are targeting the lifestyle of the “mobile professional” in developing the tools for leading a nomadic business life. In time these tools will become cheap enough for everyone, and the biggest lifestyle change for 10,000 years—since humans stopped being nomadic and settled down to farm—will be delivered to most people in the developed world.

People will therefore be able to ask themselves, “Am I a nomad or a settler?” For the first time in 10,000 years that choice will become a mainstream lifestyle option.

When Makimoto wrote this in 1997, the technology environment was a little different than today. It was the year DVD players were sold commercially in the US for the first time, at a cost of $599 to $750 per unit.* The first-ever Grand Theft Auto game had just shipped on PlayStation 1, the MP3 file format was newly invented, and AOL was rolling out unlimited web access for $19.95 per month.

If Makimoto was right on the trend—and he was—he was off on the timing. Technology did advance to make remote work and global communication possible in the early part of the 21st century, just as all the futurists and technologists had predicted, but real-world enthusiasm for this way of living developed at a slower pace. While the technologies for a nomadic life would emerge within a decade of Makimoto’s Digital Nomad, the wider cultural shift to embrace them was slower than predicted—the 2010s rather than the 2000s.

The lesson here is that tools often move faster than people. The ability to do something on a technical level doesn’t mean it’s destined to become a lifestyle movement. For that to happen, people first need a human character to represent whatever the new possibility might be; to make it feel more real. In 2007, a book provided exactly the right mix of ingredients. With its release, the face of modern nomadism would emerge—and usher in the beginning of location-independence as a 21st-century subculture.

From Vision to Subculture

If you were in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, Tim Ferriss needs no introduction. He is, after all, the person who won, by a huge margin, Wired magazine’s “self-promoter of the year” by public vote back in 2008. You might have encountered him at somebody else’s party, distributing copies of his five bestselling books. Or maybe you’ve come across his blog, YouTube channel, or podcast, where he interviews the crème de la crème of entrepreneurship and entertainment: celebrated characters like Marc Andreessen, Jimmy Wales, Margaret Atwood, Hugh Jackman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Amanda Palmer.

Ferriss’s first and most popular book was The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, published in 2007. Its core argument is that people should design the life they want and see the world now, not work in a soul-destroying job and wait for retirement to really live. In popularizing this idea, Ferriss piloted and promoted a new philosophy of life and work—one that has been simmering away in the background ever since. This notion of exploring the world and enjoying the good life became digital nomads’ guiding principle, and a global subculture of people began pursuing remote businesses, blending work and travel in new ways.

The same year The 4-Hour Workweek was published, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. Facebook was three years old, and though it already had 14 million users,* its addictive qualities were not yet so expertly tuned. (For context, 2.8 billion people now use Facebook at least once a month.)* Twitter had been around for just a year, a niche microblogging site populated by the small, fascinating subset of early adopters who still wear the “joined in 2006” badge on the platform today. YouTube was in its terrible twos, blubbering and buffering its way toward relevancy. Instagram, and the shiny influencer culture it is known for, had yet to be invented.

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