In April 2013, an MBA grad named Pieter Levels, then 27, sold all his stuff and set off from the Netherlands to travel the world.
A few years earlier, when he was studying at Rotterdam School of Management, Levels accidentally launched his first online business. He uploaded electronic music mixes to YouTube and his channel, Panda Mix Show, quickly took off. By the time Levels graduated in 2012, he was making $2K per month.* A friend commented that this income meant he could live “pretty much anywhere.” He’d already spent six months studying abroad on an exchange program as a teenager, so the idea of going overseas didn’t faze him much. Plus, he was curious to see if he could maintain an income on the road.
Over the next few months, Levels got rid of everything that didn’t fit in his backpack, then boarded a one-way flight to Thailand. He kept hearing about The 4-Hour Workweek, but assessed that the business of dropshipping was “bullshit” and definitely not his scene.*
Yet being a YouTube music star wasn’t quite right either. For Levels, modest success on a third-party web platform, especially one owned by a global tech giant like Google, didn’t spark joy. He wanted to build something of his own—a different, more independent kind of online business. A self-taught coder, he decided he would launch 12 startups in 12 months while he traveled from place to place. These “startups” would be bootstrapped, built entirely by Levels, and have no outside investors. By the end of the experiment, he figured he would probably have come up with a longer-term plan.
Like many nomads at the time, Levels soon ended up working out of Hubud in Bali. There, he wrote the first lines of code for his seventh startup, Nomad List, a website that ranks cities according to their suitability for remote workers. The site uses APIs to curate data sets and convert them into an attractive user interface that updates in real-time. Its gimmick is perfect for the FOMO generation: the home page reveals the best place in the world for nomads to be at any given moment.
Between 2014 and 2017, as the site and interest in what it offers grew, Levels became the poster child for digital nomads as we now know them. Media brands from Wired to the BBC to CNN ran stories on nomads, and Nomad List became both a resource for and a symbol of a new global subculture.
Levels took Ferriss’s lens on the world and remixed it with maker values. Yes, nomads wanted to leverage their location and mobility, but there was a bigger picture too. They want to make an honest living, learn by doing, solve real problems, and create things of value. Levels’s interest was in bootstrapping, not dropshipping, and as he put it in his book, MAKE (2018), “Having some positive influence on people’s lives is a lot more interesting to me than more revenue.”* The rising nomad movement wasn’t just about profit and pleasure as Ferriss’s marketing suggested—it symbolized a new understanding of what was possible in a globalized world. Rather than waiting for the fruits of globalization to trickle down to individuals, nomads went ahead and globalized themselves, embracing the popular mantra: “Ask forgiveness, not permission.”
Depending on who you ask, nomads represent everything that’s right about globalization or everything that’s wrong with it. For generations, people from high-passport power countries have traveled to low-passport power countries, tempted by the weather, low living costs, and the opportunity to experience new cultures. At its most optimistic, the nomad movement could be viewed as a chance to build bridges between emerging and established economies. But since nomads mostly hold the powerful passports of former empires, some say they are following in the footsteps of their predecessors to travel, adventure, exploit, and even colonize, with little concern about their impact on host communities.
In the past, colonialism usually involved people moving to a new territory while retaining political allegiances with their home country.* The term “neocolonialism” refers to a strong country or its settlers’ domination of a weaker country and its people, and more specifically, “the survival of the colonial system in spite of formal recognition of political independence in emerging countries.”** Notably, this can be without any direct government or political control, so may refer to a group of people living in a place and participating in a parallel economy and social circle.
Digital nomadism works best for those in a position of privilege who can already afford to buffer its risks. So, what does it mean if knowledge workers from wealthy countries work remotely in poorer countries, and climb a few rungs up the class ladder compared with the local population? Enjoying the fruits of an “exotic” setting while taking advantage of global inequalities like cheap labor, currency discrepancies, and low property prices raises questions about the structures the nomad lifestyle is built on and supporting.
Trade, capital, knowledge, and communication all flow freely across borders, yet humans themselves still face restrictions. While a person’s rights are still determined by their passport, the old systems of wealth, power, and status will persist in the world. The legacy infrastructure governing mobility and taxes has not caught up with the way people are living. Instead, we’re stuck with a global system optimized for inequality, and which privileges and restricts people based on their birthplace, heritage, physical location, skin color, and native language. Can we really rely on trickle-down equality to achieve more equitable outcomes?