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Have Plug, Will Travel

Meet the subculture of explorers who call the globe their home

For Alexandria Bombach, it’s a bar of scented soap. For Richard Demato, a sock drawer. And for Pedro Ramirez, a nightstand.

Quotidian to most, household objects like these take on heightened significance when you’ve completely surrendered any sense of place.

“It’s really hard to travel with a bar of soap, so I always end up leaving them behind,” Bombach explains. “If I’m ever in a place for long enough to use one bar from start to finish, that feels kind of odd.”

Thirty-four-year-old Demato can relate.

“There was this moment recently,” Demato says. “I was staying in one place for a whole month, and I was putting my socks in a drawer, and I started getting emotional—like ‘Oh my god, I have a sock drawer, not a nylon zipper pocket.’”

But Bombach, Demato, and their ilk aren’t your average North Face backpackers, eschewing hygiene and crashing hostels as if it’s a political statement. Rather than venturing off the grid, their focus is staying on it. And while they may need spreadsheets to keep track of their plane flights, they’re not racking up frequent-flier miles for the sake of free cocktails.

Collectively, these borderless creatives comprise an emerging group known as ‘technomads.’

The term ‘technomad’ seems to have emerged in 1983, when freelance writer and software designer Stephen K. Roberts resolved to stop “doing things [he] didn’t really enjoy to pay for things [he] didn’t really want.” He hit the road with a specially designed, high-tech recumbent bicycle—complete with solar panels, a stereo, and a built-in laptop he could work on whilst pedaling—and the idea of the roving, tech-enabled explorer was born. In 2010, the term was re-introduced into the cultural vernacular in a TED Talk by internet curator Sean Bonner.

The explosion of mobile communication and the streamlining of digital tools and devices in the years since Roberts’ novel feat means that, to some degree, we’re all technomads nowadays. We check email on the train, do conference calls in bed, and find out what kind of projects our friends are working on in real time, whether they’re in Dallas or Doha.

The ability to do more work, with more people, over a wider distance—all in less time—offers fundamental opportunity. For some, that might mean transforming a 40-hour work week in a high-stress city into a four-hour one on an equatorial island. But for a particular subset of technomads—those with an elevated, global purpose in mind—technology and travel are merely the means they are using in behalf of their ultimate goal: a positive impact that transcends borders. Behold, the citizen nomad.

He may live out of a 115-litre duffel bag, but wherever Richard Demato goes, he takes a stack of thank you cards with him. If snail mail sounds antiquated for a guy who, at one point, was averaging one plane flight per week, it makes more sense when you consider the primary focus of Demato’s work: forging connections. The self-described “creative instigator” is the co-founder of The Workshop, a consultancy serving impact-driven people, projects, and organizations. Formerly a manager for Hollywood writers and directors of shows like Gossip Girl, Burn Notice, and Prison Break, Demato says after 10 years in Los Angeles, he began to see how he could apply his skills to a broader purpose.

“I became much more curious about the people and organizations that are looking to create that better future and discover new patterns and new ways,” Demato says. “And so I began working with entrepreneurs, designers, organizational leaders, architects, chefs, athletes and it became less of a writer, director, producer focus and more of a creator focus. What I then saw was the beginning of this rising global tide of creatives that surpass all boundaries and work across multiple fields.”

Demato’s creative instigation takes many forms. One week he might be up at 3 a.m. writing a business plan from an air mattress in his friend’s basement, while the next he might be in Nicaragua leading an “impact strategy workshop” with social entrepreneurs at a boutique surf hotel. Working on some projects may require “deep dives,”—the term Demato uses to refer to intensive sessions where everyone is physically in the same room—while others only require him to “pop on a white button-down shirt” for a Skype videoconference. The ability to travel seamlessly, work remotely, and communicate instantaneously allows Demato to focus on the question most central to his work.

“I’m always asking myself: How can I provide value to a person by providing a connection, skill, or resource?” Demato says. “Living this nomadic lifestyle and using technology the way I do, the friction is reduced. I’m constantly sanding off the rough edges of things that I do which don’t have purpose because I don’t have the capacity to waste.”

One might presume that having minimal possessions and no lease would make life far simpler, but the meticulous organization Demato’s nomadic life requires proves otherwise. There’s a P.O. box in Boulder, from which Demato’s mail is collected, sorted, and forwarded to his current location; a car that, for a while, was being moved around Los Angeles by a friend to avoid parking tickets; a bookkeeper who stays in one place so Demato doesn’t have to; and last, the obsessive use of Evernote, an organizational app. However, even though he doesn’t cling to “stuff,” Demato doesn’t see his lifestyle as a total rebuke of convention.

“My closet used to look like a sherbet-colored shed or like Ralph Lauren went nuts in my closet. So I had to get ruthless about the stuff I keep around,” he says. “I don’t look at it like I’m rejecting a conventional life, though. There are tons of things I do that are conventional. I crave routine—if I find a coffee shop I like in a new city, I’ll return to it every time I’m there.”

The impulse that Demato and others like him have to be nomadic is more dramatic in the larger context of human history; it’s only in more recent times that our species has transitioned from nomadic patterns. That shift to more stationary modes of life has had massive downsides, including resource depletion, overconsumption, and a hyperlocalized focus that causes macro-level problems easily prone to getting overlooked at the micro-level. However in the post-recessionary world, a combination of factors—including the mobile nature of work, a cultural awareness veering away from overconsumption, and an increasingly globalized world—are enabling individuals like Demato to choose an uprooted lifestyle that’s more about “plugging in” than “dropping out.”

Brian Phillips, a lecturer at University of Pennsylvania and director of Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia, found himself reflecting on the streamlined efficiency central to technomadism when developing his firm’s his low-impact, LEED-certified affordable homes for first time buyers in Philadelphia.

“I think of traditional nomadic culture as a survival strategy. So one might argue that what’s going on with technomads is that as the traditional models of house and space and living kind of break down, this is the beginning of a new way to be effective and survive,” Phillips says. “Instead of expending resources to build the compound of personal ownership and space, it’s expending your resources to be mobile and to network.”

As Phillips suggests, far from a wholesale rejection of conventional living, the nomadic lifestyle could actually represent the future of highly effective individuals.

“My choice to be nomadic and exchanging with people from all different fields is a value proposition for my clients,” Demato says. “I'll more quickly discover patterns, deliver insights, and connect you to the resources and people that you didn't realize could help.

An entire industry has evolved catering to the “business trip”—from beige-carpeted hotels and Enterprise-preferred statuses to Southwest-compliant luggage and 3-ounce toiletry bottles that expedite one’s passage through security lines. But while the technomad’s frequent-flier account balance may resemble that of a conventional business person, its subculture isn’t likely to be found at the convention center hotel blocks from the airport. Citizen nomads don’t just travel for their jobs; the act of traveling essentially creates their jobs. Without it, they cease making the connections that eventually develop into new projects.

Alexandria Bombach, a filmmaker who works for brands and nonprofits like Osprey Packs, Clif Bar, and the Conservation Alliance in addition to pursuing her own environmentally focused projects, has been living on the road, sans rent payment, for three years. She founded her own production company, Red Reel, in 2009. Her film 23 Feet depicts people who, like her, have found a way to craft a life doing what they love in outdoor settings. Once she became “addicted” to the idea that she could make a living by changing people’s perspectives, the line between work and life disappeared—and a long with it, the notion of ever “settling down” for good.

“I don't feel like I've worked in four years,” Bombach says. “I do feel there is more pressure for me to settle down as a woman because I continually come across this sentiment that one day I’ll have this urge to give up this lifestyle.”

Recently, Bombach considered renting a place, but a quick glance at her calendar revealed she wouldn’t be able spend more than a few days in the same city for at least six months. So, like any other nomad, Bombach continues to find ways to make the road feel like a would-be home. She takes the same pair of slippers wherever she goes—even if she’s camping in the scorching heat of the Australian outback while filming for Matador Network and the Queensland tourism board— and she tries to make sure the scent of lavender is never too far away, whether it’s from a laundry detergent or a partially-used bar of soap. She is also a firm believer in what she calls the “put policy,” which is an insistence on staying put when there’s a rare opportunity to take in what’s directly around her.

“I was in between projects, staying at my friend’s parents’ house in Oregon and was sitting in their backyard under a tree wrapped in a blanket and drinking tea,” Bombach says. “They came out and asked me if I’d like to explore, go on a hike, etcetera, and I firmly said no thanks. That’s the put policy—it’s a break from the constant visual stimulation of always having something new in front of me.”

Like Demato, Bombach sees few sacrifices in her lifestyle, but she does wonder if her work facilitates her exploration or the other way around.

“I am constantly asking myself: ‘Am I living this life to do this work or doing this work to live this life?’ Sometimes it’s really hard to tell.”

It makes sense that nomads like Bombach don’t seek the elusive “work-life balance” because they define work in an entirely different way—less as the source of a paycheck or a title on a Linkedin profile. Work for citizen nomads, as the 2013 book Knowmad Society explains, is a “collection of activities that are backed with elements that are purposive at the personal level,” which they “strive to continually define and refine.” A nomad’s work, in a sense, is who they are.

One would be hard-pressed to find two people who define the work-as-life mantra better than Sebastian Lindstrom and Pedro Ramirez, two of the five-person team that calls itself What Took You So Long. Lindstrom is a Swedish national and Ramirez is Guatemalan but, true to nomadic form, neither spends much time in their homeland anymore. As quasi-activists and self-described guerrilla filmmakers, WTYSL’s members are commissioned to produce short films, YouTube clips, and TED Talks (they recently organized TEDx Mogadishu) in addition to making their own documentary films. Social media is fundamental to what they do. A side project, a blog they call “what are we doing now that we’re here,” details their array of sleeping arrangements and their Odysseus-like travel itineraries.

It’s fitting that WTYSL’s most transformative project to date was inspired by one of earth’s most storied nomads: the camel.

“There are camels in 100 different countries and as nomads, we felt a connection,” Lindstrom explained. “We realized that we wanted to spend some time researching and filming camels.”

They learned that camel milk—widely known for its nutritional benefits and seen by development organizations as a sustainable livelihood option for localized producers across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and India—could potentially become even more valuable in a warming world due to camels’ desert climate adaptations. Lindstrom explains that WTYSL recognized an opportunity to connect the dots.

“We had been to all the places where there are camel-milk industries, where they actually pasteurize it, and we'd seen the women that collect the milk, and we’d been drinking it in the markets,” Lindstrom said. “So we could connect all the different organizations, the research institutes, and people setting up companies in one place.”

The project, now a year old, has taken the team to 20 countries—Mongolia to Uzbekistan, Denmark to Mauritania, India to Kenya—on a quest to promote the “white gold of the desert” as a legitimate industry. But the WTYSL team doesn’t merely talk the talk—it also walks the walk. Two team members have gone on 10-day “camel milk-detoxes” and Lindstrom has developed a habit of smuggling camel milk across international borders to spread its nutritional wonders in the western world.

“The impact doesn’t come from the lifestyle that we lead, it comes from what we do with the lifestyle,” Ramirez says.

Utilizing a bevy of tools, apps, and online networking strategies, coupled with a reliance on the generosity of strangers, WTYSL transcends the traditional filmmaker role. But if you’re imagining the team equipped with head-to-toe, James Bond-style gadgets, think again. The team relies on relatively basic equipment including compact Canon 5D and 7D DSLR cameras and tripods. The modest gear allows them to pass as students or tourists at border crossings and eliminates the need for film permits, large vehicles, or a big crew. If what their client wants is a clip to go on YouTube, the team can arrive, shoot in one day, edit the next, and upload it the following day.

“If you want to get close to people the first thing you have to do is not show up with a camera and ton of equipment in your hands,” Ramirez says. “So the fact that we couch-surf or stay with people we’re filming and only use public transit to get around is central to what we do.”

Even in a Skype conversation, the enthusiasm and urgency that Lindstrom feels about WTYSL’s work is audible. While many are concerned with efficiency for the sake of maximizing profit, Lindstrom and other technomads seek efficiency for a different purpose.

“I’m always trying to figure out: How can I maximize my time on this earth? And what is my responsibility as an earthling walking this earth?”

Listening to a technomad talk, gives one the sense of peering into an entirely different social universe. Lindstrom says he is currently on a “break” from nomadism—which for him means staying in the same place for just one week out of every month while working towards his master’s degree in education from University of Massachusetts. Around the same time, Ramirez and his American wife (who is a WTYSL member) decided to get an apartment, settling on one in Barcelona—not because either of them are Spanish, but because it has cheap flights, good cheese, and made sense as a geographical hub.

Phillips of ISA says it’s increasingly easy to see parallels arising between the nomadic lifestyle and broader trends in contemporary life that emphasize the collective.

“It is becoming very mainstream to go online to figure out how to borrow a lawnmower or how to borrow someone’s vegetable peeler for 30 minutes,” Phillips says. “Something like Airbnb really is a studio response to technomadic culture—it’s the ultimate expression of something facilitated by both technology but also the itinerant lifestyle.”

He adds that the ethos is even extending to how people make decisions about the antithesis of nomadic life: the purchase of a house.

“People are asking: ‘Is it going to be good for the city?’ ‘Is it going to use less energy?’ ‘Is it going to be smaller than it needs to be?’ It’s a kind of broader idea of being a citizen of the world and people realizing their decisions have an impact beyond [their] own life.”

As Phillips suggests, it’s possible that beyond just changing what we consume and how we consume it, the emerging spirit of nomadism and borderless collaboration may help more people explore the world and do more good—even if it’s just from their laptops.

* * *

Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards and creator of the award-winning film Connected, believes that the internet’s most significant contribution is the awareness it gives its users of their interconnectedness. Her work centers around the idea that once technology rids us of the illusion that we can live in isolation from each other, we can begin using it to change the way we connect and solve problems.

“What is the potential of almost 3 billion people online today?” Shlain asks in her recent Declaration of Interdependence project. “Right now there isn’t a really good way to gather around problems and tackle them from all different countries, but I think in the next decade we’re going to see amazing tools emerge to help us tackle and solve problems on the internet.”

Shlain’s life isn’t nomadic, but her work is certainly borderless. She constantly watches collaborative projects across nations and cultures and is intent on figuring out how to leverage them.

“I think of the internet as an emerging global brain, and with each new connection that I make around the world through my work, I’m creating new synapses in this global brain.”

Demato believes that the more “synapses” that he and other citizen nomads make through their work, the more this global and borderless awareness will become a way of life for everyone—regardless of whether or not they’re willing to live out of a duffel bag.

This could mean living in a future in which we consider the problems of another hemisphere to be our own, simply because we can see them on a screen. It could mean crowdsourcing the solutions to developmental challenges the same way we now crowdsource funds for creative projects. And ultimately, it could mean a world where the notion of patriotism is no longer tied solely to the country that issued your passport.

“National and political boundaries will begin [to meld] into some larger conversation of connectivity and collaboration,” Demato says “It’s going to be much more about tribes of purpose and people answering [the question]: ‘How do you get things done together and work with people that matter to you?’”

For more, check out our companion piece on the last of the famous international nomads.

Illustrations by Eric R. Mortensen.

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