I spent the last few days on Jeju Island, South Korea at a meetup for digital nomads. A DN is a person who works both online and remotely, often in some kind of technology, while moving around the world. Some DNs (like my co-worker Steph Yiu) are completely nomadic, without any permanent address. Others (and I fall in this category to some degree ) have a definite home base, but nomad regularly, and work while they do.
There were some interesting folks at this meetup: Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List, a site that provides community and reviews for nomads, Kavi Guppta who writes for Forbes about the future of work and is working on all sorts of interesting projects, Youjin Do, who is working on a documentary about DNs, Pete Rojwongsuriya, a photographer, designer and adventurer from Thailand and Aloïs Castanino of Kickpush, a french designer based in London. Everyone, including me and Steph, gave short talks about our work, living remotely, traveling and the culture of this sort of remote work. Steph and I were interviewed by several reporters from the Korean technology press.
Digital nomadism is strange enough in the West, but in a place like Korea it runs against quite a few deep cultural currents. The parents of the Korean middle-class generation now in their twenties and thirties worked hard to establish themselves in company structures (think Samsung, Hyundai, etc.) or professions (medicine, law etc.) that were the guarantors of family stability. Sadly, the desire for stability is often the child of trauma, and for many of the current generation’s parents, war and its results were a part of living memory for them or their parents. It is not hard to see why the idea of working in this new, remote, loose way from a beach, or a mountain, or a bicycle, is at the very least confusing and possibly threatening to the older generation and its accomplishments.
After the meetup, I sat drinking Korean beer and eating rather recently dissected raw fish at a low table with about fifteen others. Besides our group of DNs, the other diners in this upstairs diner hidden deep in a fish market were mostly middle-age Korean businessmen. They laughed loudly while drinking rice wine over steaming pots of spicy crab soup and piles of kimchi. I looked around the gathering at the pure energy and impressiveness of the group of global young people around the table. I marveled for a moment at the privilege of it all (how fortunate each of us was to be here — how the hell was I here for that matter) but also the possibility and raw potential energy in the room. Soon, this new nomadic way of life will be less strange, even in East Asia. But for now, especially in booming, adventurous South Korea, the group around me felt less like nomads than pioneers.