Rise of the Digital Nomad

I’ve noticed something interesting. People my generation are leaning heavily towards virtualization and platform independence. Normally when I say words like that, you can expect a technical discussion. Not this time, though. This time I am talking about life in general.

We are on the verge of a total paradigm shift. Markers and puzzle pieces have been accumulating for years now, but are finally starting to reach the point where we can see the landscape of things to come. The shift towards digitization and portability is nearing terminal velocity. When you stop to think about it, most of your life and your favorite belongings are data-related. Books, TVs, phones, computers, pictures, music, art, movies, porn,

We’ll start with cell phones. Originally, mobile phones were the size of a brick and not much lighter. The costs were prohibitive, and they were solely the province of the very rich and/or the very important.  Fast forward 30 years and I have a 5 oz phone that can outcompute any personal computer from 30 years ago with ease. Cell phones have actually eclipsed landlines now. I have not had a landline in… probably at least 8 years, come to think of it. Goodbye, phone. Goodbye, arbitrary and stationary data device.

Computers are, of course, next on our list. Laptop sales accounted for more revenue than desktop sales as far back as 2003. Laptops have become a massive part of our culture, much like cell phones. A few coffee shops I go to have a laptop/book ratio of at least 3/1. Goodbye, desktop. Goodbye, arbitrary and stationary data device.

Following this we come to music. Media of this nature is interesting, as the establishment has a heavily vested interest in doing things the way they’ve “always” been done. Music today is being sold increasingly by the artist, and increasingly online. One must simply look at artists like Radiohead and Nine Ince Nails to see this trend in action, or stores like iTunes and Amazon to see the successes here. DRM has hamstrung this movement to a degree, but now  that it has become apparent that consumers hate it and will break it every time, I suspect this area will catch up quickly. Presently, with a modest MP3 player, you can hold 8 gigs of music. That’s 8196 megabytes. An MP3 with a decent bitrate will typically weigh in around 1mb/minute – making that 8 gigs worth 5.6 days of solid 24/7 music with no repeats. Goodbye, CDs. Goodbye, arbitrary and fragile data devices.

Movies and TV are suffering the same stutter-start as music, for many of the same reasons. That said, sites like Netflix with their watch-it-now queue and Hulu with a ton of streaming TV are gaining viewers in droves. Many people are tossing cable TV and instead spending their money on faster net access. Every laptop made in the last few years has a DVD drive built in, effectively making every laptop a portable DVD player. Goodbye, DVDs. Goodbye, expensive and fragile data device.

Pictures, once delegated to albums after costly processing, are now instantly accessible and stored online or in hard drives. I’m sure you can still get a 35mm actual-film camera somewhere. Probably someplace that sells quills and ink pots. Digital camera tech has increased to a massive degree. Some cameras can offload their pictures whenever in range to a wifi node with a receptor computer, offering effectively limitless exposures. Phone cams routinely upload photos to the internet seconds after the (artifical) click of the (virtual) shutter.  If you want hard copy photos, you can upload them to your local drugstore for pickup or  order them online and have them shipped to you. Goodbye, photos. Goodbye, arbitrary and fragile data devices.

Documents, the lifeblood of beaurocracy, have long been treasured. Deeds, wills, titles, birth certificates, bills, letters… all of these documents can be easily scanned and preserved. While the law has not fully caught up yet, I suspect we will see a big push as items like the Kindle DX(which displays PDF files natively and has 3G internet access) will usher in a new age, where the FAX machine and filing cabinet disappear and filing court documents can be done without couriers and clerks. Goodbye, heaps of dead plant matter. Goodbye, arbitrary and bulky data devices.

This brings us to books. While I enjoy cracking the spine on many a curious tome of forgotten lore as much as the next bloke, in my head I know that it’s just text and the content is independent of the presentation.  E-readers like the Kindle are going to make serious inroads into books. Imagine having a personal library with hundreds of books and a bookstore attached to it. Now squeeze all of that into something half the size of a magazine and make it searchable, annotable, and able to hold your important documents as well.  Combine this with Project Gutenberg and you have a robust device with a TON of free content available. Not to mention that the Kindle version of a book is typically substantially cheaper than the hardback. I have a Kindle on the way (thanks to my mom, the Kindle fanatic and author, not to mention best. mom. evar.) and I plan to put a ton of stuff on it. Insurance docs, technical docs, and The Prophet for starters. Goodbye, books. Goodbye, ecologically unsound and bulky data storage device.

Put it all together and we find that much of what we care about- books, movies, documents, pictures, music and communication are increasingly mobile. In fact, with an e-book reader, a cell phone, a digital camera, an external hard drive and a laptop we find that we can pack all of this into a reasonable sized laptop case. In my house, that’s a total of 4 bookcases, a few bankers boxes, a milk crate and a filing cabinet. All condensed and portable- so portable in fact that bringing a portion of the collection is no easier than bringing the whole thing. I suspect that in coming years we will start to see furnished apartments rented monthly for digital nomads- a new breed of mobile digerati that telecommute and travel the planet spending a few months at a time wherever they land. A shipping trunk full of clothes, the aforementioned laptop case, and a carry-on suitcase is all they will need to survive. In return for sacrificing roots and foundations, they will find great reward in accumulating a breadth of experience no prior generation has had accessible to them.

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