Digital Nomads

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

You’ve seen them. Walking through the streets speaking into tiny Motorola cellulars. Flipping open their Thinkpads in the middle of meetings and receiving Radiomail. Using special passwords and high-speed phone connections to access services the rest of us know nothing about.

On every continent, in every major city you see them. They seem to recognize one another. Their communication is discreet. Secret, even. They pass information to one another over national boundaries like they didn’t even exist. They know no allegiance to country. They don’t need one. They are the Digital Nomads.

The best of them work in the industry of digital nomadism itself. They are the Pharisees, who develop new codes, new Œtalmudic’ scripture that the rest of us will probably never come to understand. We have to take their calculations on faith.

They already control the media, and attempt to brainwash our kids through Gameboys and MTV. They use their computer skills to steal our jobs or eliminate them altogether. They control Wall Street, getting stock quotes and conducting trades before the rest of us know what has happened. They are developing a new system of money. They control the global economy.

They have a cultural agenda, too. They tell us the nation-state is obsolete. They give our children pornography, and tell them how to make bombs. They hope to destabilize our governments, and eradicate our fundamental belief systems. They have already converted the Vice-President of the United States.

You may be one of them.

However silly it may seem to those of us who have been working or playing online, people who don’t have the money or inclination to join us out here are feeling particularly ostracized. They are getting a bit paranoid, and it may be up to us to alleviate their fears.
I realized this while I was participating in a panel discussion in the former East Berlin, of all places. An elderly gentleman got up and asked me, through my translator, “why are so many of the cyberspace’s most enthusiastic advocates Jewish?”

Every alarm bell in my genetic memory rang. I flashed on the ashes of my relatives in Auschwitz. I broke into a sweat as several other members of the audience nodded in approval of the question. Who were these Jews he was talking about? I’m a Jew, legally anyway, but what about the real cyberstars? Bill Gates, Kevin Kelly, John Barlow, Louis Rossetto, Nicholas Negroponte and Timothy Leary aren’t Jewish, are they?

But whether or not the percentage of Jews online or leading the “digital revolution” is actually higher than anywhere else means a lot less than the man’s perception: here is a new elite, doing business and developing culture behind a set a closed doors. Anyone else who wants to participate must learn the code, and be indoctrinated into the cabal.

I answered the man’s concerns quite foolishly at the time, and I have wanted to take it back ever since. I took it quite personally, and then told him that Jews might be predisposed to futurism. They’ve been kicked out of so many places that they’ve gotten used to keeping their ears to the tracks. It behooved the Jews to stay abreast of changes long before they happened, so they’d know if public sentiment might be turning against them. Only the ones who were good futurists managed to escape in time. It’s in our blood.

This just made the man more upset. I was telling him that cyberspace was an inevitability. He told me I was not predicting the future, I was attempting to create it - manipulate it to my own advantage. It was another case of a disenfranchised people trying to undermine the efforts of more established authorities in order to make a place for themselves. When I told him that new media might have been partly responsible for the felling of the Berlin Wall, he clasped his hands and smiled. He had won his argument. He told me - in English this time - that many people, including himself, would rather that most things go back to the way they were in East Germany before the influx of Western media, commercialism, and valueless culture.

It’s no wonder that many people see the digital nomads as a threat. Like the original Jewish merchants traveling through Europe, we wander the globe peddling an economy and a world view that we argue will soon be everywhere. And we show more allegiance to one another than we do to almost anyone else. The computer geeks at one company are better friends with the computer geeks at their competitors than they are with their fellow employees in different departments.

If digital nomads really are the new Jews - even if just in the perception of others - than perhaps we should try to learn from the experience of the old Jews. No, there will probably never be a cyber-holocaust. But it does behoove us to take the first steps to alleviate people’s fears, rather than sit back idly in the knowledge that we really don’t mean anyone any harm.

For those of us who make our living doing digital things, it means respecting the values and priorities of those who don’t. It means being more aware when our language and activities exclude those who aren’t cyber-denizens themselves. Perhaps most importantly, it means abandoning elitism and anxiety as marketing tools. That’s what I’ll talk about next time.