“That woman just came in here to take a selfie, then left!” I barely noticed, but the pair of 50-year-old brothers sitting next to me are besides themselves at her behavior. “What’s the point?” they ask.
I’m in Hubud, Bali’s hippest coworking space. A bamboo treehouse cum Internet café overlooking the rice fields in the center of Ubud; the place is Instagram-worthy, for sure. It attracts hundreds of pilgrims every month, people who want to wear the moniker of the hippest new trend: “digital nomad.”
“Can you really be a digital nomad if you don’t Tweet and blog constantly about being a digital nomad?” I ask the man (the irony doesn’t escape me). He just looks back at me, quizzical. “It’s fucking stupid,” he says. He’s been writing code since before I was born.
The laptop in a hammock on the beach is a lie. Everyone knows this. The absurdity of this image is a running joke amongst the people who frequent Hubud. This idea is the face of the digital nomad lifestyle, and you’ll find it everywhere from blog banners to BBC stories to the cover of the digital nomad ur-text: Tim Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek. It’s a blatant lie, and it’s everywhere.
But that’s far from the biggest lie the Internet will tell you about the digital nomad lifestyle.
Digital Nomads are gentrifiers.
This is the crux of what we’re gonna talk about today. Nomads like to talk about their enlightened lifestyles, but when it boils right down to it, we’re just a new breed of hipster. We appropriate places and lead trends, we go where life is cheap but hip, and we are a little bit in love with our own lives.
None of these are bad things for an individual. But as a collective (and a rapidly-growing one, at that), we have the economic potential to destroy communities. I don’t see how anyone who has been living this lifestyle could see that statement, and disagree with it.
(But I welcome your counterarguments, after you’ve read the whole post)
Quick, what’s gentrification??
Good question! Gentrification is, essentially, an influx of wealthy people into a traditionally poor area. The wealthy people, who have much more disposable income than the area is used to seeing, pump that money into the local economy. Things are cheap: why wouldn’t you spend? Businesses boom, fortunes are made, and the once-poor locals are suddenly richer. Life is good.
The problem occurs here at scale, when a critical mass of wealthy people arrive. Your friend says “The cost and quality of living is really good here, you should come join me” (sound familiar?). And eventually, you do. So do two of your friends. Each of them brings two more friends. And so on. Soon, rich white people are everywhere.
Upscale restaurants start opening to cater to this new class of customer; rents start going up; more people start moving to the newly hip area. The cycle accelerates. More and more money enters the equation, and soon the people who originally lived there can’t afford the property taxes on their own homes.
This is exactly what has happened in the U.S. cities of New York and San Francisco. Trust-fund hipsters did it to Brooklyn. Tech startups priced the soul out of San Francisco. Wealthy Chinese investors are fueling the phenomenon in Vancouver, Canada. Gentrification is even beginning to happen in my home state of Colorado, where legal weed, a booming tech scene, and an outdoors lifestyle are bringing hundreds of thousands of the nouveau riche to Denver. As a Colorado native, I hate it.
Yet, here I am, halfway across the world, part of a group that is driving the exact same thing in the remote work hotspots of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Ubud, Bali.
We are not a force for good in these communities.
As I said, I’m writing to you from Indonesia. Ubud is Digital Nomad hotspot number 2, probably, behind only Chiang Mai, Thailand. Ubud is a great town. It oozes creativity, charm and spirituality. I love it. I’m hoping to be here for the next few months of my life, eating Instagram-worthy meals, developing my meditation practice, and resetting my chi.
(God, even I hate myself.)
Ubud is cheap, too. Good food, healthy food, and a quality lifestyle come without too much effort, provided you have US Dollars to spend. Which I do, and you likely do too.
Which brings us to a second term:
Currency Arbitrage technically refers to trading currencies between different brokers at different rates in order to profit from the act of exchanging money from one currency to another. For this case, we just need that last part:
Currency arbitrage, for a digital nomad, means earning wages in one currency while spending in another, weaker currency.
One USD equals 35 Thai Baht. Right now, 1 USD is equivalent to 14,000 Indonesian Rupiah. And those rates have been going up steadily since I arrived in Southeast Asia. This means that I have been getting small pay raises almost every single day since I arrived in Asia, even though my salary, in terms of USD, has remained completely unchanged.
Currency arbitrage is what makes the digital nomad lifestyle possible. After all, most people who identify as remote workers, location-independent entrepreneurs, drop-shippers, or whatever bullshit they’re trying to do, simply couldn’t afford to do those things in the U.S. (developers excepted). They definitely couldn’t afford to do those things while traveling around an expensive Western country, where their currency only goes so far as a covering a middling apartment, drinks out once a week, and maybe a car payment.
That currency goes soooo much further in a foreign country. It’s absurd; and, when it’s a fact of your day-to-day life, there’s no denying that it’s awesome. I eat out every meal; I drink fancy coffees; I buy taxis; and I take overpriced tourist trips. And I usually have money to put into savings at the end of the month.
This is why people come to Southeast Asia. People will tell you it’s for other reasons, like the culture or the food, but this is reason number one. (Chiang Mai, especially, is rotten in this regard. Thanks, Internet.)
To eat healthy, raw, vegan meals three times a day with wheatgrass shots and pure cane sugar will quickly bankrupt you in any major metropolitan area. You know the restaurants: you see them on Instagram, then you check the menu and wonder how your friends can even afford to eat there.
You can eat at those places in Bali. A table-filling meal for two, including fancy drinks, wheatgrass, smoothies, probiotics, dessert, and whatever else you want will almost never run you more than 280,000 IDR, or $10 per person. And the food is just as good and just as pretty as it is in Brooklyn or Austin or Portland. And it’s probably healthier, to be honest.
Put against a domestic context, I feel like I’m winning at life when I eat a meal like that, and walk away having paid less than the price of a Chipotle burrito (no guac).
And on a micro level, I am winning. In that tiny moment, I did good. I helped a local business, I put money into the island’s economy. I’m improving myself, I’m getting healthy, and I can nurse a small, secret sense of superiority over my friends back home. All good, right?
We’ve looked at the microeconomics of my hipster lunch. But what are the macroeconomics of such tourism??
This is where things start to fall apart.
Let’s talk about globalization.
“Economic globalization refers to the increasing interdependence of world economies as a result of the growing scale of cross-border trade of commodities and services, flow of international capital and wide and rapid spread of technologies.”
Is globalization a good thing, or a bad thing?
This is a big question. We could debate it for years without ever finding a definitive answer. But, from my point of view, in this context, globalization is a very bad thing. A thing whose effects will only compound as more and more people are attracted to the digital nomad lifestyle.
Globalization has huge, far-reaching consequences which aren’t always immediately apparent.
Consider the humble Thai taxi driver. These guys are ubiquitous: as a tourist in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you can hardly walk down the street without being asked seven times if you need a tuk-tuk. Why? Because westerners are happy to pay higher prices— it still seems “cheap” to them.
But here’s the thing: your fare isn’t cheap, it’s expensive. It seems “cheap” because we have such a different standard of wealth in our home country that forking over 230 baht or whatever for a taxi ride seems great. Even more convenient than Uber, and the driver’s about as intelligible, you think. He gets you there quickly, defies traffic laws seven ways to Sunday in the process, chain-smoking all the while. You give him 250, tell him to keep the change, and go on your merry way. You’ve spent $7.
But if that happens enough, taxi drivers stop picking up Thai people. They only look for tourists— there is more money to be made. The local Thais, who make in a day what I make in an hour, cannot afford to see things the way I do. My “cheap” is their “expensive.” And my desire for cheap things is driving up their prices and their access to vital services.
Yes, the taxi driver personally benefits when I pay him a high fare and a tip on top. His family eats well that night. But after a year, when my digital nomad friends and I have been spending our money all around town, everything is a little pricier. Every year, he is able to afford a little less. Every year, provided my currency remains strong, I am able to afford a little more.
And while I can leave, he’ll always remain a taxi driver. I can enter his world, wield my economic influence, and then leave without seeing the consequences.
This is gentrification at its simplest. This is globalization. This is the result of some very selfish, very narrow thinking.
Every dollar we spend, every blog post we write, and every coworking space we patronize contributes to this inequality.
Digital nomads are unintentional pawns in a new wave of economic imperialism.
Tourism has existed since before you could get on an airplane, of course. Currency arbitrage just as long: one imagines Columbus arriving in the New World, tweeting back to his buddies Spain: “Holy shit I just bought 4 islands for one silver coin #ballin #GetTheFuckOverHereBros”
(Columbus was basically the Martin Shkreli of his day.)
The digital nomad, of course, is not Christopher Columbus. We don’t come with any ill intentions. We come, usually, with an earnest desire to see the world and learn more about other cultures and customs. We are not intentional homewreckers. And maybe that makes a difference. I don’t know, yet. But we are destroyers just the same.
This lifestyle, as sweet as it is, is built off the back of impoverished nations, and the exploitation of less privileged people.
I’ve been here for three months, and the plan is to be abroad for a while longer. These are thoughts that never occurred to me while planning this year of my life. And I read a LOT of digital nomad blogs. It is true what they say, that travel opens your mind. So here I am in Indonesia, wondering if I belong. Travel has taken the top of my head off, and suddenly things don’t seem so simple.
Maybe I’ll hop over to Europe, see what the scene is like in a more developed zone. I have a lot more learning to do, and I still want to see the world. I am sucking the marrow out of life and enjoying every moment of my travels. But living the “digital nomad” life over here in Asia just doesn’t feel ethical, right now.
There are big consequences to these trends, and no one seems to be talking about them.
So let’s talk.
Postscript: I’m sure there will be some people who are very offended by this piece. It’s not the easy, breezy stuff you usually see written about this space. Which, in my mind, makes it all the more important to talk about.
This piece is rough around the edges, and I’m sure my ideas could use some refinement. I know my perspective will continue to evolve after another three months on the road, but I had to get this off my chest now.
There’s a definite sense of cutting-edge in this community: it’s truly global, full of men and women from every place imaginable. We think outside the box, and hustle for ourselves. We create our own value. But we are in the “early Adopter” section of the curve. While the “innovators” will kick and scream they’ve been doing this since ’98, true scale is yet to come to the community. It will. And when it does, it will be too late to answer these questions in any significant way. The damage will be done.
So, to those of you who are also on the road, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Help me have a dialogue about this issue. Please! Comments are open. Blog up a response. Tweet me @thatisyouth. Or let’s chat over the watercooler at Hubud. I’m here for another month.
Then, who knows?