#63: Digital Nomads & Portable Tech: A Brief History

The definition of “portable” has changed a lot over the past 40 years, but the idea that technology would uncouple work and location has been clear for decades.

Welcome to Counterflows by Lauren Razavi. This week’s newsletter is a special edition featuring an excerpt from my book, Global Natives, which explores the history and future of digital nomads. More news about the book next week. For now, I hope you enjoy reading!


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Digital Nomads & Portable Tech: A Brief History

In March 1983, a recently-formed technology company called Compaq Computer Corporation shipped an exciting new product: The world’s first portable computer, the Compaq Portable.

Despite a price tag of US$3,590 (equivalent to around US$9,500 today), the model sold upwards of 50,000 units in its first year. This beast of a machine weighed 28 lbs (13 kgs) and folded up into a luggable case the size of a portable sewing machine. Crucially, it was designed to be taken as carry-on luggage.

The tech journalists loved it. PC World Magazine ran a cover story titled “Traveling with the IBM PC’s First Portable Competitor.” It features a photo of a man seated beside a swimming pool, transfixed by the rectangular screen of his bulky Compaq Portable. Next to him is an empty cocktail glass.

This just might be the first known portrait of the work from anywhere movement we know today:

When this image was shared on the r/digitalnomad subreddit in January 2021, almost everyone who saw it gave a virtual thumbs up. In today’s context, the scene feels familiar. We’ve all seen Instagram posts from social media influencers sitting by the pool or the ocean, a tropical drink beside an open laptop — living the dream. Whether the images are honest or not, the concept of combining work and play in paradise has been an aspiration since before the Compaq hit the market.

The definition of “portable” has changed a lot over the past 40 years, but the recognition that technology would uncouple work and location — challenging the foundations and certainties of 20th century society in the process — has been clear for decades. Every generation has a few thinkers and tinkerers who dream of connecting seamlessly across borders, locations, and time zones, and go the extra mile to articulate what that world might look like.

In1973, a former NASA engineer named Jack Nilles proposed telecommuting — an earlier name for remote work — as a solution to congestion in U.S. cities and the deepening global oil crisis. He was the lead author of The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff, a paper arguing that technology meant workers no longer needed to commute from the suburbs to downtown offices, but could work from home instead. Today, Nilles is celebrated as “the father of remote work.” Of course, not all remote workers choose to become digital nomads, but remote work is the gateway drug.

Back in the 1960s, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted the emergence of global remote work, speaking specifically about nomads working from Bali in the 2010s. Fifty years before I arrived on the island, Clarke had anticipated the presence of people like me in that part of the world, using new tools to do exactly what I was doing. By 1981, Intel co-founder Robert Noyce spoke about the end of commuting, the rise of remote work and a future where people locate “where it’s conducive to live, not where it’s conducive to work”.


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The earliest digital nomad, though, wasn’t equipped with a smartphone or even a laptop. Between 1983 and 1991, Steven K. Roberts travelled 17,000 miles across America on a bicycle. He was working as a tech writer in Columbus, OH when one day it dawned on him that he didn’t much like his city or his expensive lifestyle. So, he sold his house and left.

Steve wasn’t just a nomad — he was an inventor too. He hacked together a custom bike with a four-button keyboard and LCD screen on its handlebars. Two 10W solar panels, connected to batteries, powered everything but the wheels.

With this janky tech setup, Steve could now work while he cycled. He spent eight years living as a nomadic freelance writer and his bicycle received various upgrades over the years, ultimately becoming an object worth US $1.2 million by 1991. Today, it resides in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Steve’s pioneering journey was an early experiment in a new way of living, made possible by portable technologies.

The term “digital nomad” originated in a 1997 academic textbook of the same name by Tsugio Makimoto, a celebrated Japanese technologist whose contributions to the field of computer science earned him the nickname “Mr. Semiconductor.” The author’s note in the front of the book summarises its main argument:

“Times are changing. The driving force of change in the world is technological advance. It is pushing in two directions: towards smaller, cheaper, more portable personal tools, and towards the imminence of cheap, high capacity, global communications networks.

Technology does not cause change but it amplifies change. Early in the next millennium it will deliver the capability to live and work on the move.

The world’s major technology companies are targeting the lifestyle of the ‘mobile professional’ in developing the tools for leading a nomadic business life. In time these tools will become cheap enough for everyone, and the biggest lifestyle change for 10,000 years — since humans stopped being nomadic and settled down to farm — will be delivered to most people in the developed world.

People will therefore be able to ask themselves, ‘Am I a nomad or a settler?’ For the first time in 10,000 years that choice will become a mainstream lifestyle option.”

When Makimoto wrote this in 1997, the technology environment was a little different. It was the year DVD players were sold commercially in the U.S. for the first time, at a cost of $599 to $750 per unit. The first-ever Grand Theft Auto game had just shipped on Playstation 1, the MP3 file format was newly invented, and AOL was rolling out unlimited web access for U.S. $19.95 per month.

If Makimoto was right on the trend — and he was — he was off on the timing. Technology did advance to make remote work and global communication possible in the early part of the 21st century, just as all the futurists and technologists had predicted, but real-world enthusiasm for this way of living developed at a slower pace.

The technologies for a nomadic life would emerge within a decade of Makimoto’s Digital Nomad, but the wider cultural shift to embrace them came later — the 2010s rather than the 2000s.

The lesson here is that tools often move faster than people. The ability to do something on a technical level doesn’t mean it’s destined to become a lifestyle or movement. People first need a human character to represent whatever the new possibility might be, and actionable roadmaps to make it feel more real.

In 2007, a book provided exactly the right mix of ingredients. With its release, the face of modern nomadism would emerge — and usher in the beginning of location independence as a 21st-century counterculture.

📚 Thanks for reading! This is an excerpt from my book Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation. The first chapter launches digitally next month. There are 50 copies of the book available half-price via Holloway right now, so pre-order yours today and support my work as an independent creator:

BUY THE BOOK


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