Home Is Where the Phone Is

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
October 16, 2000

They are so proud of their roamings. They burn with a bright transcendent light. They seem not so much wanderers as pilgrims, fingering the buttons on their cell phones like rosary beads.

Jim Woodhill loves his 18-month-old son's elite frequent-flier card. For the 52-year-old venture capitalist, it is a symbol of a life in which he no longer has a fixed address. Woodhill sweeps through the skies, often staying in hotels, periodically alighting in St. Louis, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, New York and Washington. He maintains digs in all of them. Sometimes he likes to move from city to city with his wife, his son and his in-laws--a caravan in every way except for the tents and camels.

Esther Dyson, by contrast, is more of a lone ranger, but the investor and digital technology pundit speaks from Amsterdam with similar enthusiasm about her previous weekend in Prague where "we were being local; there was a rooftop terrace where we cooked barbecue." Her schedule for September included New York, Prague, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Zurich, Santa Fe, Silicon Valley, Aspen, Aptos, New York, Moscow, London, Stockholm, Zurich, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Germany. You don't find her; her cell phone does.

These technomadic acolytes have crossed a strangely ancient modern line. They can no longer be described as simply doing a lot of business traveling. That implies return to a fixed nest. These wayfarers no longer have their human identity tied to place.

They operate at a higher plane than their sedentary, stay-at-home fellow humans, they believe. Perhaps--strangely enough--their lives are actually more natural than ours. For by embracing the technologies of the past 10 years, they have adopted a lifestyle that had been in decline for 10,000 years.

They have become nomads.

The Grand Tour

From Johnny Appleseed to Huckleberry Finn, America has had a long and distinguished line of vagabonds, cowboys, paladins and knights of the road. Its times of social upheaval have always been marked by footloose dropouts--from the hobos of the '30s to the "Me and Bobby McGee" spirits of the '60s with their well-thumbed copies of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

Today's nomads, however, are different, marking what's so new and yet so ancient about their lives. They are part of the economic elite. These people whose home is the road have remarkable, leading-edge careers in computers, consulting, media and investing. They have six-, seven- and eight-digit incomes. Because of the new technology, they are networked round-the-clock to major global players who treasure their contributions and reward their insights. They do not see this new arrangement as some phase to outgrow. This is their lives.

"My cell phone is my house," says Bryan Rich, who is something of a socially conscious one-man multimedia mini-conglomerate specializing in distressed nations--Russia, Macedonia, Liberia, Angola.

He has apartments in New York and Bologna. His most recent work was in Burundi--a very small, bloody country in Africa's Great Lakes region where he filmed a feature-length documentary called "Breaking the Codes." He met his wife in Boston. They plan to relocate to Portugal. He jokes about how his infant daughter's name sounds like an antenna--Ariel.

The emergence of the cell phone and e-mail has made his technomadic existence "a completely viable and efficient way to work and stay in touch with people," he says. "It has canceled the difference between nomads and other people. You can appear to be a part of a system. You can create the illusion that you're permanent."

Reversal of History

Reliable numbers about footloose people are hard to come by. Nonetheless, high-tech nomadism is clearly on the increase.

Worldwide sales of mobile phones are exploding at an annual rate of 44 percent, while the number of U.S. households with three or more cell phones doubled in a year, according to Gartner Dataquest. Laptop sales are up 58 percent, the third year in a row they've maintained that torrid rate, according to PC Data Inc.

Corporate jet sales in North America were up 30 percent last year. All by itself, United Airlines' Star Alliance has more than 32 million frequent fliers, with just under a million achieving elite status, and more than 40,000 traveling on average 2,000 miles a week, year in and year out, on that one airline group alone, according to InsideFlyer magazine.

This is a reversal of history.

For hundreds of thousands of years--some 98 percent of their time on Earth--humans were nomads. They chipped and polished their stone tools, daubed on the walls of the occasional French cave, and most important, they roamed--hunting and gathering, following the food supply.

Only in the past 10,000 years did humans discover they might eat a lot better if they stayed in one place, tending crops and domesticating animals. Then came the great technological breakthrough of 5,000 years ago--the invention of the plow. An explosion in food and wealth resulted. Unprecedentedly large populations flourished. Cities and civilization developed. Nomads struggled to survive, for more people meant competition for less open space and fewer wild animals.

As the technologies of civilization became formidable, nomads continued their long decline. Except for one legacy.

"We still have the souls of hunter-gatherers," says Robert L. O'Connell, the Charlottesville historian who studied nomads to get at the origins of conflict in his book "Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War."

"Nomads were supreme opportunists--like venture capitalists. They were very resourceful--countering the myth of the stupid savage. In the places where they still exist, it's been discovered that there might be 400 species of plants in their range, and these guys are aware of 384 of them. The lifestyle they adopt is very natural to them. They like to wander. They like to move around."

If the compounding increase in technology once gave the advantage to the settled, a line has been crossed. Now the advantage can go to those who are returning to the life for which humans were originally designed.

Laundry by FedEx

"Do humans need nests? That's not at all clear to me. I have a sense that this nesting thing is highly overrated," says Jay Ogilvy, author of "Living Without a Goal" and a longtime researcher on values and motivations and their role in consumer and business decisions. He's also a nomad himself.

Ogilvy may be right, but it's not easy being high-tech homeless. Ordinary transactions become very complicated.

How do you get your laundry done? This is harder than it sounds.

"A key decision is which two nights you spend in the same place to get the washing done. Ideally it's a Tuesday and Wednesday night," says Rod Wright, COO-Europe for TBWA, the advertising agency network that is part of Omnicom. One consultant views it as utterly unremarkable that he sometimes has his shirts sent to his next location by Federal Express.

How do you get your Visa bill if you have no address? Many nomads have their bills routed to their accountants or lawyers. Electronic banking has helped. If you're Bryan Rich, you never use credit cards, only debit cards, and make sure you periodically wire enough cash to those accounts to cover your expenses.

Nomads travel light, both literally and metaphorically. Where do you stash picture albums, your college copy of "The Great Gatsby," your father's war souvenirs?

This turns out to be the argument for keeping apartments, somewhere. They are cargo dumps with a view. Mark Mobius, president of Templeton Emerging Markets and half a dozen other funds, spends his life analyzing investments in newly industrialized places. He practically lives on his Gulfstream G4 jet. His apartment in Singapore "looks like an art gallery. There's no furniture. I never got around to buying any. Except a bed." The rest of the place is full of his sculpture from Africa and Brazil.

Actually, the technology that enables the nomadic life can be one of the biggest nuisances. It's still primitive.

Today, most nomads carry several different cell phones because there are different standards around the globe. The phone that works in Tokyo, for example, probably doesn't work in Europe. In the United States, the cell phone network is fragmented, so the phones that work with Sprint often don't work with AT&T or Verizon.

Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who invented the phrase "virtual reality," says he recently burned out another faithful Powerbook laptop. "Three years is a really long time when you push a laptop to the limit, traveling around with you."

These considerations shade over into keeping track of who you are and where you are.

"Eight thousand years ago, being a nomad was very, very different," says Dyson, the digital guru. "The nomad was only where he was. Now you are where you are and elsewhere at the same time." She calls it "bilocation"--knowing that where you are physically is not necessarily where your mind is engaged. "I'm in Amsterdam and instead of hanging out smoking dope with the locals, I am on e-mail, which is a pity."

Personal ritual becomes important when everything else is in flux.

"I know where all the best swimming pools are" around the world, says Dyson. The temperature of the pools may vary, as well as their shapes, "but there is a certain regularity in that every morning, everything begins with a swim, no matter how frenetic things get. It's an hour of thinking. I don't use goggles. I keep my eyes closed. I'm completely unconnected. When I have to pay attention to my surroundings, when other people are in the pool, I hate that."

This in turn leads to questions of how you maintain human connection. What do you do about emotional sustenance, when you not only have no stable home, but suspect that you will never have a stable home? What does it feel like to give up hopes of a hearth where you can hang a Christmas stocking every year?

The World Is My Family

"For many of those years, I took an oath of polygamy," Ogilvy says of the part of his nomad life when he routinely traveled 200,000 miles per year and his average elapsed stay anywhere was 3.4 days.

"I was like the pirate with a girl in every port. I was fortunate to find half a dozen women who were quite happy with that."

Quite happy with that?

"Well, they put up with it."

Ogilvy now has managed to find the love of his life, and is married, although he has hardly settled down. He spent 146 nights on the road between September and June, including two trips to India, one each to Brazil, Tokyo, Singapore, Colombia, and so forth.

"Yeah, love life really does suck; it's a real issue," admits Lanier. "I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who either have a marriage that is strong enough to tolerate it, or weak enough that it's appropriate. Seems like a lot of them are weak."

Mobius is not married; never has been.

"I have no social life," he says. "Not really. I interact with my staff more than with my own family. I socialize with them. Go out to dinner, mixing business and pleasure. One of the problems in our business is you have to hide, you have to control your emotions," he says. When his human contact is almost exclusively business associates, he must be circumspect. He can't just say whatever he thinks about a person's firm. "You can't be spontaneous. Not like an artist, when you are thrown emotionally into something, uninhibited. There are built-in inhibitions you have to deal with."

Karen Stephenson has given up on location, although not relationships. The anthropologist whose specialty now is corporate human networks describes her base as "Gate 16, any airport." The coordinates she gives are those on her e-mail address, retrieved from wherever on the globe she can find a dial tone.

However, "I remember one time my son was 6," says Stephenson. She has a very amicable divorce. She's always shared with her ex the raising of their son, Ian, who is now 17. "He lives with his dad in Salt Lake City. One time his dad had gone out for a little bit, gone down to the grocery store. Ian got nervous about Dad being gone. Really spooked. So he called me.

"We both love 'Calvin and Hobbes.' So we always kept two sets of all the books, one wherever I was, which this time was Boston, and one in Salt Lake City.

"So we sat there. We were on the phone for 40 minutes. He was fine, comforted. And his dad eventually walked in."

Christmas time is a real test for nomads. "The one time of the year I feel lonely is when everyone else is having Christmas parties," says advertising executive Wright. "I don't belong anywhere."

They're always living in the middle of a paradox: Since they can communicate from anywhere, why do they bother moving around at all?

The answer is their need for something technology cannot provide--face-to-face contact. Venture capitalists particularly are reluctant to invest in companies that are farther than driving distance from a base for their executives, wherever and whatever that base may be. That's their radius of trust.

Face-to-face contact is the pleasure and reward of travel. Ironically, their need for face-to-face contact is precisely what is contributing to their rootlessness.

Wealth of Experience

The payoff, the rush, the excitement, for so many, is in learning new things, and stretching your mind. "Some new company that needs my help. Or an incredibly interesting meeting with half the world's central bankers," says Dyson.

"For now, I like the feeling of being at home in a lot of places. I am rooted in myself, not in some place. I like feeling that there are lots of places where I belong, that are familiar. That's nice. As opposed to feeling like a stranger. I really do like all the variety. I have a very short attention span. I'm easily bored. I go to talk to people, not look at monuments. I like the freedom. A lot.

"On New Year's Eve, my brother counted the stamps in my passport. There were 385. Since 1995. A lot of exotic ones like the Ukraine and Macedonia. There's a certain pride you take in the wealth of experience. That's kind of nice. That you belong all over the world rather than a little part. You're proud of the world, not just proud of your neighborhood. Proud to be part of it. It's not like you're just saying, 'Go Bronx,' It's 'Go world.' "


On the other hand, do nomads deserve our respect for living light on the Earth? Or are they immature lightweights?

"Among nomadic wanderers," says Ogilvy, "there is an inescapable danger of spiritual tourism, a hotel mentality that enters into cultures and belief systems the way travelers enjoy exotic resorts."

Still, Ogilvy likes to think of nomads as catalysts for action and growth among more stable cultures. He points to the way the conifers of the Pacific Northwest benefit from certain fungi that attach themselves to the base of the big trees and promote the growth of tiny root hairs.

They encourage rootedness in others. In just such a fashion, nomads are not free riders, parasites, or Yuppie scum, he maintains. They are scouts, test-pilots and pioneers.

"Like the hunter-gatherer who doesn't live in one place, the consultant roams the savannas of the Fortune 500," he says.

"Most people will not want to do this," says Dyson. "There's a range of people and I'm pretty far over at one end. This is where I belong. I don't feel I'm forging a path for others. I'm doing what's right for me."

Can you be an old nomad?

"That remains to be seen," says Mobius, 64.

He tells a story related to him by a flight attendant. Seems an old guy had been saving all his life to take a dream trip. Shortly after the plane took off, he had a heart attack and died.

So what did you do? Mobius asked the flight attendant.

"I strapped him in and put a napkin over his head," the flight attendant responded.

Mobius loves that story.

"I'll probably end up like that," he says.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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