A Wireless World: Our Nomadic Future
SOMETIMES the biggest changes in society are the hardest to spot precisely because they are hiding in plain sight. It could well be that way with wireless communications. Something that people think of as just another technology is beginning to show signs of changing lives, culture, politics, cities, jobs, even marriages dramatically. In particular, it will usher in a new version of a very old idea: nomadism.
Futurology is a dangerous business, and it is true that most of the important arguments about mobile communications at the moment are to do with technology or regulation—bandwidth, spectrum use and so on. Yet it is worth jumping ahead, as our special report does rather adventurously this week, and wondering what the social effects will be, for two reasons. First, the broad technological future is pretty clear: there will be ever faster cellular networks, far more numerous Wi-Fi “hotspots” and many more gadgets to connect to these networks. Second, the social changes are already visible: parents on beaches waving at their children while typing furtively on their BlackBerrys; entrepreneurs discovering they don’t need offices after all (if you need to recharge something, you just go to Starbucks); teenagers text-dumping their boyfriends. Everybody is doing more on the move.
Ancient nomads went from place to place—and they had to take a lot of stuff with them (including their livelihoods and families). The emerging class of digital nomads also wander, but they take virtually nothing with them; wherever they go, they can easily reach people and information. And the barriers to entry are falling. You don’t have to be rich to be a nomad (wander round any American college campus if you doubt that). It is getting harder to find good excuses for being offline: this week the European Union allowed airlines to offer in-flight mobile-phone service, and several carriers have Wi-Fi. The gadgets, too, are getting ever smaller and more portable.
A century ago some people saw the car merely as a faster horse, yet it led to entirely new cities, with suburbs and sprawl, to new retail cultures (megastores, drive-throughs), new dependencies (oil) and new health threats (sloth, obesity). By the same token, wireless technology is surely not just an easier-to-use phone. The car divided cities into work and home areas; wireless technology may mix them up again, with more people working in suburbs or living in city centres. Traffic patterns are beginning to change again: the rush hours at 9am and 5pm are giving way to more varied “daisy-chain” patterns, with people going backwards and forwards between the office, home and all sorts of other places throughout the day. Already, architects are redesigning offices and universities: more flexible spaces for meeting people, fewer private enclosures for sedentary work.
Don’t sweat, don’t shower
Will it be a better life? In some ways, yes. Digital nomadism will liberate ever more knowledge workers from the cubicle prisons of Dilbert cartoons. But the old tyranny of place could become a new tyranny of time, as nomads who are “always on” all too often end up—mentally—anywhere but here (wherever here may be). As for friends and family, permanent mobile connectivity could have the same effect as nomadism: it might bring you much closer to family and friends, but it may make it harder to bring in outsiders. It might isolate cliques. Sociologists fret about constant e-mailers and texters losing the everyday connections to casual acquaintances or strangers who may be sitting next to them in the café or on the bus.
As for politics, the tools of nomadism—such as mobile phones that double as cameras—can improve the world. For instance, they turn practically everybody into a potential human-rights activist, ready to take pictures or video of police brutality. But the same tools have a dark side, turning everybody into a fully equipped paparazzo. Some fitness clubs have started banning mobile phones near the treadmills and showers lest patrons find themselves pictured, flabby and sweaty, on some website that future Google searches will happily turn up. As in the desert, so in the city: nomadism promises the heaven of new freedom, but it also threatens the hell of constant surveillance by the tribe.