Digital Nomads and Cryptocurrency: what's the connection?
Updated: Feb 8
Pre-pandemic the popular digital nomad stereotype was of a millennial knowledge worker who had escaped the daily grind to travel the world without hindrance, working on a laptop in some far-flung beach cafe with their only limitation being the quality of the wifi. But there are some interesting digital nomad beliefs lurking beneath the stereotype.
Digital nomads do not just travel and work on laptops, many see themselves as citizens of the world, and believe that global travel should be a human right. In one case, a group of digital nomads are attempting to build a country on the internet. Digital nomad activist Lauren Razavi told me “The nation state is outdated – it’s based on 19th-century thinking, and we aim to upend all of that.”
Razavi is the executive director of Plumia, a self-proclaimed “moonshot mission” to build an internet country for digital nomads. Born in Britain to an Iranian immigrant, Razavi sees herself as untethered and borderless, and likens national citizenship and tax to a “subscription” that is very hard to cancel.
“We’re all enrolled into this automatic subscription based on the coincidence of our birthplace or our heritage, and that really doesn’t work in the 21st century.”
This way of looking at the world makes sense to me. As an anthropologist, I have been chronicling the digital nomad lifestyle – and their tangled relationship with state institutions – for the past seven years. Pre-pandemic, one common type of digital nomad was a young, white male coder who had escaped an office in London or New York to travel the world without hindrance
As long ago as 2015, I was hearing recurring complaints from these nomads about the ideological and practical frictions that nation states pose – it just hadn’t organised itself into a movement yet.
COVID-19 appeared to put the brakes on the nomadic dream, as most were forced to head home to western countries and the safety net of healthcare systems. Yet now, the remote working revolution triggered by the pandemic has given this borderless lifestyle “project” a new impetus.
Having consigned the office to the trash, it makes sense that the nation state is the next institution that digital nomads want to recycle and Razavi and an organisation called Plumia are trying to build a country on the internet. Razavi explained to me that membership to a nation state “offers incredibly poor value … The aspects that are really stuck in the past include citizenship, passports and tax. Our vision is to upload the nation state to the cloud.”
Lauren Razavi, executive director of Plumia. Photograph: Barbara Jovanovic, Author provided
This concept of creating an internet country was dreamt up during a company hackathon. Plumia is owned and staffed by Safety Wing, an HQ-less insurance company which sells travel and health cover to digital nomads and remote working teams (tagline: “Insurance for nomads by nomads”). Safety Wing, according to its homepage, is “here to remove the role of geographical borders as a barrier to equal opportunities and freedom for everyone”.
This utopian borderless world view overlaps with Cryptocurrency beliefs
If these ideals of borderless freedom sound familiar it might be because you’ve been reading cryptocurrency blogs. In fact the idea of an internet country is popular in cryptocurrency circles as well.
In June 2022 Balaji Srinivasan, former chief technology officer of the Coinbase cryptocurrency exchange, published an ebook entitled The Network State: How To Start a New Country. It is the latest in a flurry of utopian visions by self-styled digital visionaries, crypto believers and web 3.0 evangelists who are lining up to declare the death of the traditional concept of countries and nationhood.
If all of this sounds far fetched and fanciful, think again. Recently my research took me back to Chiang Mai, Thailand which is for some the digital nomad capital of the world. And right bang in the center of Ninnman (the main digital nomads area), is a new coworking, cryptocurrency, web3 start-up space called Yellow Coworking. Digital nomads work from here,as they do in any other coworking space, but scratch the surface and you will find cryptocurrency investors, believers, coders, and entrepreneurs. I spent some time at Yellow and attended some meet ups and the borderless, post nation-state way of thinking and was not just thriving, but was accepted as natural as the laws of gravity.
A new world
The idea of creating a new nation by hacking and challenging old ideas is nothing new, of course. The Principality of Sealand, located on a concrete platform in the North Sea, tried to claim sovereignty in 1967 with mixed success.
Sealand declared independence in 1967
Some digital nomads obsessively research maritime law, others go on digital nomads cruises. One nomad confided to me that they wanted to buy an island in Brazil.
And while the idea of an internet country without any territory, or future plans to claim any, is a radical concept for most, history teaches us that ideas, given the right tailwinds, can morph into reality.
In 1996, for example, John Perry Barlow published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he wrote the following missive to “outdated” governments:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Within four years the dotcom bubble grew exponentially and then burst in 2000 – proving both its evangelists and critics right. `We might be in a crypto-winter at the moment, but 2023 feels alot like 1997. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens when the expanding digital nomad and cryptocurrency worldviews expands beyond places like Yellow Coworking.