Nomads at last | Economist.com

Wireless communication is changing the way people work, live, love and relate to places—and each other, says Andreas Kluth.


Illustration by Bell Mellor

AT THE Nomad Café in Oakland, California, Tia Katrina Canlas, a law student at the nearby university in Berkeley, places her double Americano next to her mobile phone and iPod, opens her MacBook laptop computer and logs on to the café’s wireless internet connection to study for her class on the legal treatment of sexual orientation. She is a regular here but doesn’t usually bring cash, so her credit-card statement reads “Nomad, Nomad, Nomad, Nomad”. That says it all, she thinks. Permanently connected, she communicates by text, photo, video or voice throughout the day with her friends and family, and does her “work stuff” at the same time. She roams around town, but often alights at oases that cater to nomads.

Christopher Waters, the owner, opened the Nomad Café in 2003, just as Wi-Fi “hotspots” were mushrooming all around town. His idea was to provide a watering-hole for “techno-Bedouins” such as himself, he says. Since Bedouins, whether in Arabian deserts or American suburbs, are inherently tribal and social creatures, he understood from the outset that a good oasis has to do more than provide Wi-Fi; it must also become a new—or very old—kind of gathering place. He thought of calling his café the “Gypsy Spirit Mission”, which also captures the theme of mobility, but settled for the simpler Nomad.

It’s probably not a great secret that I consider myself to be something of a reluctant nomad. I think a huge part of that stems from how much I moved while I was growing up. Until I started university, I never went to a school for more than 2 years; and generally when I moved, it was mid-year.

So like many people in the generation that succeeded my own, I don’t have a deep-seated sense of place. Depending on my mood, when someone asks me where I’m from, I answer Tennessee, Northern California (Santa Cruz/San Francisco), and increasingly Utah.

Like Ms. Canlas, I seem to be connected constantly throughout the day via email, text, this blog, and now Twitter and Facebook.

Kim (my ex) considers the constant connectivity to be a bad thing … she steadfastly refuses to sign up for any social networks; but I tend to feel like so many of my connections are so tenuous that I need to maintain them in any way I possibly can. I find I’m reconnecting with people from my past though these social networks, and am redeveloping some friendships that I’ve let slip through my fingers in the past.

I’m also trying to disconnect from the Interwebs enough to connect with real live people in face-to-face social situations; I seldom refuse an invitation anymore, whereas, in the past I used to come up with any excuse I could come up with not to go out because I was letting my anxiety control me, rather than controlling my anxiety. When I do find myself in the company of other people, I’m working on being as warm and welcoming as I can be … to listen, to engage, and to forge lasting friendships with people; something which has always been a weak point of mine in the past. It’s still a struggle at times, but it gets easier.

And right now, that’s all I can ask for.