On Being an Illegible Person

by Venkat on July 31, 2011

I’ve been drifting slowly through California for the past three weeks at about 100 miles/week, and  several times I’ve been asked an apparently simple question that has become nearly impossible for me to answer: “What are you here for?”

Unlike regular travelers, I am not here for anything. I am just here, like area residents. The only difference is that I’ll drift on out of the Bay Area in a week.  The true answer is “I am nomadic for the time being. I just move through places, the way you stay put in places. I am doing things that constant movement enables, just like you do things that staying put enables.” That is of course too bizarre an answer to use in everyday conversation.

My temporary nomadic state is just one aspect of a broader fog of illegibility that is starting to descend on my social identity. And I am not alone. I seem to run into more illegible people every year. And we are not just illegible to the IRS and to regular people whose social identities can be accurately summarized on business cards. We are also illegible to each other. Unlike nomads from previous ages, who wandered in groups within which individuals at least enjoyed mutual legibility, we seem to wander through life as largely solitary creatures. Our scripts and situations are mostly incomprehensible to others.

***

Since my particular variety of nomadism has me couchsurfing through readers’ homes, they sometimes have to explain my visit to others.  Most people are simply puzzled;  I’ve had second-hand reports of conversations that appear to have gone as follows: “Wait, what? You read some blog and you’ve never met the blogger, but he is randomly coming to live on our couch for  few days?”  When readers introduce me to others, they struggle. Some simply give up with, “I have no idea how to introduce you.” If I make up some ritual response to move on, such as “I am a blogger, I write mostly about business” they protest, “wait, that’s not really it… your blog isn’t really about business, and you do more than blogging.”

Curiously, while long-time readers at least subconsciously realize that “blogger” doesn’t quite cover it, people who nominally know me far better, but don’t read my blog (such as old high school friends) often don’t even get that there is something to get, since their substantial memories of me from long ago distract them from the current reality that “blogger” (at least at my level) is too insubstantial a label to account for an average human life. It is a non-job, like the other non-job title I sometimes claim, “independent consultant.” Both are usually taken as euphemisms for “unemployed.” For the legible, the choice is between gainful employment and lossy unemployment. For the illegible, the choice is between gainful unemployment and lossy employment.

Nomadism is the sine qua non of this general phenomenon of individual illegibility. The homeless, the destitute and seasonal migrant workers bum around. Billionaires with yachts and private jets bum around in a rather more luxurious way through each others’ mansions. Regular middle-class people generally stay put; nomadism hasn’t been an option until recently. This little piggy stayed at home.

***

Nomad is a concept that rooted-living people think they understand but don’t. I know this because I myself thought I understood it, but realized I didn’t once I’d actually tried it for a few weeks.

I used to think of nomadism as a functional and pragmatically necessary behavior, related to things like having to follow the migratory paths of herd animals in the case of pastoral nomads. Or having to work at client sites, in the case of road-warrior consultant types. Or even having to travel the world in order to satisfy an eat-pray-love urge.

Now I’ve come to realize that’s not really it. When voluntarily chosen, nomadism is not a profession,  lifestyle, or restless spiritual quest. It is a stable and restful state of mind where constant movement is simply a default chosen behavior that frames everything else. True nomads decide they like stable movement better than rootedness, and then decide to fill their lives with activities that go well with movement. How you are moving matters a lot more than where you are, were, or will be. Why you are moving is an ill-posed question.

This is not really as strangely backwards as it might seem. Rooted people often decide to relocate somewhere based on a general sense of opportunities and lifestyle possibilities, and then figure out how they’ll live their lives there. Smart rooted people usually target regions first, jobs, activities and relationships second. Nomads pick a pattern of movement first, and then figure out the possibilities of that pattern later. While I haven’t found a sustainable pattern yet, I’ve experienced several unsustainable ones.

Moving in a slow and solitary way through cheap hotels helps me write better and reflect more deeply.

Moving slightly faster through people’s couches slows down my writing (as my recent posts show), but helps me  experience relationships in brief, poignant ways.

Moving through a corporate social geography (in the past week, I’ve sampled three Bay Area company buffets) helps me understand the world of work.

Shuttling around on a lot of long-distance flights helps me get through piles of reading.

House-sitting helps me understand others’ lives in a role-playing sense.

So I’ve changed my perspective. I am not on the road to promote the book. I am promoting the book because I am on the road. The activity fits the pattern of movement. The pattern itself is too fertile to be merely a means to a single end. Nomadism is not an instrumental behavior. It is a foundational behavior like rootedness, the uncaused cause of other things. Book promotion is simply one of the many activities that benefits from constant movement, just like growing a garden is one that benefits from staying in the same place.

***

All this is very complex to convey, so I don’t use the nomad answer. But on the other hand, I also don’t like getting dragged into long-winded explanations. So if people insist on a substantial answer, I just say “Well, I am promoting my new book, meeting blog readers and consulting clients.” That instrumental description satisfies people. But it annoys me that I have to basically mislead because the language of rootedness lacks the right words to explain behaviors that arise from nomadism.

The follow-up question is also predictable, where are you from? When I was a much more rooted person, this question was always a politically correct way of asking about my ethnicity and nationality; people wanting to plot me on the globe with as much accuracy as their knowledge of world geography allows. But as a nomad, the question is always about my current base of operations. Movement makes you unplottable, which apparently provokes more social anxiety among the rooted than unclear ethnicity or nationality. People want to tag you with current, physical x, y coordinates before probing other dimensions of your social identity. This conversation also tends to be bizarre:

Where are you from?

Vegas

Vegas? (look of puzzlement) Why Vegas?

It’s cheap.

Vegas confuses people. Most regions are understood in terms of their attractions for rooted people. California is for techies and entertainment types who like good weather. New York is for finance types who like gritty, tough urban living. Chicago is for easygoing types who work in areas like logistics and commodities. Vegas doesn’t have a clear raison d’etre on the rooted-living map (except perhaps as a retirement location). You travel there for a bit of hedonism; you don’t live there. For nomads on the other hand, Vegas does have a very clear raison d’etre. It is a great city to pass through (not so great to grow roots in).

I’ve taken to making a weak joke: “Vegas is like the miscellaneous file; you meet a lot of random people there. I was initially having fun watching them, but then I realized I am one of them.”

At this point, if I am in the mood, I explain that we are subletting and house-sitting my in-laws’ house for cheap while they summer in Michigan, and that our stuff is in storage. That we originally meant to make Vegas a temporary, low-cost and geographically strategic base while we figured out where to go next, but that my wife has now found a job there, so we’ll be staying on indefinitely after the summer.  The variables that made us pick Vegas are classic nomad variables: cost, seasonal considerations, and strategic positioning for further movement.

I have been nomadic since May 1, almost three months now.  I’ve spent six of those weeks living out of a car, and another five living out of a temporary, borrowed home out of a couple of suitcases and boxes (this has been like playing house; my first experience living in a single family home with all the accouterments of American suburban life).

***

In the past three months, my understanding of the nomadic state has been slowly but radically altered. The best way I can explain what I’ve learned is to offer this comparison: nomadism has almost nothing to do with the rooted-living behavior it nominally resembles, travel.

The modern world is organized around rooted living, with travel as its subservient companion concept. Travel is unstable movement away from home with a purpose, even if the purpose is something ambiguous like exploration or self-discovery. It is always a loop from home to home, or a move from old home to new home.  For the rooted living person, travel is a story. A disturbed equilibrium that requires explanation and eventual correction, resulting in a return to equilibrium. A small handful of stories explain most cases: business trip, visiting family, tourism, backpacking, finding myself. Even hippie-drifting, karma-trekking, eat-pray-loving and backpacking are purposeful patterns of movement in a world that is a landscape shaped by rootedness.

For the rooted person, previous and next equilibrium points, with associated departure and arrival dates, and a focal climatic point in the journey between, suffice to model any movement. Once upon a time, a couple lived in New York. They traveled to California to go camping in Yosemite. Then they returned to New York. The End. A dead giveaway that you are looking at travel rather than nomadism is that the paths to and from the focal points are generally very efficient; often shortest/cheapest paths. A good story doesn’t dawdle.

For the nomad, that data is annoying to supply because even when it is nominally available, it conveys almost no information. Better questions concern the quality and shape of the movement itself:

How quickly are your moving? (a 100-mile/week drift rate is a very different stable movement rate than a 1000-mile/week drift rate).

What route are you taking? (to the nomad, whether you take a northerly or southerly route between DC and Vegas isn’t a minor detail, it is the main question; it is the end points that are minor details).

Are you living out of hotels, camping or couchsurfing?

Are you living out of a car or a backpack?

Where are you headed for Fall?

Are you moving up the coast or through the forests?

How do you pack? Do you prefer a sleeping bag or a Hennessy hammock?

For the nomad, the question of why you are temporarily somewhere is simply ill-posed. It’s like asking a settled person, “why aren’t you moving?” For the nomad, a period of rootedness is unstable, like travel for the rooted.  It is a disturbed equilibrium that requires explanation. An explanation of non-movement, and eventual resumption of movement, are required. The associated stories can range from a car breakdown, to insufficient funds to fuel the next phase of movement, to unexpected weather conditions. Once upon a time, a guy who lived out of a car was heading south for the winter. His car broke down in Kansas City, and he was stuck there for a week. Fortunately he was able to find a place to couchsurf, get it repaired and move on.

***

In a way, nomadism is a more basic instinct for humans. Rootedness is natural for trees. Legs demand movement. The movement is the cause, not the effect.  Just as the mantra for rootedness is location, location, location, it is movement, movement, movement for nomadism. When humans grow roots, strange new adaptations appear to accommodate restless brains.

If I have romanticized nomadism it is because nomadism is a fundamentally romantic state of being. If you can sustain it, it is somehow fulfilling without any further need for achievement or accomplishment. The pursuit of success is, for the rooted, the price they must pay for immobilizing themselves geographically. The reward is something equivalent to the state of stable movement that is, for the nomad, a natural state of affairs.

Success itself in a way is very much a notion for the rooted; it is the establishment of some sort of stable self-propelled movement pattern through some sort of achievement space: up a career ladder; down a rabbit hole of skilled specialization; sideways through a series of stimulating project experiences. When there is no true north, no physical landmarks growing smaller behind you, and no fresh sights constantly appearing over the horizon, you need abstract markers of movement: degrees, money, a sequence of more expensive cars, a series of increasingly successful books, a growing readership for a blog, increasingly prestigious speaking gigs.

When you bind naturally restless feet, the minds that have evolved to animate them seek movement elsewhere.

I misunderstood the psychology of travel badly when I was younger. About 12 years ago, when I was 24, I went backpacking for three weeks in Europe. After that, somehow I lost my wanderlust. I explained my reluctance to travel to myself, and to others, with the lofty line, “I’ve kinda tired myself of exploring the geographic dimensions of experience; I am now exploring more conceptual directions.”

Bullshit. Geography is just too fundamental to our psychology. If we aren’t moving, it is because there is too much friction and cost. Wanderlust never goes away. It merely becomes too costly to sustain as you age. Recently, when I traded my Indian passport for an American one (which allows me to travel far more freely, without the annoyances of the Great Wall of Visas that is designed to keep the developed world from getting too footloose), the old itch to travel instantly reappeared. So much for my pretentious “other dimensions of experience.” It was mere paperwork friction that was holding me back. But sadly, while one source of friction has disappeared, others have grown. In my late 30s now, the fact of my wife’s non-portable job and the complexities of moving our two cats across national borders, are what keep us from simply embarking on some extended nomadism around the world. But at least we don’t have a mortgage and school-going kids.

***

Scott’s notion of illegibility was originally inspired by the nomadic state and its incomprehensibility to the governance apparatus of settled cultures. To the stationary eye of the state, a moving person is a blur rather than a sharply-defined identity; it is harder to tax, conscript, charge with crimes or even reward nomads. To the stationary eye of the corporation, the nomad appears harder to hire, manage or pay.

The blurriness extends to other aspects of rooted life. Ownership and community life change from being stock concepts (defined by things you accumulate) to flow concepts (defined by things you pass through and that pass through you).  Identity starts to anchor to what you are doing rather than who you are. Social life acquires, due to its permanently transient nature, a certain poignancy that it lacks in rooted contexts. Even routine errands like grocery shopping and doing the laundry become minor adventures that require your full attention and engagement.

Everyday rituals acquire a monastic depth. The difference between nomadism and travel even shows up in how you pack. Packing a suitcase for extended travel is very different from packing for a period of nomadism. In the first case, you pack for compactness and unpack at your destination. It is an exercise in efficiency. In the second case, you pack for daily in-out access in a changing context. You have to think harder about what you are doing. You need constant mindful repacking, rather than efficient one-time packing.

Even the most basic, unexamined rituals change. For instance, I stay so often with people who don’t drink coffee that I’ve taken to carrying a small bottle of instant coffee with me. But it’s a different kitchen every few days.

Nomadism is, in a way, the most accessible pattern of mindful living.

***

The romanticism aside, true permanent nomadism is not really an option today. This particular romantic episode will end around October, and I will be rooted once more. All the neuroses of the rooted will come flooding back. I will once more start to worry about my next book and my next hit blog post.

The direct costs of living aren’t actually very different for nomads and settled people.  It is the indirect costs that kill you. If it weren’t for the burden of an address-and-nationality anchored paperwork identity and the tyranny of 12-month leases and 30-year mortgages, nomadic living would be no more difficult than static living at the same income level. Newton’s law applies approximately: a human in a state of rest or steady motion continues in that state unless an external force acts to change it. A nomad is a human in a state of steady motion. Not in a Newtonian sense, but in a cognitive sense. Once you’ve settled into a particular pattern of living out of a car, you are in a steady state that has inertia.

Movement is not expensive if the environment is set up to support it. I am not an extremist or minimalist. I don’t want to be living off a few packs on a bicycle for the rest of my life. I like warm beds, hot showers and large, well-equipped kitchens as much as anybody else. I like having access to lots of useful things like washing machines and gyms. It is not inconceivable that the world could be arranged to provide all these in a way that supports both rootedness and nomadism. Thanks to online friendships, and emerging infrastructure around couchsurfing and companies like Airbnb, it is becoming easier every year. I’d like to see trains getting cheaper, tent-living becoming available for the non-destitute classes, health insurance becoming more portable, public toilets acquiring shower stalls, and government identity documents becoming anchored to something other than physical addresses. I’d like to see the time-share concept expand beyond vacations to regular living. I’d like to see executive suites and coworking spaces sprout up all over, and acquire cheap bedrooms that you can live out of. I’d like to be able to rent nap-pods at Starbucks. I’d rather own or rent a twelfth of a home in twelve cities than one home in one city.

There is no necessary either-or between nomadism and rooted living. Technology has evolved to the point where the apparatus of the state should be able to accommodate illegible people without pinning them down.

Joseph Kelly July 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

My father has been sustaining a nomadic life for 6 years now, 3 of which I joined him on. Motorhomes and boats make for moving homes which let you sustain for much longer than if you are only staying at hotels or camping. If you’re on a sailboat you can do it almost indefinitely, and with very little money, anchoring out and catching your own food.

One key is to have either a family member or a UPS Store box where you can route all your mail through and have forwarded on. Access to the Internet anywhere let’s you handle most logistical issues, and BYU’s independent study program let’s kids take courses and get credit. I graduated high school and submitted college applications from Internet cafes all over the Caribbean.

I recommend looking into the cruising community if you want to find more examples of long-term nomads that make it work. The same kinds of questions you mention appear – where are you from, what kind of boat and equipment do you have, where are you going, etc. But there is also a seasonal aspect to how people have to move around. Hurricane season forces folks to leave the Eastern Caribbean between May and November, and seasonal winds mean your ideal time to cross the Pacific is after February. Most circumnavigations are done by sailing West, with the trade winds at your back.

This makes for ad-hoc communities to spring up where cruisers paths come together. Bottlenecks in various routes, like Panama, make for an especially interesting mix of folks.

When meeting other cruisers my conversation toolkit generally was questions about movement and equipment. This doesn’t translate well to conversations in ‘rooted’ environments, where like you say, the closest analogies have to do with a career and things. It’s remarkably easy to talk to strangers, locals and other nomads, while on the move, but it takes a lot more effort once you’re rooted.

D.C. Cheever July 31, 2011 at 10:05 pm

“It’s remarkably easy to talk to strangers, locals and other nomads, while on the move, but it takes a lot more effort once you’re rooted.”

So true. Around two years ago an old high school friend and I randomly decided to drive from south Florida to California because we’ve both never been there. Lived out of the car, stayed at a friends’ in Texas half way there. Stayed in hostels for dirt cheap when we got to Cali as well as the car again (mostly the car, the hostel stays were for showering if anything.) @Venkat the shower stalls in public bathrooms would of been a huge help in this regard. Great idea.

Eventually stayed with someone who worked at the hostel in their house for about four months. I actually tried to root down in California too but this was at the height of unemployment and the financial crisis.

But I’m usually a very stand offish individual socially. However during traveling I had no problem at all talking to strangers. I was actually engaged in the conversation more so than I ever would be. It was exciting. A good number of them were on the move precisely because of the financial crisis and losing everything. Local libraries seemed to be the main hub for our kind. Free internet. Heh.

@Venkat this is a logical conclusion. Being the polar opposite of rooted living, it makes sense nomadic living would be a stable structure in it’s method too. It’s funny you mentioned how it effected your writing as It did mine too. This is when I was finally able to develop two of my screen plays. But once I started staying at the house in San Diego where the hostel worker stayed, my writing came to a halt. Due to more people being around.

I encountered the same questioning and puzzlement as well. The hostel worker who I stayed with just couldn’t possibly understand why I left Florida with next to nothing and came to California… for nothing. All of his friends asked the same. I had to try and convince them that I had no alternative motive and I’m pretty sure none of them were convinced. Some I suspected thought I might be on the run from the law or something because no one could “be so insane” to just up and leave a “stable” environment. I found it amusing, they did not.

He kept asking me questions too like, “So where do you see yourself in a couple months?” and basically came off as a concerned parent in my point of view originally. After reading this I now know he was just genuinely confused. It is a complete different method of thought. I was annoyed initially on why the “interrogation.” I now know he was just that blown away. Good stuff as always.

Xianhang Zhang July 31, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Have you read Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”?

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2100251/Jared-Diamond-The-Worst-Mistake-in-the-History-of-the-Human-Race

Venkat August 1, 2011 at 12:15 am

I hadn’t, that’s awesome thanks.

Venkat

Allen K. July 31, 2011 at 11:58 pm
Xianhang Zhang August 1, 2011 at 12:56 am

My thoughts on this are still hard to articulate but I have this deep ambivalence towards nomadism (in the modern world). In my mind, when we became rooted is when humanity changed from an interesting species of ape into it’s manifest destiny as lords of the planet and that the human condition deeply involves contributing to this edifice. Nomadism is a rejection of this, and in a way, something I feel is deeply selfish. Nomads care about the little bubble of their direct social influence but remain uninvolved in the larger global discussions of policy, society & legacy.

Possibly at the root of it is that Nomads don’t build. Nomadism is steady state existence, they don’t leave anything more behind in the world than when they arrived because they *can’t* leave anything more behind in the world than what they arrived with. Once you remove the ability to build, all that is left is ability to experience and the nomadic lifestyle is marked by it’s focus on experience. To me, such a lifestyle feels oppressively cloying and numbing…

That being said, we are possibly now entering into a phase of history where it is possible to be a nomadic builder. Purely informational products, do not require a rootedness to produce and an entirely new class of nomad may emerge.

MFH August 3, 2011 at 4:34 am

You’re neglecting to account for a continuum in behavior. Perhaps a 99% nomad is deeply selfish (although I remain ambivalent), but what about 60%? What about 55%? What about 51%?

Further, at what point does a little social bubble, perhaps resembling early ribbonfarm, become involved in larger global discussions? Where is that line drawn? Who draws it? And amongst the more hardcore nomads, is “fuck you” a contribution to global discourse or not? What is global discourse?

Finally, what about Thoreau? Kerouac? Are they not nomadic builders well before their time? And what about the crazy bastards that settled California, paving the way for my current residence here? Are they not builders in some way?

Venkat August 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Entropy conquers all, so “building” is really a question about time-scales of persistance. Whether you use your creativity to produce an experience for others that lasts a few moments and is then forgotten, or a transient installation at Burning Man, or the Great Wall of China, is merely a matter of temporal scale. A nomadic bard’s song may last as long as the Great Wall. A Titanic may sink on its maiden voyage.

The real distinction is perhaps between creative-destruction versus do-nothing modes of life. You can find both nomadic and rooted people doing each.

Isaac Lewis August 5, 2011 at 1:44 am

The only surviving remnants of millenia-dead civilisations are a) really big stone buildings and b) any literature thought worth copying throughout the intervening centuries. Unless any modern rooted people build another Pyramid or Hoover Dam, literature or other information artifacts (whether created by nomads or settlers) will be the longest-lasting contributions to civilisation.

tubelite August 12, 2011 at 10:49 pm

(Great post, as usual. Great comments, as usual)

Entropy is an excuse to do nothing. Man is the measure of all things, so we can measure “building” in terms of the human life and attention span.

I am unsure about the fundamental geographically restless nature of human you assert. Binding with land, settled existence are strong enough emotions to fuel their monstrously exaggerated version, nationalism.

Modern nomads are both geographically _and_ socially nomadic. The old archetypes were only geo-nomadic, carrying their extended families with them in bands and tribes. While they did meet with new people frequently, their social graph was as stable as the modern rooted individual, satisfying the really fundamental “social” nature of the ape. Which the modern nomad either does not need – being an asocial mutant loner – or attempting to satisfy with a stable Twitter graph.

Martin Geddes August 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

The very appropriate advert my RSS reader dished up for this article: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4420432/Southern.png

Ho-Sheng Hsiao August 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I’m going to introduce you as, “this is Venkat Rao, wandering hermit of the scholastic tradition.”

Also, your insights puts cloud technologies into a different light. Cloud is not so much an enabler of nomads, so much as requiring a nomadic perspective to really “get” it and make full use of it. (I think this is the story I was looking for all those weeks ago; History of corporations is grand and far-reaching, but this will be actionable sooner).

Venkat August 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Tentatively, that seems right to me, and fits my notion of cloud as well. Cloudizing something makes that dimension of experience open to nomadism, and you realize its true value only when you are nomadic on that dimension.

speedbird August 1, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Vegas, heh. :)
I had a friend who travelled a lot. After innumerable conversations of the form:

- ‘Where are you from?’
- ‘London.’
- ‘I have a cousin in London, do you know them?’

she said she finally resorted to the following:

- ‘Where are you from?’
- ‘Disneyland.’

adam August 1, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Bruce Chatwin is required reading on this subject, IMHO. //
“This is my associate, Mr. Rao” seems most appropriate to me.

Josh W August 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm

When introduced like this, please wear sunglasses and fold your arms.

Julio August 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

The modern nomad you describe still relies almost entirely on the infrastructure of the state. They belong in a separate class from hunter gatherers, who relied only on nature’s bounty, and pastoralists, who relied on their herds.

There is little room for HG’s and pastoralists in the modern world, and the traveling tradesmen or craftsmen that fit in the third category are always going to be in an uncomfortable relationship with the state, precisely because they are illegible.

The question remains whether technology will evolve in a way that makes this phenomenon disruptive or whether it will be allowed to expand only within the comfort zones of the state. I would not bet on the former.

The invention of the animal drawn plough rooted us, gave rise to civilization, and embodied our exploitation of nature. From then on nomadism has been either a remnant or a resistance against the civilized.

Josh W August 1, 2011 at 8:34 pm

It strikes me too that this is dependent on abstract categories to work; citizen, library user, hotel user etc.

There apears to be a tradeoff in this situation based on the enthusiasm with which such abstraction is pursued:

Highly specified use-cases mean little adaption is required on the part of the nomad, but there can be less travel, less mindfulness too: The travel can become about experiential stasis with a greater energy expenditure. Very quickly it’s utility becomes about transporting, arbitrage etc. and the romantic element of experiencing a place through the thousands of micro-adaptions it requires disappears.

That’s not to say that all micro-adaptions are humanly valuable, or that all adaptions are that micro!

The illegible nomad looses daily time to friction, the legible nomad sees only the lubrication systems.

Greg Linster August 1, 2011 at 8:17 pm

I see plenty of opportunity to be a hybrid-nomad in today’s world. Nomadism, in the pure sense of the word, doesn’t really appeal to me either. Somewhat frequent travel, however, does.

I once saw an aphorism on Twitter from Nassim Taleb (although I don’t think he ever published it anywhere else) that said: “A philosopher is the opposite of a tourist.” What do you think, does the philosopher still feel wanderlust?

Prakash August 2, 2011 at 5:07 am

Back before I bought a house and was being shuttled between cities, while working for different projects in the same firm, I had thought of the “1/12th of a house” idea as well.

Have a complex in every major IT city with easy ability to move from one to another. It’s just that it is very expensive in India. Land rates are far higher than what is justified by rentals. If anyone wanted to do it privately, they would be charging rent way higher than market rate, and thus fail. What might be needed is cross-subsidy of some kind, like an IT firm that wants its workers to move across cities.

Of course to support families, you’d need much more structure. Telecom, insurance, bank accounts and schooling would have to be mobile between cities. Or in other words, to support your illegibility, a whole lot of things around you might have to become legible.

Mike August 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

“He’s a rootless drifter and a sociopath. He doesn’t like talking about where’s he’s from… says he’s from Vegas.”

“Well, by all means then, invite him to dinner and to stay overnight, dear. He can sleep across from Peggie’s room.”

Venkat August 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm

This one is probably my favorite.

Isaac Lewis August 5, 2011 at 2:10 am

Some slightly-relevant quotes (bonus points if you can name the sources without using Google):

“Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before.”

“33. Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elem ents. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone . We call it autonomy and will discuss it l ater

59. We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group. The more drives there are in the third group, the more there is frustration, anger, eventually defeatism, depression, etc.

60. In modern industrial society natural human drives tend to be pushed into the first and third groups, and the second group tends to consist increasingly of artificially created drives.

61. In primitive societies, physical necessities generally fall into group 2: They can be obtained, but only at the cost of serious effort. But modern society tends to guaranty the physical necessities to everyone [9] in exchange for only minimal effort, hence physical needs are pushed into group 1.”

Isaac Lewis August 5, 2011 at 2:16 am

If it’s not clear, I feel the second quote is relevant as it relates to an idea of rooted people need for achievment/success/”goals” being an outlet for the more primitive need for power/motion. I purposefully haven’t named the source.

D.C. Cheever August 5, 2011 at 10:37 am

Uh oh. I think I know where these excerpts are from. One of the paragraphs was a dead giveaway. Heh.

Andrew S. August 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Numbered sections are from the ‘Unabomber Manifesto’ for sure.

Venkat August 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Hmm… this is the second time somebody has tried this on me. The first time is here.

Exenith June 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm

It’s pretty obvious that the Unabomber is going to become a celebrated person. The harder it becomes to sympathize with the people he killed, the more people will realize the intelligence of his ideas.

The way I see it, two things are going to happen to society, and they’re happening much faster. Either technology will cause more neuroses and fuck over civilization. Or technology will become advanced enough to cure all the neuroses it originally caused.

Both futures I would love to see. Plant overgrowth all over city buildings, animals roaming free, people sleeping from house to house, battles in the street — a return to true hunting and gathering. Or some sort of mass civilized nomad society — everyone earns their money over the Internet, free to travel around the world in groups wherever they want, with residential areas being replaced by service buildings (motels/restaurants/entertainment), and a world government where “countries” cease to exist (only businesses).

Thanks to technology, I can’t see anything else happening.

c. August 5, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Thank you for this.

You dissect the interaction where you give the pabulum necessary or expected to most people when they ask that question. Sometimes people looking at you in a particular manner is their waiting for a more honest answer. I will admit I’m tired of hearing the “having a great day” when really there is so much more to it. People speak with no depth and it makes me dismiss them. Sad but I’m not here for the mush they wish to serve up.

That said, couch for both of ya in Mpls. (cats tho)

Annie August 10, 2011 at 8:40 am

Interesting thoughts about legibility and nomadism. I think that nomadism and rootedness are both inherent to human nature. I differ from you on your statement that aging makes nomadism more expensive/difficult; in fact significant numbers of older people take up nomadism as a way of life. The responsibilities one acquires at certain life stages make nomadism more difficult, but those stages and responsibilities are not permanent. The nomadism of older people may look different from that of younger people, older people generally take more stuff with them to support aging bodies and health.

I spent roughly a quarter century engaged in a semi-nomadic lifestyle and am now semi-rooted. I say semi-rooted because I don’t yet know how long it will last, but at the moment I have no sense of restlessness.

Rooted people are curious about the lives of nomadic people and nomadic people are curious about the lives of rooted people. It is easy for both to make assumptions about the other’s lifestyle, hence the awkwardly phrased questions and occasionally obvious judgments. One phrases one’s questions in terms of one’s current status as rooted or nomadic.

Success is a youthful concept, at a certain point it becomes irrelevant. I think the link between success and rootedness may be strong in youth but much less so in age.

CF August 16, 2011 at 2:48 am

wait, you were in The Bay and I didn’t know about it? Bummer. Did this get announced on the blog? Or am I just to wrapped up in wage slavery to notice?

Cheers to you for rejecting socially legible identities. Such labels are the stuff of oppression and small-mindedness. I avoid them like the plague. Even if it means I must be a singular individual, or lonely, or whatever.

John Labovitz August 17, 2011 at 2:23 am

Not since Chatwin’s _Songlines_ have I read a more beautiful description of nomadism. Illegibility, drift rate, lossy unemployment, (un)rooted living, abstract markers of movements: all concepts that are thoughtful & inspiring.

Thank you for exploring & elucidating.

LK August 22, 2011 at 7:55 am

Very nice post, I appreciate the clarity of your writing.

Especially liked the relation between rootedness and movement in achievement space.

But isn’t what allows this new nomadism that you are describing, the “virtualisation” of achievement space. I.e. you have a reputation (blogger, writer) and a virtual identity that is very much rooted (to the domain ribbonfarm.com say), but not rooted geographically, i.e. not tied to people physically surrounding you, so the constraint on location is lifted. If you were a small-town physician or baker, your reputation would be more localized, in conclusion you would be more rooted.

But wasn’t this nomadity always possible for a certain class of intellectuals (at least since mass media exists): famous writers, musicians, etc. Think Hemingway, Jim Morrison, etc. for them and their achievement space probably it was less important in which city they happened to live on any given day.

dee farrell August 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm

As a travel blogger on the road for the past 8 years, I really related to this article. I read EVERY word, laughed out loud, and shared it with friends of both persuasions – voluntary nomads and stuck rooted.

Thanks for making my day and giving me kernels for my own book about “dee-touring” downunder.

Colin Wright September 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Very well articulated!

I found myself nodding to no one the whole time I was reading this. After more than 2 years of full-time travel, it’s still interesting and stop to think about what the motive power is behind the lifestyle.

David Shaw September 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm

How have you dealt with your diet (vegetarian/vegan?) on the road? Is it ever an issue?

Venkat September 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Was occasionally an issue 10 years ago, but these days, everywhere in the US, you can usually find vegetarian/vegan options. And if not, fruit/nuts at the nearest grocery store is always an option. Burger King has its BK Veggie and Subway has its veggie patty. Vegan is slightly harder, but not really a bother if you are committed and aren’t the sort who needs every meal to be hot, tasty and perfect.

Craig Lawton June 14, 2012 at 1:33 am

A late comment but read this and reminded me of this blog

http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2012/06/how-to-live-in-a-car-while-working-in-it/

Gustav, the Modern Nomad December 6, 2012 at 5:30 am

Wow, simply wow. I have been a nomad now for 2 years, and I have read many nomads and never have I felt that they spoke what was in my heart and mind. And now this article nicely summed up everything that I have been going through, everything that I’ve built or plan to build on a new geo-independent foundation.

Thank you so much for this. It really made me feel a little bit less isolated. Perhaps we can indeed be legible, if only to a few like-minded people.

Douglas Cisneros December 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Thank you Gustav,
Really enjoyed your blog. I use the word “travel” to mask my nomadic lust :)
One day I might just find a way to just be present where I am, even if where I am is in-motion.
All the best to you. I’m heading to Buenos AIres to see Gabriel for three months. Wish I could have met you.
Doug

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