I recently had the pleasure of reading Venkatesh Rao’s excellent essay “On Being an Illegible Person,” which raised a number of issues and questions I’ve considered in my own travels, albeit to far less edifying effect. Rao describes himself as a “nomad,” yet he finds that this self-description makes little sense to most of the people he encounters:
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.
As Rao goes on to explain, his brand of nomadism, voluntarily chosen, can actually be a stable and quite comfortable way of being, contrary to expectation:
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.
Though I’m not quite as nomadic as Rao, I have at times inhabited the nomadic lifestyle, e.g., I am more likely to plunk down and work from a foreign city than I am to take a conventional vacation. And I have at least one very close friend, whom I’ve known since I was a teenager, who hasn’t had a fixed address for the better part of the last two years, and who shows no sign of settling down. He’s spent long stretches in the Central African Republic, Bavaria, the south-of-France, Cairo, Barcelona, Hawaii, and many other places, and he’s been doing it on a fairly modest income as a talented writer. Two other friends, one of whom is an opinion journalist and the other of whom is a consultant, have been comfortably drifting across the United States. With the proliferation of services like Airbnb, which will improve as we perfect social filtering mechanisms designed to tell us who is and who is not trustworthy, I suspect that we will see more people embrace this lifestyle, as does Rao:
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.
The more pressing question, perhaps, is how the rest of us — or perhaps I should say the rest of you — should feel about this new nomadism. Will it fray already attenuated civic bonds? Or does it merely represent the fulfillment of a number of underlying social trends, e.g., the “expatriation in place” of a certain class of people?
Or, more optimistically, might the new nomadism represent an effective vehicle for the cross-pollination of ideas, across national boundaries as well as across regional boundaries? Might it help knit together new kinds of community?
I was struck by how much Rao’s new nomadism concept ties in to one of the ideas he discussed in his essay “A Brief History of the Corporation,” which attracted considerable attention when it was first published in June.
At the end of the post, Rao focuses on “Peak Attention”:
I am not sure who first came up with the term Peak Attention, but the analogy to Peak Oil is surprisingly precise. It has its critics, but I think the model is basically correct.
Peak Oil refers to a graph of oil production with a maximum called Hubbert’s peak, that represents peak oil production. The theory behind it is that new oil reserves become harder to find over time, are smaller in size, and harder to mine. You have to look harder and work harder for every new gallon, new wells run dry faster than old ones, and the frequency of discovery goes down. You have to drill more.
There is certainly plenty of energy all around (the Sun and the wind, to name two sources), but oil represents a particularly high-value kind.
Attention behaves the same way. Take an average housewife, the target of much time mining early in the 20th century. It was clear where her attention was directed. Laundry, cooking, walking to the well for water, cleaning, were all obvious attention sinks. Washing machines, kitchen appliances, plumbing and vacuum cleaners helped free up a lot of that attention, which was then immediately directed (as corporate-captive attention) to magazines and television.
But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.
Basically, Rao argues that in North America and Europe, we’ve just about passed the point of Peak Attention. New sources of attentional resources are harder and harder to find. The same is happening in Asia:
Europe may have increased per capita productivity 594% in 600 years, while China and India stayed where they were, but Europe has been slowing down and Asia has been catching up. When Asia hits Peak Attention (America is already past it, I believe), absolute size, rather than big productivity differentials, will again define the game, and the center of gravity of economic activity will shift to Asia.
If you think that’s a long way off, you are probably thinking in terms of living standards rather than attention and energy. In those terms, sure, China and India have a long way to go before catching up with even Southeast Asia. But standard of living is the wrong variable. It is a derived variable, a function of available energy and attention supply. China and India will never catch up (though Western standards of living will decline), but Peak Attention will hit both countries nevertheless. Within the next 10 years or so.
What happens as the action shifts? Kaplan’s Monsoon frames the future in possibly the most effective way. Once again, it is the oceans, rather than land, that will become the theater for the next act of the human drama. While American lifestyle designers are fleeing to Bali, much bigger things are afoot in the region.
And when that shift happens, the Schumpeterian corporation, the oil rig of human attention, will start to decline at an accelerating rate. Lifestyle businesses and other oddball contraptions — the solar panels and wind farms of attention economics — will start to take over.
Rao’s thoughts on what this actually means are sketchy, and I imagine he will elaborate on these themes in the future. What we can take away is that the search for more engaging, challenging, interesting ways of life will become more central in this world, which could be why nomadism will take off on a very grand scale.