The Dark Side of Digital Nomadism ‘Digital Nomadification’ Q & A with Alison McKie


The rise of digital nomadism, driven by technological advancements, promises remote work freedom but has darker consequences: potential societal fragmentation, cultural homogenization, loss of local identity, mental health challenges, labor exploitation, economic disparities, and eroding citizenship.

This trend challenges traditional communities and raises questions about its impact on society, particularly in South Africa.

Alison McKie, a scanner for the Institutes of Futures Research (IFR) based at Stellenbosch Business School shares more insights about the digital nomadism

1. What is Digital nomadification & How does it affect individuals/businesses? 

Digital nomadification can be likened to ‘gentrification’… and it’s the permanent transformation that neighborhoods and locations undergo to adapt to the social, cultural, and economic needs of this new market.  Despite some locations being able to preserve distinctive, historical exteriors, the interiors often blend into homogenous co-working spaces with their sole purpose to satisfy connectivity and power needs coupled with an occasional coffee blend. Cultural sensitivity and ‘sense of place’ is seemingly cannibalized in translation.

2. Challenges or downsides experienced while practicing digital nomadism?

The unglamorous side requires digital nomads to first possess a desirable or ‘strong’ passport (translated as a set of rights and inequalities programmed into an identity)  typically from the Global North. Next is to possess significant skills to negotiate multiple bureaucracies, visa regulations, residency rules, multiple tax systems, local labor rules, regulations, and protection right to live and earn a ‘borderless’ life.

3.   As digital nomadism becomes more prevalent, what potential societal consequences do you foresee in terms of community fragmentation and the erosion of local traditions?

4. The text discusses how digital nomadism blurs national identity and civic responsibility. How do you think this trend challenges traditional notions of citizenship and active participation in local communities?

3 & 4. Tsugio Makimoto, the Japanese technologist who 25 years ago coined the term ‘digital nomadism’, stated that nations would be ‘forced to compete’ for citizens in the future as the rise of remote working would upend the social contract, prompting significant declines in nationalism and materialism, something one would argue is prevalent in generational cohorts of Millenials and GenZs.

Historically, the social contracts of the Silent Generation were built on the premise that there is a trade-off between individuals and governments(or Monarchy) and that in return for some protection and agreed securities, individuals will sacrifice some of their own personal freedoms.

If digital nomads (or expressive exiles) exit their home countries for the promise of untethered freedoms and borderless individualism, can their consent to the social contract be ‘opted out’ by leaving their home state? Do social obligations and commitments transfer to a chosen community?

As these transient nomads embrace a borderless lifestyle, conventional notions of belonging and community engagement are being upended, eroding the sense of rootedness and selfless commitment necessary for active civic involvement.

This lifestyle raises questions about the responsibilities and rights of individuals who reap the benefits of a location without contributing substantively to its local economy, culture, or governance.

5. Do you think there are ways to leverage digital nomadism as an opportunity for positive societal change, fostering cross-cultural understanding and responsible global citizenship? If so, how might this be achieved?

There is currently a lack of longitudinal research into the temporal nature of digital nomadism, their chosen length of stay in different destinations, the overall commitment as a permanent lifestyle choice, and the implications for identity, political, and socio-economic perspectives.

The romanticism of the nomad as a ‘citizen of the world’ idealizes the often heroic nature of an independent, free-spirited entrepreneur who resists the interference from nation-state and could be seen as neglecting their home country’s social obligations. The question remains whether that attitude shifts in new and transitory spaces.

Looking even further ahead, could digital nomads potentially challenge the very essence of citizenship and active participation by engendering the rise of virtual citizenship or “nomadic citizenship”?

As technology continues to advance and virtual reality becomes more immersive, digital nomads might find themselves more deeply embedded in virtual spaces than physical and geographical ones. This could lead to the emergence of online communities and digital ecosystems where participation, contribution, and governance are primarily conducted in the digital realm further challenging the notion of active citizenship.