Gradually emerging from the messy but irresistible extension of wireless coverage is the possibility of a radically reimagined, reconstructed, electronic form of nomadicity - a form that is grounded not just in the terrain that nature gives us, but in sophisticated, well-integrated wireless infrastructure, combined with other networks, and deployed on a global scale. Leonard Kleinrock (one of the pioneers of the Internet) has defined this infrastructure as "the system needed to provide a rich set of computing and communication capabilities and services to nomads as they move from place to place in a way that is transparent, integrated, convenient, and adaptive." This requires, as Kleinrock notes, "independence of location, motion, computing platform, communication device, and communication bandwidth, along with general availability of access to remote files, systems, and services." The technical challenges of achieving this are significant, but they will gradually be worked out, and as they do, the social and cultural implications of electronic nomadicity will become increasing evident. [Me++, 57]

In many ways Mitchell is committed to holding the view that increased freedom — freedom in the sense of wirelessness, or freedom from crippling large electronic devices in order to receive and transmit information — is a prime reason that technological advancement, or the further networking of our social and cultural world, is a positive thing. This idea of freedom seems to be embodied in the idea of "electronic nomadicity", where one has a heightened freedom when he is granted simple and easy access to the wireless network from wherever he may be. It should be noted that Mitchell is committed to freedom in this sense primarily, and the following question will not necessarily deny his position that wireless communication entitles more freedom. When confined to information access it does seem apparent that we are more "free", but when observing the other nuances of what this claim to "freedom" may entail, the seemingly unhindered notion of nomadicity may be severely limited.

Although not a technophobe myself, I foresee problems with the concept of a "nomad" who is always plugged-in. As Mitchell describes, the earliest nomads carried very little with them but instead lived on whatever resources their natural environment provided them. They traveled from place to place unencumbered by the material possessions that seem to tie us down today. Comparing this form of nomad to the idea of a singular human carrying multiple electronic wireless devices seems to be an error. Although the electronic nomad has freedom to his information from any point within range of a communications satellite, he is still tied to his material possessions, not matter how small they may be. He generally does not live off what his surroundings provide him; his sustenance is not provided for by the natural environment in the same way that ancient nomads relied on the earth. Questions arise about the intentions of the electronic nomad: why does he travel? Is it for business? Is he site-seeing? Who is he meeting? Where is he going? These questions all have different answers it seems for the electronic nomad. He is not the same as the person who ventures into the forest with nothing but a knapsack and a water bottle. Instead, he is constantly linked to the global climate that exists in the networked society. He is everywhere at once, and it seems very likely that he exists in the same places on the globally networked world that he did when he was in a different physical location. He visits the same web-pages, talks to the same people, gets the same stock reports, and sees his favorite television shows all as though he had never changed physical location at all. In contrast, the real nomad is not static on the global network. His surroundings define the way he lives, and since he is always in motion, he is always in flux according to where he is at present.

Getting back to the notion of freedom, I do not make the claim that one nomad is more free than another; indeed it seems that each has a certain freedom that another does not have. But I raise the point only to show that this range of motion freedom that is implied by the term nomadicity has connotations that may not apply to Mitchell's notion of an "electronic nomadicity".

Related Materials


DeGrandpre, Richard Digitopia. New York: Books, 2001.

Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self Me++

Last modified 3 February 2005