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Digital Nomads and Settler Desires: Racial Fantasies of Silicon Valley Imperialism

Erin McEl­roy

Abstract: This paper inves­ti­gates the colo­nial­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal nomadism, an iden­ti­ty that numer­ous West­ern tech work­ers use to describe lifestyles of loca­tion inde­pen­dence in which they trav­el the world while main­tain­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley salaries. Specif­i­cal­ly, I assess colo­nial genealo­gies of dig­i­tal nomads and more prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly defined “dig­i­tal Gyp­sies.” It was dur­ing the height of 19th-cen­tu­ry West­ern Euro­pean impe­ri­al­ism that Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist texts pro­lif­er­at­ed, cel­e­brat­ing the racial and sex­u­al “free and wan­der­ing Gyp­sy.” This dera­ci­nat­ed fig­ure was used to alle­go­rize colo­nial desires and impe­r­i­al vio­lence alike. As I sug­gest, nomadic racial fan­ta­sy under­girds con­tem­po­rary free­dom desires today emer­gent from the heart of a new empire—that of Sil­i­con Val­ley. In describ­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism and its posthu­man dig­i­tal avatar, I assess how nomadic fan­ta­sy tran­sits tech­nolo­gies of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion into new fron­tiers. For instance, shar­ing econ­o­my plat­forms such as Airbnb cel­e­brate the dig­i­tal nomad, bol­ster­ing con­texts of racial dis­pos­ses­sion while con­tin­u­ing to dera­ci­nate Roma life­worlds. Might nomad exot­i­ca in fact index colo­nial­i­ty and its abil­i­ty to tra­verse time and space? How has this fan­ta­sy been abstract­ed over time, also entan­gling with posthu­man­ist nomadic onto-epistemologies?

Résumé: Cet essai exam­ine la colo­nial­ité du nomadisme dig­i­tal con­tem­po­rain, une iden­tité que de nom­breux tech­ni­ciens de l’informatique emploient pour décrire des styles de vie car­ac­térisés par une indépen­dance géo­graphique dans laque­lle ils par­courent le monde tout en con­ser­vant leurs salaires de Sil­i­con Val­ley. Spé­ci­fique­ment je déter­mine les généalo­gies colo­niales des nomades dig­i­taux et ceux que l’on définit de façon plus prob­lé­ma­tique comme les “Romanichels dig­i­taux.” C’est à l’apogée de l’impérialisme occi­den­tal européen qu’ont pro­liféré les textes ori­en­tal­istes roman­tiques célébrant le romanichel errant, racial et sex­uel. Ce per­son­nage dérac­iné était util­isé comme une allé­gorie des désirs colo­ni­aux ain­si que de la vio­lence impéri­ale. Comme je le sug­gère, les fan­taisies raciales attachées aux nomades sont la base des désirs con­tem­po­rains de lib­erté qui émer­gent au coeur du nou­v­el empire—celui de la Sil­i­con Val­ley. En décrivant l’impérialisme de la Sil­i­con Val­ley et son avatar dig­i­tal post-humain, j’étudie com­ment les fan­taisies nomadiques poussent les tech­nolo­gies d’embourgeoisement rési­den­tiel vers de nou­velles fron­tières. Par exem­ple, le partage de plate­forme bon-marché telles que AirBnB célèbrent le nomade dig­i­tal, érigeant des con­textes de dis­pos­ses­sion raciale tout en pour­suiv­ant le déracin­e­ment des styles de vie roma. La lit­téra­ture exo­tique nomadique serait-elle en fait un révéla­teur de la colo­nial­ité et de sa capac­ité à tran­scen­der le temps et l’espace? Com­ment cet imag­i­naire a-t-il été absorbé au cours des ans, et mélangé à des onto-épisté­molo­gies nomadiques post-humanistes?

In 1974, sci­ence fic­tion writer Arthur C. Clarke was filmed spec­u­lat­ing about the 2001 dig­i­tal future. His pre­dic­tions have since been laud­ed for their acute accu­ra­cy, as he proph­e­sized the inven­tion not only of the inter­net and search engines, but also of devices such as the smart phone and the Apple Watch, along with com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems such as email and Skype. He also envis­aged a tech­no-future of loca­tion inde­pen­dence, in which:

It will become pos­si­ble for us to live real­ly any­where we like. Any busi­ness­man, any exec­u­tive, could live almost any­where on earth and still do his busi­ness. … And this is a won­der­ful thing, because it means we won’t be stuck in cities, we can live … wher­ev­er we please, and still car­ry on com­plete inter­ac­tion with human beings as well as with oth­er com­put­ers. (qtd. in Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Company)

Put oth­er­wise, in Clarke’s future, com­put­er depen­dence enables loca­tion inde­pen­dence, but only for busi­ness­men and exec­u­tives. In a sim­i­lar inter­view con­duct­ed two years lat­er, he elab­o­rat­ed, “In the glob­al world of the future, it will be like if you’re liv­ing in one small town, any­where any­time, about a third of your friends will be asleep… So, you may have to abol­ish time zones com­plete­ly, and all go on the com­mon time, the same time for every­body” (qtd. in AT&T).

Clarke’s “com­mon time” is the same time that many of today’s dig­i­tal nomads ven­er­ate as enabling both loca­tion inde­pen­dence. Dig­i­tal nomads, also prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly self-ascribed as “dig­i­tal Gyp­sies,” refer to tech work­ers who both fan­ta­size and actu­al­ize the dream of being able to live and work anywhere—in com­mon time—while at the same time remain­ing plugged into Sil­i­con Val­ley infra­struc­tures, economies, and life­worlds. Their ver­nac­u­lar usage of “nomad” and “Gyp­sy” can­ni­bal­izes the social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal worlds of Romani peo­ple (Roma)—one of Europe’s largest racial­ized minori­ties, as well as the mate­r­i­al ref­er­ence of the alle­gor­i­cal Gyp­sy of dig­i­tal Gyp­sy­ism. Dera­ci­nat­ed from Roma mate­ri­al­i­ties and iden­ti­ties, dig­i­tal nomad/Gypsy fan­tasies today rather resem­ble 19th-cen­tu­ry Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist nar­ra­tives writ­ten by white men from the hearts of Euro­pean empires (Lemon; Saul; Trumpen­er). These fea­ture bour­geois pro­tag­o­nists who fan­ta­size the free­dom and taboo of the racial­ized, sex­u­al­ized Gypsy—an alle­gor­i­cal fig­ure that, like the dig­i­tal nomad, abstracts and muti­lates diverse Roma expe­ri­ences. Out­side of West­ern texts, most Roma are not “nomadic,” and many who are have been sub­ject to vio­lent his­to­ries of forced dis­place­ment, racial dis­pos­ses­sion, and racist representation.

Just as dig­i­tal nomad racial fan­tasies of today are no longer con­fined to 19th-cen­tu­ry fic­tions, nei­ther are they restrained to Clarke’s spec­u­la­tive fiction—though one can argue that dif­fer­ences between spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and real­i­ty have always been fic­tive (Bah­ng). Today’s dig­i­tal nomads, being paid Sil­i­con Val­ley salaries, enjoy easy tran­sit between “exot­ic” locales, from the Lat­inx Mis­sion Dis­trict of San Fran­cis­co to spaces far­ther away from Sil­i­con Val­ley, such as Bali and Bucharest. For instance, James Tay­lor, who iden­ti­fies as an “award-win­ning entre­pre­neur,” a “white mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­al liv­ing in a first world coun­try,” wrote a 2011 blog post describ­ing the rise of this new lifestyle. He and his wife tran­sit between Europe and the Unit­ed States, run­ning an app-enabled auto-pilot busi­ness­es. In his words, “being a Dig­i­tal Gyp­sy is more a frame of mind than geneal­o­gy” (Tay­lor). As his tes­ti­mo­ny evi­dences, the Gypsy/nomad endures transna­tion­al­ly, enabled by Sil­i­con Val­ley tech­nol­o­gy cap­i­tal and infrastructure.

But what does it mean that Sil­i­con Val­ley is the cen­tre from which dig­i­tal nomadic desires emerge today, and what does this have to do with ear­li­er West­ern Euro­pean impe­r­i­al his­to­ries? How are these times and spaces con­nect­ed, and what do they indi­cate about impe­r­i­al desire? How does the tran­sit of dig­i­tal nomads, often enabled by Sil­i­con Val­ley-designed infra­struc­ture such as Airbnb, induce con­di­tions of dis­place­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion transna­tion­al­ly? As I allege, the arrival of the dig­i­tal nomad in both Sil­i­con Val­ley and its glob­al form index­es the impe­ri­al­i­ty of Sil­i­con Val­ley, or tech­no-impe­ri­al­ism. By this, I refer to the process in which Sil­i­con Val­ley pen­e­trates both glob­al and inti­mate spaces alike to expand its power.

Dig­i­tal nomads can in part be under­stood as a genre of “lifestyle migrants,” or mid­dle-class and wealthy West­ern trav­el­ers who prof­it from incomes earned at high rungs of uneven glob­al labour divi­sions, what is often called geoar­bi­trage (Hayes and Zaban). While urban stud­ies schol­ars are impor­tant­ly link­ing the land­ing of lifestyle migrants with diverse con­texts of transna­tion­al and tourism-relat­ed gen­tri­fi­ca­tion (Hayes and Pérez-Gañán; Mer­met), dig­i­tal nomads are also embed­ded in old­er yet endur­ing colo­nial alle­gor­i­cal struc­tures. Thus, in addi­tion to under­stand­ing dig­i­tal nomadism through urban stud­ies and glob­al­iza­tion frame­works, cul­tur­al, lit­er­ary, and decolo­nial analy­ses are also use­ful. As Clau­dia Breger sug­gests, to dis­place the dom­i­nant and dis­fig­ur­ing nar­ra­tives writ­ten about “Gyp­sies,” we might have to read them “in terms of their dis­cur­sive con­sti­tu­tion as well as with regard to the (fic­tion­al and/or his­tor­i­cal) lives of their pro­tag­o­nists, nar­ra­tors and authors” (133). Fol­low­ing her lead, here I explore the fic­tion­al and his­tor­i­cal lives of dig­i­tal nomads—their desires, their ontolo­gies, and their genealo­gies. In doing so, I focus on the racial, sex­u­al, and colo­nial con­tours that under­gird dig­i­tal nomadic life­worlds. As I argue, 19th-cen­tu­ry forms haunt con­tem­po­rary dreams of spa­tiotem­po­ral independence.

Yet there are also dis­cern­able abstrac­tions of the 19th-cen­tu­ry Gyp­sy fan­ta­sy in form­ing dig­i­tal nomadic ontolo­gies of today. Atten­tive to these, I ques­tion: who is this new human parad­ing the globe, and what ghosts trace its steps? Fur­ther, how is dig­i­tal nomadism bol­stered by posthu­man­tist thought and tech­no-cap­i­tal­ism alike? In what fol­lows, first, I posi­tion Sil­i­con Val­ley as tech­no-impe­r­i­al cen­tre, focus­ing on the racial dis­pos­ses­sion that tran­spires with­in and from it. Through lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al analy­sis, I then map racial­ized appro­pri­a­tions of the Gypsy/nomad that sat­u­rate dis­cours­es of home and dis­pos­ses­sion with­in con­texts of Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism and shar­ing-econ­o­my struc­tures. As I argue, in moments of tech­no-impe­r­i­al growth, set­tler desires alle­go­rized through the fig­ure of the dig­i­tal nomad appear to queer seden­tary log­ics, but ulti­mate­ly rescript set­tler het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. I go on to assess the colo­nial­i­ty that informs dig­i­tal nomadic spa­tiotem­po­ral fan­tasies. Last­ly, I exam­ine the nomad/settler’s posthu­man­ist ontolo­gies of free­dom. As I argue, the muta­tions, dis­con­ti­nu­ities, and abstrac­tions of nomadic fetishiza­tion from the 19th-cen­tu­ry to the tech­no-present map the con­tours of moder­ni­ty in nov­el ways.

In study­ing dig­i­tal nomadic fan­tasies and mate­ri­al­i­ties, it is impor­tant to note that, as a phe­nom­e­non, they appear dur­ing a moment in which, across Europe (but also else­where), Roma res­i­dents are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to forced evic­tions. While the con­tours of their dis­pos­ses­sion vary due to fac­tors rang­ing from post-social­ist prop­er­ty resti­tu­tion laws, urban gen­tri­fi­ca­tion projects, and white nation­al­ist vio­lence (Lan­cione; Vincze), cur­rent con­texts of dis­place­ment rest upon pri­or ones, includ­ing slav­ery, failed repa­ra­tions, eugenic racial sci­ence, and fas­cism (Achim; Pus­ca; Wood­cock). Yet despite these harsh his­to­ries and con­tem­porar­i­ly real­i­ties, Roma are now addi­tion­al­ly being dis­placed by fan­tas­ti­cal avatars of tech mobil­i­ty. Put oth­er­wise, diverse Roma life­worlds are now being dis­cur­sive­ly dis­ap­peared through mech­a­nisms of racial appro­pri­a­tion across glob­al technoscapes in ways that not only alle­go­rize, but that also enable, Sil­i­con Val­ley imperialism.


Gypsy novel­las, poems, and plays crossed 19th-cen­tu­ry impe­r­i­al Euro­pean nations, from Spain to Eng­land. These texts cel­e­brat­ed the fig­ure of the “free and wan­der­ing Gyp­sy,” extolling the colo­nial cross­ing of nation­al bor­ders. They also script­ed the Gyp­sy as a rem­nant of a prein­dus­tri­al past, embed­ded with­in a ver­dant roman­ti­cized land­scape. In this way, the fig­ure dis­cur­sive­ly rep­re­sent­ed admi­ra­tion of bor­der trans­gres­sion, and fear of a “free spir­it” roam­ing out­side the bour­geois order. Gyp­sy fic­tions of the era often ren­der white male desires of mis­ce­gena­tion, fea­tur­ing nar­ra­tors who attempt to “become Gyp­sy,” but who then ulti­mate­ly kill the sex­u­al­ized and racial­ized object of their desire—thus alle­go­riz­ing the impos­si­bil­i­ty of exis­tence beyond bour­geois soci­ety, as well as the real vio­lence of colo­nial incur­sion. From the French Pros­per Mérimée’s fig­ure of Car­men to the Ger­man Wil­helm Jensen’s Eri­ca, the 19th-cen­tu­ry Gyp­sy endured as a transna­tion­al fan­ta­sy. This indexed colo­nial desire for spa­tiotem­po­ral and societal/cultural transit.

As becomes evi­dent when study­ing Gyp­sy fic­tions and their colo­nial geo­gra­phies, the fig­ure of the Gyp­sy always emerged from the hearts of impe­r­i­al geo­gra­phies, there­by reflect­ing impe­r­i­al con­scious­ness. Wal­ter Migno­lo writes of how, by lat­tic­ing itself with colo­nial­i­ty dur­ing the Renais­sance, moder­ni­ty became the inevitable present of his­to­ry, with Europe as its cen­tre. After­wards, dur­ing the Enlight­en­ment, Green­wich was remapped as “the zero point of glob­al time,” or the com­mon time of the era (22). Dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry, at the height of Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ism and numer­ous Euro­pean colo­nial projects, impe­ri­al­ism encap­su­lat­ed new times and spaces into the com­mon time of empire. Gyp­sy novel­las, poems, and the­atre reflect­ed colo­nial aspi­ra­tion, along with impe­r­i­al ambiva­lence and vio­lence. In this way, Gyp­sy fic­tion tran­sit­ed impe­r­i­al dreams into new frontiers.

As I sug­gest, it is no small coin­ci­dence that Gyp­sy alle­gor­i­cal forms are rein­ter­pret­ed today, emerg­ing from the heart of a new impe­r­i­al for­ma­tion: Sil­i­con Val­ley. Unlike empires, as they are under­stood to rise and fall or expand and shrink, impe­r­i­al for­ma­tions are always in the process of becom­ing, thus refus­ing nor­ma­tive nar­ra­tives of lin­ear time. Occu­py­ing mul­ti­ple his­tor­i­cal tens­es, impe­r­i­al for­ma­tions are pro­duced when, as Ann Stol­er describes, the past imper­fect selec­tive­ly per­me­ates the present, shap­ing “the con­di­tion­al sub­junc­tive and uncer­tain futures” (194-195). Con­tem­po­rary Sil­i­con Val­ley imperium—a phe­nom­e­non in which the Val­ley mate­ri­al­izes new nodes and edges to facil­i­tate sur­plus cap­i­tal accumulation—is enabled by a nomadic avatar con­di­tioned by 19th-cen­tu­ry sub­junc­tive forms. In oth­er words, dig­i­tal nomads both empow­er and con­sti­tute Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism. Sil­i­con Val­ley has now abdi­cat­ed Greenwich’s throne, a res­ig­na­tion that remains illu­so­ry yet inte­gral to dig­i­tal nomadic spa­tiotem­po­ral visions, or Clarke’s com­mon time. Also illu­so­ry to the settler/nomad are its mate­r­i­al effects, not to men­tion its genealog­i­cal underpinnings.

Take, for instance, dig­i­tal nomad Matt Mul­len­weg of the San Fran­cis­co start­up Aut­tomat­ic. In a recent film on dig­i­tal nomadism by You­jin Do, “One Way Tick­et: The Rise of the Dig­i­tal Nomad,” Mul­len­weg brags that 95 per­cent of his 400 employ­ees live out­side of San Fran­cis­co, in 47 coun­tries. He aims to attract tal­ent that ques­tions, “Why do I have to com­mute to Moun­tain View every day and sit in a bunch of meet­ings and things like that?” As Mul­len­weg ven­tures, prospec­tive employ­ees will think, “Maybe I want to live in Moun­tain View part of the year, but maybe dur­ing the sum­mer I want to go to Italy, or to Thai­land, or Aus­tralia, or wher­ev­er it is, it doesn’t mat­ter” (qtd. in Do). But as much as he pro­mul­gates spa­tiotem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty, his company’s nomads remain teth­ered to the phys­i­cal con­crete­ness and cen­tral­i­ty of San Francisco—Silicon Valley’s urban out­post. In-per­son meet­ings are still held there, and phys­i­cal mail is still sent. Also, rents there have become the Unit­ed States’ most expensive.

Begin­ning with the 1990s Dot Com Boom and then gain­ing momen­tum with rise of the 2011 Tech Boom 2.0, San Fran­cis­co and the wider Bay Area region has become infa­mous for height­ened evic­tion and home­less­ness rates, soar­ing rents, and an array of effects endem­ic to hyper-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion (McEl­roy and Sze­to; Mira­bal; Stan­ley). Dur­ing this era, tech­no­cap­i­tal­ism and real estate spec­u­la­tion entwine anew, with real estate spec­u­la­tors buy­ing up rental units, evict­ing ten­ants, and sell­ing or re-rent­ing evict­ed prop­er­ties to those with more cap­i­tal. In 2013, I cofound­ed the Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project (AEMP), a data visu­al­iza­tion, data analy­sis, and sto­ry­telling col­lec­tive to doc­u­ment these spa­tial strug­gles. Amongst oth­er analy­ses that cor­re­lates tech­no­cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion and dis­pos­ses­sion, the AEMP has found that prop­er­ties prox­i­mate to tech infra­struc­ture are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly vul­ner­a­ble to evic­tions. For instance, in San Fran­cis­co, over two-thirds of evic­tions tran­spire with­in four blocks of “Google Bus” stops,1 pri­vate trans­porta­tion depots that facil­i­tate the reverse-com­mut­ing of tech work­ers to Sil­i­con Val­ley (Maharaw­al and McEl­roy). While tech cor­po­ra­tions hire more young, white men than any oth­er demo­graph­ic, it is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor and work­ing-class Black and Lat­inx res­i­dents, sin­gle moth­ers, and seniors fac­ing evic­tion (Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project; Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project and Evic­tion Defense Col­lab­o­ra­tive; McEl­roy). In oth­er words, the set­tle­ment of high­ly mobile and large­ly white, male reverse com­muters impels the dis­pos­ses­sion of an inverse demographic.

Despite the hege­mo­ny of young, white men devel­op­ing and ben­e­fit­ing from Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism (as in Clarke’s spec­u­la­tive fic­tion of decades ear­li­er), it is impor­tant to note while tech com­pa­nies dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hire those with priv­i­lege for lead­er­ship posi­tions with­in the Bay Area (McEl­roy and Sze­to), pre­car­i­ous and exploitive labour also abounds with­in the indus­try (Amrute; Atana­sos­ki and Vora). Also, there are an array of tech projects and col­lec­tives that cre­ate work out­side of tech­no-cap­i­tal­ism and the racial cap­i­tal­ism that con­sti­tutes it, such as the AEMP. By uti­liz­ing AEMP images and analy­ses through­out this arti­cle, I aim to dis­rupt total­iz­ing nar­ra­tives that read all tech­nol­o­gy projects as impe­r­i­al, while nev­er­the­less main­tain­ing cri­tique of Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism. I also include an AEMP map that I pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a hous­ing jus­tice col­lec­tive in Cluj, Roma­nia, Căși Sociale Acum (Social Hous­ing Now). This map sheds charts the evic­tion routes of sev­en Roma res­i­dents who have lost their homes due to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in Sil­i­coniz­ing Cluj, there­by dis­rupt­ing nar­ra­tives that read Roma mobil­i­ty as romantic.

Back in San Fran­cis­co, despite the ben­e­fits of reverse-com­mute infra­struc­ture for Sil­i­con Val­ley tech work­ers, ques­tions emerge as to why peo­ple remain locked into land­scapes of high rent and Google bus­es when it is pos­si­ble to dig­i­tal­ly com­mute from any­where, dwelling in eas­i­ly nav­i­ga­ble short-term vaca­tion rentals in locales from Cluj to Bali. San Francisco’s own short-term hous­ing start­up, Airbnb, facil­i­tates tran­sient dwelling for dig­i­tal nomads world­wide, often incit­ing the con­ver­sion of long-term, afford­able hous­ing into short-term, expen­sive accom­mo­da­tions. Sto­ries abound across the plan­et of res­i­dents being dis­placed as their for­mer homes and neigh­bor­hoods become Airbnb-sat­u­rat­ed tourist hubs (Gant; Opil­lard). Does the dig­i­tal nomad of today appro­pri­ate and dis­ap­pear Romani worlds to dis­guise set­tler ontol­ogy, mean­while pre­cip­i­tat­ing gen­tri­fy­ing con­di­tions that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly lead to the dis­place­ment of racial­ized peo­ple, some of whom are Roma? Is the nomad just a per­vert­ed code word for set­tler, much like Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist pro­tag­o­nists of 19th-cen­tu­ry fiction?

Relo­ca­tion Map; Web-map by the AEMP, 2016; Adapt­ed for print by Austin Ehrhardt. Map details the demo­graph­ics of dis­place­ment and relo­ca­tion from San Fran­cis­co (http://​arcg​.is/​2​4​R​D​Gat)
The Loss of SRO Hotels in Oak­land; Web-map by the AEMP, 2017. Sto­ry map high­lights the con­ver­sion of afford­able hous­ing in Oak­land into tech dorms (http://​arcg​.is/​n​y​mnW).

Multicultural Settler Desires

The tem­po­ral­i­ty of the dig­i­tal nomad is enabled by lib­er­al ontolo­gies of free­dom teth­ered to prop­er­ty rights, yet seem­ing­ly exceeds Lock­ean and het­ero­nor­ma­tive artic­u­la­tions of the free prop­er­ty-own­ing sub­ject. More impor­tant to the dig­i­tal nomad is free­dom of mobility—a free­dom often paired with tech­no-impe­r­i­al spec­u­la­tive log­ics. As dig­i­tal-nomad advo­cate Tim­o­thy Fer­riss famous­ly wrote in his 2009 best­seller, The 4-Hour Work­week: Escape the 9-5, Live Any­where and Join the New Rich: “$1,000,000 in the bank isn’t the fan­ta­sy. The fan­ta­sy is the lifestyle of com­plete free­dom it sup­pos­ed­ly allows” (13). In his words, the cap­i­tal­ist fan­ta­sy of prop­er­ty own­er­ship has been dis­placed by tech­no-utopic desires for free­dom. Yet the log­ics of this dis­place­ment fall apart when study­ing colo­nial his­to­ries. To expand and con­trol space, and to accu­mu­late sur­plus val­ue with­in it, colo­nial regimes have long pri­va­tized in the name of free­dom (Lowe, Inti­ma­cies of Four Con­ti­nents). Oth­er­wise put, mobil­i­ty has long enabled the set­tle­ment of colo­nial regimes, mate­ri­al­ly, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal­ly, and ontologically.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, racial appro­pri­a­tion has been one tech­nol­o­gy of such colo­nial­i­ty, func­tion­ing through the deploy­ment of reit­er­a­tive stereo­types of the oth­er, strate­gi­cal­ly dis­ci­plin­ing and domes­ti­cat­ing alter­i­ty. Jodi Byrd observes that in the Unit­ed States, the appro­pri­a­tion of Indige­nous lives emerged as an effec­tive colo­nial tool, in which indi­gene­ity “becomes a site through with the US empire ori­ents and repli­cates itself” (xiii). As has been argued, appro­pri­at­ing indi­gene­ity abets set­tler cul­ture, plant­i­ng Native peo­ples into the past, obvi­at­ing the present recog­ni­tion of endurance (Mor­gensen; Povinel­li). Rel­e­gat­ing Indige­nous peo­ple and cul­ture to muse­ums domes­ti­cates dif­fer­ence, and elides Indige­nous under­stand­ings of land, sov­er­eign­ty, and jus­tice that would undo the logos of the nation-state. A sim­i­lar argu­ment could be made in think­ing the object of the Gyp­sy as appro­pri­at­ed by the dig­i­tal nomad, who read­i­ly dis­tances itself from the con­tem­po­rary life­worlds of dis­pos­sessed Romani peo­ple while car­ry­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley impe­ri­al­ism into new fron­tiers. By reduc­ing Romani worlds to reit­er­a­tive “Gyp­sy exot­i­ca,” racial appro­pri­a­tion ren­ders the harsh­ness Romani dis­pos­ses­sion invis­i­ble (Sil­ver­man). As Katie Trumpen­er observes, these appro­pri­a­tions place Roma beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of time and record, offer­ing non-Roma amne­si­ac nos­tal­gia for an imag­i­nary past, “to restore inno­cence by cov­er­ing oth­er mem­o­ries” (348). At the same time, this reduc­tion obscures the gen­tri­fy­ing impact that dig­i­tal nomadism has upon diverse social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal landscapes.

Such appro­pria­tive mech­a­nisms have been a vital tool of short-term hous­ing shar­ing economies, par­tic­u­lar­ly uti­lized by employ­ees, hosts, and guests of the tech “uni­corn” start­up, Airbnb.2 For instance, Airbnb hosts Wendy and Fred, who rent out rooms for $288 per night in San Francisco—of which they pay Airbnb a 3 per­cent per book­ing, and from which guests pay the cor­po­ra­tion a 6 to 12 per­cent fee—articulate both their glob­al ontolo­gies and cap­i­tal­ist desires through the fig­ure of the Gyp­sy (Airbnb, “What is the Airbnb Ser­vice Fee”). As Wendy writes:

Hav­ing our house on Airbnb is help­ing us with our daughter’s col­lege fund & is fund­ing my (Wendy’s) new busi­ness The Rogue Traders, a farm-to-city sus­tain­able food busi­ness, South­ern Ore­gon & San Fran­cis­co… Besides being a farmer, I will always be an artist, writer, entre­pre­neur, design­er and trav­eller. One of my pas­sions is to see the world and study dif­fer­ent cul­tures, which I have done exten­sive­ly (I want to be an anthro­pol­o­gist when I grow up ;)… There still are a few places yet to dis­cov­er and I am return­ing to my favorites to see them through the eyes of my daugh­ter. Fred and I believe the world is her edu­ca­tion, with 3 lan­guages and sev­er­al coun­tries already under her belt she is a Gyp­sy at heart… I often ask myself is it pos­si­ble to be part of a com­mu­ni­ty while being a Gyp­sy and a nomad? So far it’s work­ing out to be yes. (Airbnb, “French Victorian–Views & Deck”)

As Wendy elu­ci­dates, not only does Airbnb help her grow her busi­ness, but it also cre­ates a “glob­al com­mu­ni­ty” for her daugh­ter, incit­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al pro­fi­cien­cy col­lapsed into dis­fig­ured Gyp­sy free­dom. Most like­ly, through­out her own glob­al trav­el­ing and host­ing, she has obvi­at­ed inter­sec­tion with any­one who iden­ti­fies as Roma. Instead, her desires habit­u­ate what Jodi Melamed con­cep­tu­al­izes as neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, the uti­liza­tion of antiracist imag­i­nar­ies to pro­lif­er­ate U.S. glob­al hege­mo­ny. Insti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing new forms of racial­ized priv­i­lege (lib­er­al, mul­ti­cul­tur­al, glob­al cit­i­zen), neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism uti­lizes race to nego­ti­ate val­ue. Apply­ing this ana­lyt­ic to shar­ing econ­o­my log­ics of the Bay Area, racial­iza­tion func­tions through the fetishiza­tion of the nomadic fig­ure, ren­dered as lib­er­al, mul­ti­cul­tur­al, and glob­al. Through access to mobile cap­i­tal, this new nomadic human is free to enact set­tler desire, even if temporarily.

It is not Airbnb users alone who have cir­cu­lat­ed the corporation’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al colo­nial aspi­ra­tions. In 2014, Airbnb released a peri­od­i­cal, Pineap­ple, chron­i­cling “hon­est sto­ries … told by the unex­pect­ed char­ac­ters” of their “com­mu­ni­ty,” from San Fran­cis­co to Lon­don to Seoul (2). Named after the New Eng­land colo­nial sym­bol of hos­pi­tal­i­ty (Hyles), Pineap­ple pro­vid­ed an apt anal­o­gy for their gen­tri­fy­ing impact. Pineap­ple’s goal, Airbnb detailed, was to “inspire and moti­vate explo­ration, not just with­in the cities fea­tured, but with­in any space a read­er finds them­selves” (2). Its release fol­lowed the company’s logo rebrand­ing of what the head of brand­ing described as the “Bélo, the uni­ver­sal sym­bol of belong­ing” (Levere). The home­grown sym­bol with an exot­ic name (abstract­ing “belong­ing”) is said to “rep­re­sent all of us,” stand­ing for (and visu­al­ly com­bin­ing) four things: a head sym­bol­iz­ing peo­ple, a loca­tion map pin rep­re­sent­ing place, a heart indi­cat­ing love, and of course the let­ter “A” iconiz­ing Airbnb (Levere). Fur­ther, the logo can be “drawn by any­body,” so that any Airbnb user can feel at home, any­where. When read crit­i­cal­ly, both Pineap­ple and the Bélo uti­lize the lan­guage of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism pre­cise­ly to shel­ter set­tler colo­nial­ism, expand­ing the San Fran­cis­co com­pa­ny into glob­al frontiers.

This exten­sion of neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism into the Tech Boom 2.0 sus­tains set­tler cul­ture, while also repro­duc­ing homo­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. For instance, in June 2015, days before the cor­po­ra­tive-fund­ed San Fran­cis­co Pride Parade, in which tech out­fits from Google to Airbnb march down Mar­ket Street to affirm their cor­po­rate lib­er­al­ism, Airbnb land­ed a rain­bow-paint­ed “wel­come wag­on” in the city’s Mis­sion Dis­trict, offer­ing free pineap­ple juice, tem­po­rary tat­toos, and DIY crafts to passers­by. In that year, 29 per­cent of San Fran­cis­co Airbnb list­ings were rel­e­gat­ed to the Mis­sion, the neigh­bor­hood that has seen the city’s high­est evic­tion rates; the wel­come wag­on was inter­pret­ed as a sore thumb in the eyes of those recent­ly evict­ed (Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project). Thus, one pre-Pride after­noon, a small protest cul­mi­nat­ed out­side of the wag­on, itself gross dis­fig­ure­ments of both Gyp­sy car­riages and pil­grim coach­es. “Don’t drink the Airbnb Kool-Aid!” one pro­tes­tor yelled, while anoth­er jest­ed that the 2015 San Fran­cis­co Pride was clear­ly themed “evic­tion assis­tance” (Lybarg­er).

Airbnb-induced evic­tion protest with the Hous­ing Rights Com­mit­tee and numer­ous hous­ing jus­tice col­lec­tives, 2016. Pho­to by Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co. Bélo image is includ­ed on the protest banner.
Airbnb List­ings and Evic­tions, San Fran­cis­co and Oak­land; Web-mapped by AEMP; Car­tog­ra­phy for print by Austin Ehrhardt, 2018. The map shows that San Fran­cis­co and Oak­land neigh­bor­hoods with the most Airbnb units have also main­tained the most evic­tions (https://​antievic​tion​map​.com/​a​i​r​b​n​b​-​s​f​-​a​n​d​-​o​a​k​l​and)

That same Pride, to fur­ther code their set­tler aspi­ra­tions through mul­ti­cul­tur­al homo­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, the com­pa­ny began cir­cu­lat­ing a pro­mo­tion­al video, “Love is Wel­come Here.” The video fea­tured sev­er­al queer and mul­tira­cial cou­ples, high­light­ing bour­geois fam­i­ly val­ues, and encour­aged hosts to wel­come queer cou­ples into their homes across the globe. As Airbnb was birthed in San Fran­cis­co in 2008, where and when gay mar­riage was first legal­ized in the Unit­ed States, it now tele­ports what David Eng describes as queer lib­er­al­ism across glob­al ter­rains and into “less friend­ly” coun­tries, accru­ing cap­i­tal through moral pur­chase. While “queer” once marked cri­tique of assim­i­la­tion, posi­tioned against the bour­geois cou­pling of inti­ma­cy and privacy—an entwine­ment con­sti­tu­tive of Euro-Amer­i­can moder­ni­ty, the lib­er­al indi­vid­ual, and the insti­tu­tion of marriage—today it stands in for assim­i­la­tion­ist pol­i­tics (Stan­ley). From bat­tles for gay mar­riage to inclu­sion in the mil­i­tary, Eng writes that “queer” now has come to demar­cate “gay and les­bian iden­ti­ty and iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, the eco­nom­ic inter­ests of neolib­er­al­ism and white­ness, and lib­er­al polit­i­cal norms of inclu­sion” (xi). As such, “queer lib­er­al­ism is a par­tic­u­lar incar­na­tion of lib­er­al free­dom and progress, one con­sti­tut­ed by both the racial­iza­tion of inti­ma­cy and the for­get­ting of race” (12). By cou­pling queer lib­er­al­ism with neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, Airbnb effec­tive­ly masks the racial­ized and gen­tri­fy­ing effects that it car­ries into local con­texts (Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project and Evic­tion Defense Col­lab­o­ra­tive). Fur­ther, by dis­sem­i­nat­ing San Francisco/Silicon Val­ley lib­er­al val­ues glob­al­ly, the com­pa­ny is part of a racial and homo­nor­ma­tive tech­no-impe­r­i­al project that pre­tends to be colourblind.

Airbnb doesn’t sole­ly rely upon mul­ti­cul­tur­al and homo­nor­ma­tive tac­tics for glob­al reach. Web­sites such as “Exec­u­tive Nomad” adver­tise dozens of tourist metrop­o­les ripe for Airbnb stints, San Fran­cis­co only being one. Airbnb’s glob­al oper­a­tions depart­ment, oper­at­ing in 192 coun­tries, boasts con­cen­tra­tions in cities world­wide. As emer­gent dis­cours­es in these cities illu­mi­nate, Airbnb-induced tourism engen­ders dis­place­ment of home and social worlds beyond San Fran­cis­co. Direct­ed towards Barcelona vaca­tion­ers on 2015 win­dow fronts signs in Vila de Gra­cia, res­i­dents plead­ed, “Tourist: the rent of hol­i­day apart­ments is destroy­ing the local socio-cul­tur­al fab­ric and pro­mot­ing spec­u­la­tion. Many local res­i­dents are forced to move out. Enjoy your stay. Gra­cia is not for sale. One tourist more, one fam­i­ly less” (ital­ics in original).

Yet Airbnb con­cludes that they are not elim­i­nat­ing fam­i­lies, but rather strangers. In 2013, their CEO, Bri­an Cheskey, launched his mil­lion dol­lar #One­LessStranger cam­paign, less imbri­cat­ed in colo­nial semi­otics and more inter­wo­ven with the vul­gar­i­ties of mul­ti­cul­tur­al knowl­edge pro­duc­tion: “Our vision is that we want to bring the word togeth­er,” he trum­pet­ed to Airbnb mem­bers in the online video. How­ev­er, he lament­ed, “there’s one obsta­cle in our way.” After paus­ing and fill­ing the dig­i­tal air with sus­pense, he con­tin­ued: “And that, is strangers… So, this New Year’s Eve, we’d love to do a fun lit­tle exper­i­ment. We’d love to rid the world of strangers.” Before the video draws to a close, he asks the online audi­ence, “How far will you go to make one less stranger?” Here, Cheskey prop­a­gates Enlight­en­ment struc­tures of uni­ver­sal knowl­edge pro­duc­tion in which “Man” is endowed with the right to know every­thing and every­one (Wyn­ter and McKit­trick). The stranger becomes a totem to be epis­te­mo­log­i­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed by tech­nolo­gies of Airbnb nomadism. Fur­ther, Cheskey’s hos­pi­tal­i­ty invokes what Jacques Der­ri­da describes as hos­pi­tal­i­ty of invi­ta­tion rather than vis­i­ta­tion, an open­ness bound to con­di­tions (81-83). Airbnb, put oth­er­wise, only wel­comes “strangers” already vet­ted by the cor­po­ra­tion. Cheskey’s nomadic stranger is there­fore hard­ly a stranger at all. And yet, the stranger must be abol­ished, cleans­ing the world of dif­fer­ence. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, from the Mid­dle Ages onwards, Roma have been wide­ly inter­pret­ed as Europe’s inter­nal strangers—grounds for a dif­fer­ent genre of elim­i­na­tion. Today, the nomad, as tech­nol­o­gy of stranger elim­i­na­tion, has become com­mod­i­fied by the shar­ing economy.

Dis­lo­cari: Rutele Evac­uar­ilor Spre Stra­da Can­tonu­lui (Dis­lo­ca­tions: Evic­tion Routes to Can­tonu­lui Street); By the AEMP and Căși Sociale Acum. The sto­ry-map details sev­en routes and nar­ra­tives of Roma res­i­dents forced to relo­cate to Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s local garbage dump, Pata Rât, 18 kilo­me­ters out­side of the city cen­tre (http://​arcg​.is/​2​c​Z​F​Brm)

Spatiotemporal Freedom

It is not only tourists on hol­i­day uti­liz­ing Airbnb to tra­verse the globe, dis­rupt­ing social fab­rics and elim­i­nat­ing strangers, but also dig­i­tal nomads who make sim­i­lar cir­cuits, resid­ing in Airbnb and oth­er short-term vaca­tion units. Unlike tra­di­tion­al tourists how­ev­er, dig­i­tal nomads are not vaca­tion­ing; they are work­ing as well. As Jacob Laukaitis of the start­up UpWork illuminates:

50 years ago, com­pa­nies need­ed their employ­ees to be gath­ered under a sin­gle roof to enable indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion at scale. But today, they’ve begun to under­stand that as long as employ­ees deliv­er results, their phys­i­cal loca­tion and work hours don’t mat­ter… As a result, a new class of employ­ees has emerged: peo­ple whose work is com­plete­ly loca­tion and time inde­pen­dent. Dig­i­tal nomads spend their time trav­el­ing while work­ing — tak­ing free­lance assign­ments from Bali, run­ning their own busi­ness­es from Barcelona or work­ing for an employ­er in San Fran­cis­co from Sin­ga­pore. There are thou­sands of us around the world. And I couldn’t imag­ine liv­ing any oth­er way. (Laukaitis)

This new class of peo­ple, a new iter­a­tion of the human, col­laps­es work and trav­el into one form, defy­ing a bifur­ca­tion long entrenched into mod­ern con­cep­tions of labour—welcome to Fer­riss’ four-hour work­week. This col­lapse is part of a wider tech­no-utopic posthu­man­ist vision which replaces human labour with dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, what Neda Atana­sos­ki and Kalin­di Vora describe as sur­ro­gate human­i­ty. Dig­i­tiz­ing labour, they sug­gest, feigns pos­tra­cial­i­ty, but in fact per­pet­u­ates racism and sex­ism. Automa­tion, for instance, often depends upon racial­ized out­sourc­ing, much of which is also gen­dered. But what of those not sub­ject­ed to extrac­tive labour and instead prof­it­ing from extrac­tion and its uneven tech­no-impe­r­i­al geographies?

The cheap labour and accom­mo­da­tions that dig­i­tal nomads often rely upon are only pos­si­ble through geoar­bi­trage and the glob­al uneven­ness that it inheres. In the posthu­man age of “loca­tion inde­pen­dence,” who has the free­dom to expe­ri­ence dig­i­tal nomadism, and who is dis­placed to enable its mate­ri­al­i­ties? In Do’s doc­u­men­tary, Fer­riss claims that “almost any­one can at least dip their toe in the water and test one aspect of loca­tion inde­pen­dence.” But how is this actu­al­ly pos­si­ble when forced dis­place­ment rates are at an all-time high (Sassen)? How, in an era when “one tourist more, one fam­i­ly less” is the adage of gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods, can the posthu­man­ist dream of dig­i­tal nomadism in fact apply to all humans? Neel Ahu­ja sug­gests that social the­o­rists of posthu­man and non­hu­man vital­i­ty “take for grant­ed the appar­ent uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the human life­world from which they flee” (viii). Oth­er­wise put, we can­not all be posthu­man if we are not all yet human. We can­not all be dig­i­tal nomads if we are not all yet able to enjoy the sta­bil­i­ty from which dig­i­tal nomads pur­port­ed­ly flee.

Yet har­bin­gers of tech­no-impe­r­i­al land­scapes such as Jon Yong­fook, dig­i­tal nomad and founder of Beat­rix and Intel­li­helper (who built an app while liv­ing in a hotel in Thai­land), sug­gest the oppo­site. Analo­giz­ing dig­i­tal assets with real estate, Yong­fook describes:

I’ve sold two busi­ness­es now, which were like sell­ing a mini house. I think it’s per­fect­ly pos­si­ble to build up dig­i­tal assets the same way that you build a phys­i­cal asset. I guess that I look at in the same way as invest­ing in a prop­er­ty, but it’s just a lot more flex­i­ble. The world is going to get a lot more remote for var­i­ous rea­sons… If you think it’s too dif­fi­cult to work remote­ly, then you’re prob­a­bly over­think­ing it. (qtd. in Do)

Here, Yong­fook argues that just as any­one can invest in real estate, flip prop­er­ties, and prof­it, so too can any­one amass cap­i­tal through dig­i­tal prop­er­ty; there­fore, any­one can be a dig­i­tal nomad. Prop­er­ty flip­ping, while ben­e­fit­ing one cat­e­go­ry of humanity—that which Sylvia Wyn­ter describes as homo oeco­nom­i­cus, or the “West­ern bourgeoisie’s lib­er­al mono­hu­man­ist Man”— relies upon the dis­place­ment of anoth­er (Wyn­ter and McKit­trick 22). As Wyn­ter observes, homo eoco­nom­i­cus depends upon sys­tems of tech­no-auto­mat­ed prof­i­teer­ing, as well as its own descrip­tive pow­ers, the lat­ter of which it uses to reify itself as “mono­hu­man­ist Man.” Thus, its sin­gu­lar­i­ty exists not only in the realm of bios, but also in that of mythos and his­toric­i­ty. Unwrit­ten from its ontol­ogy are out­ly­ing mod­els of the human that endure in “extant nomadic or seden­tary indige­nous tra­di­tion­al­ly state­less soci­eties … now being pushed out of their osten­si­bly ‘under­de­vel­oped’ ‘places’ total­ly” (Wyn­ter and McKit­trick 22-23). Homo oeco­nom­i­cus’s suprema­cy is thus pred­i­cat­ed upon the exis­tence of nomadic out­liers. These it dis­places to cre­ate new space for itself. The dig­i­tal nomad, as an iter­a­tion of homo oeco­nom­i­cus, still ven­er­ates the pri­va­ti­za­tion of prop­er­ty as its fore­fa­thers did; only now, it addi­tion­al­ly preys upon (and is enabled by) dig­i­tal frontiers.

Light Atlas Project; By the AEMP and Delta_Ark, 2016. Pro­jec­tion project high­light­ing nar­ra­tives of those impact­ed by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion (https://​antievic​tion​map​.com/​s​a​i​t​o​c​o​l​l​a​b-1)
Airbnb protest signs, New Orleans, San Fran­cis­co, and Venice, Pho­tos com­piled by the AEMP, 2016

The Free and Wandering Gypsy

Timothy Fer­riss sug­gests: “Prac­tices of loca­tion inde­pen­dence for peo­ple who real­ly want­ed to sep­a­rate them­selves from soci­ety, even for a short peri­od of time, that’s been around—practices of vagabond­ing for instance—for thou­sands of years” (qtd. in Do). Yet the dig­i­tal nomad’s geneal­o­gy is more con­tem­po­rary, coa­lesc­ing dur­ing the height of Euro­pean Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ism. Roman­ti­cism, as a lit­er­ary, artis­tic, and intel­lec­tu­al move­ment posit­ed against indus­tri­al­iza­tion, Enlight­en­ment norms, and the log­ics of sci­en­tif­ic ratio­nal­iza­tion, reached its peak by the mid-19th Cen­tu­ry, remap­ping nation­al geo­gra­phies of self-deter­mi­na­tion. Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, it embraced the sub­lim­i­ty of nature, emo­tion, spon­tane­ity, indi­vid­ual hero­ism, and imag­i­nar­ies of ancient nation­al tra­di­tions, char­ac­ter­ized by “a new and rest­less spir­it, seek­ing vio­lent­ly to burst through old and cramp­ing form … express­ing an unap­peasable yearn­ing for unat­tain­able goals” (Berlin 92). This rest­less­ness inter­pel­lat­ed the Gyp­sy into pop­u­lar­ized epic poet­ry and novel­las, where the fig­ure effec­tive­ly became the work­horse of nation­al move­ments across the continent.

This inter­pel­la­tion coin­cid­ed with the rise of Ori­en­tal­ism, a sys­tem that jux­ta­posed the exot­ic and haunt­ing worlds of the Ori­ent against those of a pro­gres­sive, mech­a­nis­tic, and cold West­ern Europe. While numer­ous debates have endured since Edward Said’s 1978 writ­ing of Ori­en­tal­ism as to its spa­tial and tem­po­ral pur­chase beyond the Mid­dle East, here I fol­low Lisa Lowe’s argu­ment that there are many Ori­en­talisms (“Reread­ings in Ori­en­tal­ism”). I am par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in its con­cep­tu­al pur­chase with­in Europe and Rus­sia, aligned with lit­er­ary crit­ics who sug­gest that Ori­en­tal­ist spa­tial dis­tinc­tions between the “West” and the “East” are mud­dled across time and space (Bak­ić-Hay­den; Khalid; Saul; Todor­o­va; Wolff; Zăloagă). Roma, who have been more preva­lent in East­ern than West­ern Europe since their medieval con­ti­nen­tal entrance, and who orig­i­nal­ly migrat­ed in mul­ti­ple waves from North­ern India a mil­len­ni­um ago, have long been con­sid­ered an Ori­en­tal Euro­pean object. At the time, Ori­en­tal­ist fan­tasies of the East were often rep­re­sent­ed through racial and sex­u­al sym­bol­iza­tion, most promi­nent­ly in graph­ic imagery of white West­ern men pos­sess­ing sex­u­al­ly sub­mis­sive East­ern women as a “male pow­er fan­ta­sy” (Said 247). So too were Roma racial­ized and sex­u­al­ized in Euro­pean Ori­en­tal­ist lit­er­a­ture. There­fore, the Gyp­sy in 19th-cen­tu­ry texts stands in for periph­er­al­ized, less-than Euro­pean locales, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly legit­imiz­ing the ontol­ogy and sex­u­al­i­ty of the nomadic colonizer.

In Britain, 19th-cen­tu­ry Gyp­sy novel­las and poet­ry invoked a “nation­al nomadol­o­gy” (Dun­can 382), in which the state alle­go­rized its ter­ri­to­r­i­al expan­sion through the fig­ure of the nomad (Richards 19-20). These works encode a nos­tal­gic fan­ta­sy of pre-indus­tri­al land­scapes and dis­en­gage­ment from mod­ern life, map­ping an impe­r­i­al, open-range car­tog­ra­phy. As the British John Clare char­ac­ter­ized in his 1825 “The Gipseys Song,” Gyp­sies fan­tas­ti­cal­ly “pay no rent nor tax to none / But live untythd [sic] & free … In gipsey lib­er­ty” (Poems of the Mid­dle Peri­od 52). This fig­ure pos­sess­es the abil­i­ty to trans­verse fron­tiers, find shel­ter in the dwin­dling com­mons, and evade pay­ing rent and tax (res­o­nant with con­tem­po­rary shar­ing-econ­o­my endeav­ors), but also blends into the bucol­ic land­scape, con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing a coun­try unscathed by the mech­a­niza­tion and bound­ed­ness of an indus­tri­al­iz­ing empire. Char­ac­ter­iz­ing a near­by Gyp­sy camp, Clare jour­naled, “I thought the gipseys camp by the green wood side a pic­turesque and an adorn­ing object to nature and I lovd [sic] the gipseys for the beau­tys [sic] which they added to the land­scape” (John Clare by Him­self 37). Here, by sig­ni­fy­ing a pre­mod­ern past and spa­tial trans­gres­sion, the Gyp­sy stands in for British indi­gene­ity and colo­nial expan­sion, map­ping a new and con­tra­dic­to­ry under­stand­ing of nation­al space and historicity.

For instance, the pro­tag­o­nist of British George Borrow’s 1851 Laven­gro and its 1857 sequel, The Romany Rye, is an Irish non-Roma schol­ar who per­forms the life of a Gyp­sy tin­ker, trav­el­ling with a band of Romani peo­ple upon Eng­lish path­ways. Bor­row, a self-trained philol­o­gist, was fas­ci­nat­ed by Eng­lish Romanichals (Roma who migrat­ed into Ire­land and Britain as ear­ly as the 16th cen­tu­ry) as well as Irish Trav­ellers (semi-nomadic peo­ple indige­nous to Ire­land, many of whom migrat­ed to Eng­land to escape British colo­nial and indus­tri­al forces). As the periph­ery to Eng­land and the British empire was in con­stant flux dur­ing this time, Borrow’s text recov­ers “an Eng­land decon­struct­ed beyond ances­tral Celts and Sax­ons, beyond a pri­mor­dial Britain, into Gyp­sy ori­gins, fas­tid­i­ous­ly unmapped in to secret mar­gins and coverts, and the inner dark­ness of an unset­tled, qua­si-autis­tic self” (Dun­can 390). Thus, Borrow’s Gyp­sies, as Indo-Euro­pean migrants untouched by moder­ni­ty, are made the authen­tic car­ri­ers of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. While ear­li­er British dis­fig­u­ra­tions false­ly ascribed Romani ori­gins as Egypt, hence the ver­nac­u­lar per­ver­sion “Gyp­sy,” Bor­row also incor­rect­ly ven­tures that Roma come from Rome—a West­ern impe­r­i­al birth­place. As he writes, “I should not won­der after all … that these peo­ple had some­thing to do with the found­ing of Rome. Rome, it is said, was built by vagabonds” (107). Nomadized impe­r­i­al Rome thus becomes the cen­trifu­gal space of the time­less Gyp­sy, who, with a clair­voy­ant crys­tal-ball mythos, time-trav­els a pre­mod­ern impe­r­i­al myth into the his­toric present. As Toby Son­ne­man observes, “While roman­tic metaphors freeze the Gyp­sy image in the past, they con­tra­dic­to­ri­ly allow them a spe­cial vision into the future as well” (130). Not only are Gyp­sies free to wan­der beyond the spa­tial bound­aries of empire, but also, they are endowed with the abil­i­ty to detach from nor­ma­tive tem­po­ral­i­ty, remain­ing fixed in the past while time-trav­el­ling into the future.

These mag­i­cal abil­i­ties to trans­gress time and space, arguably a dream of any empire, were con­strued through colo­nial sex­u­al and racial fan­tasies. In the case of Ger­man Ori­en­tal­ism, which was informed by the solid­i­fi­ca­tion of the Ger­man Empire in 1871, tex­tu­al forms uti­lize the Gyp­sy to con­sol­i­date Ger­man nation­al iden­ti­ty. Wil­helm Jensen’s 1868 Die braune Eri­ca, for instance, is nar­rat­ed by a rest­less Ger­man nat­ur­al sci­en­tist pro­fes­sor long­ing for exot­ic alter­i­ty. The text begins with this sci­en­tist desir­ing a rare plant, eri­ca jan­thi­na, but as the text pro­gress­es, it is revealed that this plant in fact sym­bol­izes the true object of his yearn­ings: A Gyp­sy woman who entices him to leave his set­tled life. Trans­fixed by Erica’s androg­y­nous, racial­ized body, the pro­fes­sor mur­murs her name in sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage one night in his sleep, which she hears in her “nat­ur­al lan­guage,” draw­ing her to him. Upon falling in love with him, she leads him to the rare and beau­ti­ful moor-dwelling heather that he had been search­ing for. When they arrive to the spot where the heather grows, Eri­ca is bit­ten by an adder and falls ill. The pro­fes­sor rec­og­nizes that despite his sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, he remains pow­er­less to heal her. She accepts her death—not because of the bite, but because of impos­si­bil­i­ties of mis­ce­gena­tion. When the pro­fes­sor reasserts his love for her, to his aston­ish­ment, she heals her­self by apply­ing the antithe­ses of mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic orthodoxy—a wild, ecsta­t­ic, and unend­ing dance, which mys­te­ri­ous­ly cures her. Although they then mar­ry and live a set­tled life on the mar­gin of Ger­man ter­ri­to­ry, she even­tu­al­ly leaves him—an expres­sion of the spon­ta­neous and uncon­trol­lable Gyp­sy spir­it. This spir­it is still lust­ed after today, evi­dence in Gyspy exot­i­ca and dig­i­tal nomadism alike. While dig­i­tal nomads fan­ta­size spa­tiotem­po­ral trans­gres­sion, there are impor­tant dif­fer­ences to be mapped as well.

Jensen, a Roman­tic writer, does not posit Gyp­sies as pos­sess­ing mag­ic or chi­ro­man­cy, but rather as a foil to the lack of free­dom in sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge. Gyp­sies are not a threat to Ger­man ascen­den­cy, he infers, ren­der­ing them as dying and non-repro­duc­tive. As his sci­en­tist dis­cov­ers, because of their nomadic ways, Gyp­sies have devel­oped hybrid char­ac­ter­is­tics, like a mal­adapt­ed species vari­ant. Saul sug­gests that “they are a dias­po­ra para­dox­i­cal­ly with­out a home­land, adapt­ed nei­ther to their alien­ation (the Occi­dent) nor their home­land (the Ori­ent). They there­fore can­not trans­mit their inher­i­tance” (117). In this sense, Jensen pathol­o­gizes Roma to make them both intrigu­ing and unthreat­en­ing to the longevi­ty of the Ger­man Empire. The sci­en­tist can thus chase after free­dom with­out Romani interference.

While Jensen invokes Ger­man nation­al­ism and Social Dar­win­ism, his text simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­jures feel­ings of rest­less­ness and nos­tal­gia, accom­pa­nied by the ascen­den­cy of Ger­man impe­ri­al­ism. He fur­ther invokes het­ero­sex­u­al desires for a racial­ized, exot­ic woman, one who evades his reach. But this is not unique to Eri­ca, nor to Ger­man lit­er­ary pieces depict­ing Gyp­sy pro­tag­o­nists. Alaina Lemon writes that “the pas­sion­ate, dark Gyp­sy woman is a trans-Euro­pean motif” (37). Across Europe and into Rus­sia, numer­ous accounts depict aris­to­crat­ic non-Roma men falling in love with ungras­pable Gyp­sy women, ulti­mate­ly defy­ing pos­ses­sion. Often in these tales, every­one dies. For instance, in Alexan­der Pushkin’s famous 1824 Ori­en­tal­ist poem Tsy­gany (The Gyp­sies), a non-Roma out­law, Aleko, falls for a Gyp­sy woman, Zem­fi­ra, and the free­dom that she embod­ies. The nar­ra­tive arc par­al­lels Jensen’s, as does its colo­nial influ­ence. In his over­looked epi­logue, Pushkin recounts that his inspi­ra­tions to become Gyp­sy stemmed from his own brief encoun­ters with Roma on the impe­r­i­al fron­tier of new­ly acquired Moldovan lands. By can­non­ing and can­ni­bal­iz­ing Gyp­sy free­dom, he charts impe­r­i­al lust by racial­iz­ing and sex­u­al­iz­ing Roma. While Pushkin’s inter­ac­tions with Roma were min­i­mal, they are like­ly still more con­crete than those of most dig­i­tal nomads today. Thus, while the impe­r­i­al fan­ta­sy is reflect­ed in the for­mer, dis­tance and abstrac­tion have ren­dered par­tic­u­lar shifts. Today, the nomad is not some­thing that one lusts after and kills; it is some­thing that one already is.

As a mov­able (racial) fig­u­ra­tion, the Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist Gyp­sy maps colo­nial desire—a desire that today tran­sits between past and con­tem­po­rary empire. But even his­tor­i­cal­ly, it chart­ed impe­r­i­al trav­el. For exam­ple, inspired by Pushkin, in 1845, the French Pros­per Mérimée com­posed Car­men, influ­enced by The Gyp­sies and con­tains a sim­i­lar plot­line (Lemon). How­ev­er, as Mérimée scripts in a let­ter, Car­men was addi­tion­al­ly informed by George Borrow’s Gyp­sy fab­ri­ca­tions. In the words of Mérimée, “You asked me the oth­er day where I obtained my acquain­tance with the dialect of the Gyp­sies… . I got it from Mr. Bor­row; his book is one of the most curi­ous which I have read” (qtd. in Northup 143). Thus, the dis­fig­ured Gyp­sy depic­tions in Car­men were informed by transna­tion­al myths. Like Pushkin’s poem and Jensen’s text, the het­ero­sex­u­al desires for the untamed fig­ure of Car­men in the poem rep­re­sents colo­nial dreams; it was right before the novella’s con­cep­tion that first Napoleon, and then Chateaubriand, occu­pied Spain, coin­cid­ing with Spain’s fad­ing as a glob­al pow­er. José Colmeiro sug­gests that, as Spain became a less threat­en­ing impe­r­i­al rival, it mor­phed into France’s sub­mis­sive oth­er, rep­re­sent­ed by the fig­ure of the Gyp­sy (129). “Because exor­cis­ing the exot­ic oth­er is ulti­mate­ly a way for Euro­pean bour­geois cul­ture to exor­cise its own demons,” he writes, “Car­men always must die” (128). Yet with­in the novel­la, there endures a dis­tinc­tion between the Spaniards and Carmen/the Gyp­sies. This dif­fer­ence shows that even as Spain’s pow­ers wane, Spaniards remained con­nect­ed to the Euro­pean body, unlike Car­men. Time and time again, in her var­i­ous incar­na­tions, Car­men must die.

As a con­tra­dic­to­ry fig­ure that both taunts set­tler desire yet remains ful­ly irre­solv­able through the het­ero­sex­u­al, racial­ized log­ics of impe­r­i­al repro­duc­tion, the Gyp­sy is repeat­ed­ly mur­dered with­in tex­tu­al spaces—a death that rep­re­sents the mate­ri­al­i­ty of colo­nial land­grabs, but also the taboo of Gyp­sy-becom­ing. From the Gypsy’s death, dif­fer­ent ghosts mate­ri­al­ize. Today these spec­tres rever­ber­ate with­in tech­no-impe­r­i­al ontolo­gies of loca­tion and time inde­pen­dence. The crys­tal ball of fan­ta­sy mythoi, cou­pled with per­spi­ca­cious gaze of the extrasen­so­ry Gyp­sy, has migrat­ed along the per­am­bu­la­tions of Roman­tic imag­i­nary into the present. Yet it is not tech entre­pre­neurs today lust­ing after and aspir­ing to become the nomad; as James Tay­lor and Wendy artic­u­late, they have already achieved this form, or so they claim.

Posthumanism and the Digital Nomad

When com­par­ing the 19th-cen­tu­ry Gyp­sy to the dig­i­tal nomad of today—both of which express free­dom fan­tasies emer­gent from the heart of empire—the lat­ter appears to have resolved some of the former’s con­tra­dic­tions through abstrac­tion. While the 19th-cen­tu­ry Gyp­sy was both colo­nial alle­go­ry and aspi­ra­tion, the dig­i­tal nomad of today imag­ines that he is already Gyp­sy. This abstrac­tion part­ly reflects the tran­sit­ing of the Gyp­sy from her spa­tiotem­po­ral ori­gins; while 19th-cen­tu­ry West­ern Europe expe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple migra­tions of Roma from “the East,” inform­ing Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist Gyp­sy depic­tions, these illus­tra­tions have now wan­dered for near­ly two cen­turies. Addi­tion­al­ly, Roma migration/dispossession, while per­va­sive in Europe, remains geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant from Sil­i­con Valley’s impe­r­i­al Cal­i­for­nia hub. Yet it is no coin­ci­dence that Gyp­sy fan­ta­sy emerges in Sil­i­con Val­ley today, perched upon the edge of dig­i­tal Man­i­fest Destiny.

It is not only geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance that dilutes dig­i­tal nomadic under­stand­ing of racial appro­pri­a­tion. Obfus­ca­tion of the racial ref­er­ent also results from a series of epis­temic tran­sits that have informed posthu­man­ist rumi­na­tions, famous­ly the­o­rized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guat­tari in A Thou­sand Plateaus. Their work illu­mi­nates an onto­log­i­cal “nomadic” refusal of the nation­al “state appa­ra­tus,” there­by objec­ti­fy­ing the nomad as free from the con­fine­ments of the state. They argue for con­stant state of deter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion, one that can nev­er be reter­ri­to­ri­al­ized. Nomads, they say, live apart from the state in that they “have no his­to­ry; they only have a geog­ra­phy” (393). These mul­ti­va­lent beings are “with­out prop­er­ty, enclo­sure or mea­sure,” inhab­it­ing space is that which is “more like a space of play, or a rule of play, by con­trast with seden­tary space” (96). For Deleuze and Guat­tari, smooth space, as opposed to Euclid­ean geo­met­ric space, can only be explored by the foot­loose leg­work of nomadic drift­ing, invoca­tive of John Clare’s spa­tial­ly trans­gres­sive fantasies.

Fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of ATP, Christo­pher Miller ques­tioned Deleuze and Guattari’s bound­less plane, mag­i­cal­ly free from the eth­i­cal bur­dens of rep­re­sen­ta­tion (“The Posti­den­ti­tar­i­an Predica­ment”). How can one “read the ref­er­en­tial with­in a uni­verse that is sup­posed to be pure­ly vir­tu­al?” he ques­tions (“We Shouldn’t Judge Deleuze and Guat­tari” 129-133). Deleuze and Guat­tari could have eas­i­ly cho­sen to aban­don their cod­i­fi­ca­tion of var­i­ous nomadic peo­ple, based upon only 13 cita­tion­al sours­es, but they did not. In addi­tion to Roma, these include ancient Hyskos of the Mid­dle East, Mon­go­lian hordes of the 13th cen­tu­ry, as well as con­tem­po­rary Bedouins of Pales­tine, Iran­ian Basseri, African Mbu­ti groups, Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines, and sev­er­al Ama­zon­ian tribes (Deleuze and Guat­tari 118-122). The loose­ness of these ref­er­ences allows Deleuze and Guat­tari to tran­sit from Kandin­sky paint­ings to Mon­go­lian nomadic motifs in one over­ar­ch­ing sweep, and to tax­on­o­mize dif­fer­ent gen­res of nomads. “Gyp­sies,” for instance, are con­flat­ed into a broad cat­e­go­ry of peri­patet­ics, as opposed to col­lec­tives of “prim­i­tive” hunter-gath­er­ers, pas­toral nomads, and “vagabonds, trav­el­ing thieves, migrant work­ers, bi-coastal exec­u­tives, ‘aca­d­e­m­ic Gyp­sies,’ and oth­er such groups occa­sion­al­ly clas­si­fied as nomads” (Bogue 172). For Miller, this ethno­graph­ic ges­ture remains the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal para­dox of nomadol­o­gy: nomads don’t rep­re­sent them­selves in writ­ing, they must be rep­re­sent­ed” (“The Posti­den­ti­tar­i­an Predica­ment” 10).

Eugene Hol­land, in a rejoin­der of Miller’s cri­tique, jus­ti­fies ATP nomadol­o­gy, which, he asserts, was not inten­tion­al­ly derived through “the real and the his­tor­i­cal, but through a process oth­er than rep­re­sen­ta­tion” (“Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and Mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Post­colo­nial Lit­er­a­ture and The­o­ry” 163). The book, he sug­gests, “is not an image of the world… It forms a rhi­zome with the world” (ibid. 163). Oth­er­wise put, by tran­sit­ing real nomadism into an abstract­ed space, no harm is incurred upon nomads. Deleuze and Guattari’s inten­tion was nev­er to sys­tem­atize anthro­po­log­i­cal tax­onomies, but rather to artic­u­late two entan­gled tendencies—that of the nomadic and that of the seden­tary (Hol­land 172). Rather they uncov­er a fun­da­men­tal dialec­tic between the nomadic and the state forms.

While it may be that states and those ren­dered as nomadic (regard­less of choice) are inti­mate­ly teth­ered, con­nec­tion alone does not excuse nomadology’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive vio­lence. And yet, nomadol­o­gy has remained a cor­ner­stone of posthu­man­ist phi­los­o­phy as well as the “mobil­i­ty turn” in the social sci­ences (Han­nan et al. 5; Kaplan 89-90). As Tim Cress­well argues, “Mobil­i­ty has become the iron­ic foun­da­tion for anti-essen­tial­ism, antifoun­da­tion­al­ism and anti­rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ism” (46). Pred­i­cat­ed upon Deleuz­ian lines of flight and focus upon routes rather than roots, nomadol­o­gy embraces anti-state ontolo­gies and imma­te­ri­al­i­ty. Yet descrip­tive­ly it remains bound to the mate­ri­al­i­ty of nomadic and dis­pos­sessed peoples.

Nomadol­o­gy has been to describe lib­er­a­to­ry modes of think­ing, but also resis­tance to glob­al cap­i­tal. In Empire, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri sug­gest that while impe­ri­al­ism once empow­ered indi­vid­ual nation-states, today it is com­prised by an agglom­er­at­ed “Empire,” which includes the US, inter­na­tion­al trade orga­ni­za­tions, non-gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions, and the Unit­ed Nations. Despite the sub­sum­ing pow­ers of Empire, a sur­plus of nomadic imma­te­r­i­al labour (cog­ni­tive and affec­tive work) may abet in anti-impe­r­i­al resis­tance, they sug­gest. In their words, “through­out the onto­log­i­cal ter­rain of glob­al­iza­tion the most wretched of the earth becomes the most pow­er­ful being, because its new nomad sin­gu­lar­i­ty is the most cre­ative force and the omni­lat­er­al move­ment of its desire is itself the com­ing lib­er­a­tion” (363). Oth­er­wise put, despite Empire’s nomadic pow­ers, nomadic imma­te­r­i­al labour can resist empire. This res­onates with Holland’s lat­er work, which demand “nomad cit­i­zen­ship” and an “affir­ma­tive nomadol­o­gy” upon a deter­ri­to­ri­al­ized glob­al mar­ket (Nomad Cit­i­zen­ship 8, 152).

Such pos­i­tive spins on nomadol­o­gy coa­lesce with Rosi Braidotti’s eth­i­cal account­abil­i­ty to “philo­soph­i­cal nomadism,” which has since influ­enced the field of posthu­man­ism (Nomadic The­o­ry). Braidot­ti envi­sions what a non-uni­tary sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in which tran­sient sub­jects embody a “nomadic, dis­persed and frag­ment­ed vision,” one that is “coher­ent and account­able most­ly because it is embed­ded and embod­ied” (Trans­po­si­tions 4). For Braidot­ti, nomadic free­dom is a state in which mate­r­i­al con­straints fail to impact a dis­persed sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, per­mit­ting total loca­tion inde­pen­dence. The nomad, she writes, is “fig­u­ra­tion for the kind of sub­ject who has relin­quished all idea, desire, or nos­tal­gia for fix­i­ty” (Nomadic Sub­jects 22). And yet its con­sti­tu­tion is pred­i­cat­ed upon a nos­tal­gic desire, one that 19th-cen­tu­ry Roman­tic Ori­en­tal­ist lit­er­a­ture makes overt. Braidot­ti argues that nomadic sub­jec­tiv­i­ty exists as “we move about, in the flow of cur­rent social trans­for­ma­tions, in hybrid, mul­ti-cul­tur­al, poly­glot, post-iden­ti­ty spaces of becom­ing,” but remains lim­it­ed due to “a short­age on the part of our social imag­i­nary, a deficit of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al pow­er” (Nomadic Sub­jects 85). How­ev­er, nomadic roman­ti­cism has long been con­sti­tut­ed by imag­i­na­tive and rep­re­sen­ta­tive pow­er, going back cen­turies. Today, her mul­ti­cul­tur­al ana­lyt­ics time-trav­el into the tech­no-impe­r­i­al future, in which dig­i­tal nomads artic­u­late a posthu­man­ist sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, yet remain bound by con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal flows.

Tech­nolo­gies of empire have long con­flat­ed desires of expan­sion with desires of becom­ing nomad/Gypsy. Does it make sense to rely upon this abstract­ed fig­ure to arbi­trate anti-impe­r­i­al refusals? Crit­i­cal of Braidotti’s “joy­ful lines of flight” and resul­tant injuries, An Youn­tae ques­tions, “Should not the call for account­abil­i­ty and mourn­ing for the loss and suf­fer­ing of oth­ers pre­cede the joy­ful cel­e­bra­tion of free­dom and nomadic ontol­ogy? Should not the ques­tion of the oth­er be at the cen­ter of ethics rather than the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for one’s end­less becom­ing” (292)? Sim­i­lar­ly, as Thomas Suther­land argues:

The fetishiza­tion of the nomadic iden­ti­ty is con­cern­ing, first­ly because one might sur­mise that the true nomads of our age—refugees, dis­placed peo­ples, and the mobile work­ing poor—would in most cas­es desire noth­ing more than the secu­ri­ty of a some­what fixed, sta­t­ic iden­ti­ty, and at present have lit­tle abil­i­ty to take advan­tage of the mul­ti­plic­i­tous inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty of which Braidot­ti speaks. (946)

And yet, is there a bet­ter fig­ure to alle­go­rize the mate­r­i­al and epis­temic vio­lence that con­tem­po­rary tech­no-impe­ri­al­ism unhinges?

Through­out the 19th cen­tu­ry, racial appro­pri­a­tion of the Gypsy/nomad expressed spa­tiotem­po­ral fan­tasies of mobil­i­ty and trans­gres­sion. Unlike this repeat­ed­ly mur­dered fig­ure, the dig­i­tal nomad of today, shel­tered by posthu­man­ist ontolo­gies, does not have to die. Its liveli­hood not only alle­go­rizes, but also actu­al­izes, tech­no-impe­ri­al­i­ty. Braidot­ti claims that nomadism impugns the “com­mer­cial­iza­tion of plan­et Earth in all its forms, through a series of inter­re­lat­ed modes of appro­pri­a­tion” (The Posthu­man 7). But how can this be when nomadic appro­pri­a­tion facil­i­tates the appro­pri­a­tion of space and time? Posthu­man­ist mobil­i­ty dis­sem­bles anti-cap­i­tal­ism, but, in the case of tech­no-impe­ri­al­ism, it facil­i­tates mate­ri­al­izes dispossession.

In the midst of their #Belon­gAny­where cam­paign, Airbnb released anoth­er video, this one more eerie than their pre­vi­ous. “Is Mankind?” begins in a dim­ly lit hall­way, in which a white tod­dler awk­ward­ly stum­bles to a door as sus­pense­ful melodies from the fan­ta­sy dra­ma, Beasts of the South­ern Wild, sat­u­rate the air. The nar­ra­tor, Angela Bas­sett, begins by slow­ly ques­tion­ing, “Is Man kind? Are we good? Go see” (qtd. in iSpotTV). Will­ful­ly com­menc­ing, she demands: “Go look through their win­dows, so you can under­stand their views. Sit at their tables so you can share their tastes. Sleep in their beds, so you may know their dreams. Go see. And find out just how kind the he’s and she’s of this mankind are.” Cajol­ing Airbnb guests to embrace a nomadic sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, to become one with hosts, to sleep in their beds, and to dream their dreams, Airbnb’s ad embraces nomadic ter­ri­to­r­i­al expan­sion. In this way, Airbnb aligns itself with Braidot­ti sug­ges­tion that nomadic sub­jec­tiv­i­ty “con­sists not so much in being home­less, as in being capa­ble of recre­at­ing your home every­where” (Nomadic Sub­jects 16). By embrac­ing nomadic sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, racial appro­pri­a­tion is over­writ­ten with an inclu­sion­ary hos­pi­tal­i­ty into the pos­tra­cial ter­rain of “Mankind.” Not only have tech­no-impe­r­i­al log­ics suc­ceed­ed in appro­pri­at­ing 19th-cen­tu­ry racial dis­fig­ure­ment, but fur­ther, they have uni­fied colo­nial and onto­log­i­cal desires of becom­ing nomadic. The dig­i­tal nomad now can col­o­nize space and trans­gress the most inti­mate of bor­ders and dreams. This ful­fils its own lib­er­al desires of free­dom, as well as the tech­no-impe­r­i­al machine that it feeds.

Airbnb-induced evic­tion protest with the Hous­ing Rights Com­mit­tee and numer­ous hous­ing jus­tice col­lec­tives, 2016. Pho­to by Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co. Bélo image is includ­ed on the protest banner.

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  1. Though called “Google Bus­es,” there are numer­ous tech cor­po­ra­tions that facil­i­tate reverse com­mut­ing to Sil­i­con Val­ley.
  2. Uni­corn” star­tups are those that have achieved a myth­i­cal net­work of over $1 bil­lion.