Relay: Digital Nomading

Entire industries are growing up around these wandering telecommuters

Thirty-two years after the fact, they’ve come up with a name for what I have been doing since the winter of 1986: Digital Nomading. 

According to a piece called “The World Is Your Office” in a recent Sunday Times Magazine, digital nomads are people who “travel the world while working remotely over the internet.” Entire industries are growing up around these wandering telecommuters, from international housing complexes to shared office spaces with gyms, spas, juice bars, and other Googlish perks, all built on the advances in communications technology — the article cites smartphones, roaming data plans, and cheaper air travel — over the last few years.

In the year I’m thinking about — which I remember well because it was one of the last jolly ones on the island of St. Croix before Hurricane Hugo destroyed an up-and-coming economy that never recovered — we went down for Christmas vacation with three kids, me lugging an Altima (not a Nissan sedan but an early make of laptop). It weighed maybe nine pounds, with a slot that took a 5.25-inch floppy disk and another where you could plug in a state-of-the-art umbilical cord called a modem.

Ah, the modem. It was the late Stephen Hahn of East Hampton, a gifted physicist who, had he lived long enough, probably would have figured out how to turn lead into gold, who introduced the Star staff to the modem, that magical dial-up data transmitter that worked, back in the day, only over a phone line. (If a call came through while you were using the modem it would break the connection; you couldn’t use them both at the same time.) Steve, an escapee from the Holocaust who never lost his German accent, called the thing a mo-DEM, so, knowing no different, everyone else here did too. 

I was his guinea pig the night he first tested the modem connection, he in East Hampton, me in Manhattan staring at the Altima’s blank screen. I’ll never forget it. First came a hummy little wait-for-it sound, then green words racing across the void: CAN YOU SEE THIS IRENE? 

STEVE I SEE IT! I typed. STEVE I LOVE YOU.

Because what he’d just done, after months of tinkering, not only made it possible for all of us to write and edit from afar, but for me to work year round, not just in summer as before. Crosstalk, a lightning-fast file processor the Star used for the next six or eight years until email came along, could condense entire stories into a single word and zip them across the miles via the simplest of commands — “send a:robbery,” for example. The story would arrive on the screen full-blown as from the brow of Zeus, and depart, edited, the same one-word way. Like those early years of the web, when AOL had barely a thousand subscribers, Crosstalk was too user-friendly to last.

Anyway, about that Christmas in the Caribbean. I remember, one beautiful sunny St. Croix morning, writing something along the lines of “Another snowstorm is predicted here this weekend, to be followed by a plunge in the thermometer that will likely leave local roads in dangerous condition. Beware of black ice!” 

Helen Rattray accused me of writing it under a palm tree with the laptop on my lap and a glass of Cruzan rum and Coke nearby. She was dead right.

 


Irene Silverman is The Star’s editor at large.