Fly drawing

The following is a horror story for any digital nomad.

As a strategic consultant I solve communication problems. My clients want to discuss serious issues that need an outsider’s gaze. My job allows me some travel and work from remote locations like the village of Olivella near Barcelona from where I was doing consulting over Skype in late 2010. Everything worked well until two months in I started to lose touch with one particular client. Soon they forgot to invite me to the next important conference call. I felt it, too. My ideas had become bare threads that did not fit the context. I was nearly fired.

We have impressive means to reach out to another person but will we ever be able to have telecommunications technology so good that there will be no need to be physically present at all? While we live in the nascent promise of Oculus many have said “no” in the past. A long line of thinkers starting with Socrates warn us that communication technology is not a harmless servant of humankind but an active partner with its own agenda, and therefore can never substitute for human interaction. Or as Franz Kafka once wrote: “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.”

The problem is well defined by Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that “the medium is the message.” By this he meant that every medium filters messages according to its own nature and by doing so, it changes the content of the message. Just think of a sheet of paper with the note: “I love you!” and the PETMAN waking you up in the morning to deliver you the exact same message from your wife. Not exactly the same.

As in the movie The Fly where a scientist accidentally teleports himself along with a housefly and becomes a hybrid creature that is neither human nor insect, all communication becomes hybrid of the initial message and technology that transmits it. There is always a fly in any teleport.

Mostly we are cool with this. We love the benefits of instant communication over long distances. We accept the filtering, background noise and distortion, and we rarely consider these important as long as the message comes through. But does it?

In Olivella I understood that with current technology my job as a consultant has a remote working time window, which is about one and half months. Within this time I needed to renew my physical connection with my clients. I needed to come to their meetings, shake their hands, sniff the air, go out to dinner.

As a digital nomad this realisation shapes my location decisions. If most of my clients are in Europe I need to stay somewhere where I can reach them within two to three hours by plane because I know I occasionally need their face time, but also because I believe commute time is a factor in my life satisfaction.

The length of the remote time window depends on your job. Many other people I know – coders, translators, editors, content marketers, lifestyle bloggers and even some professors – seem to have ways to work remotely much longer than I. And I don’t even want to mention one philosopher friend who can stay away from people for years.

Image: Pearson Scott Foresman, Wikimedia Commons