Neo-Nomad at Large

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]

A couple of years ago I wrote about my life as a ‘neo-nomad’, one of the growing number of people who use digital technologies to allow them to work from anywhere, living with ‘no office, colleagues who are largely engaged with online and often a number of overlapping projects to be juggled and managed at the same time’.

It was a pattern of life that had emerged for me over years of being freelance as I put more and more of my work on a laptop and found that I could generally rely on being connected to the Internet when I needed to be, initially over dialup lines ‘borrowed’ from amenable friends, then via open wireless networks, and now thanks to the good graces of my 3G dongle.

I also benefited greatly from the workings of Moore’s Law as the laptops I owned became more and more powerful, so that the machine I use today is faster and has a lot more memory than the four-year old desktop it replaced, while my mobile phone outstrips my old Vaio laptop on every scale except screen size.

And I started to make use of cloud-based services, with shared calendars, online documents, network-accessible disk space and webmail all slotting in neatly to the nomadic lifestyle. Moore’s Law helped here too: every time I needed more space for my email Google would increase the standard allocation, and Apple offers MobileMe subscribers more space than the old .Mac used to.

I’m happy to pay for services that make my life easier, like MobileMe and the online storage service Dropbox, but equally happy to take advantage of free or advertiser-supported tools where they will do the job.

Having a background in computer science has made me cautious, however. Although I use more Google services than those from any other company, I don’t rely on them or any other single provider to keep me online or provide a core service.

My calendar sits on 30 Boxes and Google, but it’s also stored locally on my laptop – and in a red Moleskine diary that goes everywhere with me.  I have four main email addresses, and I pay for three of them – Gmail is free – so that I can be sure of messages getting through. And every email comes to my laptop and my desktop and is also picked up by Gmail as a backup.

And I haven’t entirely embraced the cloud, as most of my data is stored on hard drives that I own and can carry around with me, but I’m certainly trying to make the network work for me by giving me easy access to as much of my data as possible from wherever I am, whatever device I happen to be using.

Life as a nomad has been fun, but today I’m taking things a bit further for a month at least. I’m going to be between homes until early November, so this seems a good time to see just how much the combination of a laptop and an internet connection can deliver as I turn from being a nomadic worker to a true digital bedouin, pitching my tent in different places.

I left my lovely house in Sawston, just outside Cambridge, last night having moved my entire world into a large storage unit.  I’ve kept some clothes, my tax files (as I have to do my VAT return this weekend), my laptop and my phone with me, but that’s about it.  I’ll be staying with my girlfriend some of the time, in hotels while on trips some of the time, and I’ll be couch-surfing friends in Brighton, Tyneside and elsewhere, carrying as little stuff as possible.

A month isn’t long enough to miss my books and paintings and all the small objects that sit on my desk and remind me of who I am and how I am connected to those I love.  But it could be long enough to discover which of the objects in my life really matter to me, and I suspect that some of the boxes in the storage unit will end up remaining sealed when I retrieve them.

And it will also be long enough to discover just how much I can rely on the technologies that surround me to support and sustain my non-work existence.  It could be very interesting.

Of course, I do have some useful tools to help. As I write this I can see the files on my main desktop computer, a 24” iMac. I can even see its screen and run applications that are only installed there, and get full access to the various disks and devices plugged into it.

It works because the iMac is at the Cambridge Film Trust office, where I’m one of the Trustees, and the office manager has kindly let me put it on a spare desk and link it to the local wireless network. Using ‘Back to My Mac’, a tool built into Apple’s Mac OS X, I can share the disk or screen over the network and connect from my laptop.

It’s the same service you get from a variety of Windows tools, and it’s great. Instead of having to lug the computer around I can just talk to it over the internet, saving me a great deal of hassle copying files, installing applications and keeping things in sync. It goes to sleep when I’m not using it, so I don’t feel guilty about using electricity unecessarily, and it doesn’t take up much space in the Trust office.

This isn’t cloud computing, and I’m not paying for data storage, computer time, bandwidth or anything other than the MobileMe subscription which does the authentication between the two computers (and which I was paying anyway for the other services), so I don’t feel like I’m being ripped off for having access to my own data or for the hire of processor cycles in a data centre somewhere.

So now the great adventure starts.  And if I stop answering emails, no longer tweet and neglect my Facebook it will be safe to assume that some technology somewhere, has let me down. Or, perhaps, that I’ve discovered that the offline life is more fun.

Bill’s Links

In Search of the Neo-Nomad:

Cory Doctorow on Cloud Computing:

Back to My Mac:

8 Replies to “Neo-Nomad at Large”

  1. Great adventure! sounds like you are very well organised. Have fun.
    Stay urban, or you won’t be able to connect to the office in rural digitalbritain! 47 hours to download 200meg updates… and remote desktop won’t work either.
    Aye, stay out of the sticks.
    (but you already know this) just posting here cos lots of people read your blog and don’t realise how hard it is to stay connected in rural areas. Sorry. Delete it if you want, I won’t be offended, but hate to miss an opportunity to help the powers that be to get IT. 😉

  2. Power to your dongle, Bill! Enjoy being in all places at all times. Cyberomnipresence. Gotta love it.

  3. Yup, I’m doing the same at the moment, and oddly the only thing I’m missing is the ability to delete music from my iphone…. as that needs me connected to my desktop (in storage) itunes (argh as I want to put the Bunny Munroe app on..)


  4. Is it really “not cloud computing”?

    I’m not sure I understand the difference between the data you store on an iMac in Cambridge and, say, a hard drive somewhere in a data centre in California I use (which I have never seen, touched etc.) It seems to me to be the same case of moving your stuff off your local device and onto “the Internet.” Is there a principle I’m overlooking?

    (By the way, the link to the Cory Doctorow article at the bottom of your post is to your BBC article again.)

  5. Hi Bill, have been following your tweets about moving as I have been packing boxes and relocating too. My move is mostly complete, as I write downstairs is a tip of cardboard and bubble wrap but it’s half done and I’m out of my well loved new forest home. Getting bb set up hasn’t been straight forward thanks to virgins unclear instructions so I’m busy searching for wifi signs in balham for Monday.

    Interested to hear you use MobileMe so
    much. My iPhone syncs in realtime with outlook which work force me to use, that works excellently for calendars and contacts. Vlc to my desktop could be very handy though.

    Best wishes for your move, hope it’s not too traumatic


  6. Being “between homes” is exceptional. But in general, shouldn’t technology be used to remove the need to travel, rather than facilitating it? Instead of feeling at home while you are away, you can instantly be in various places around the world while staying at home. That’s much better for the environment than jetting all over the place!

  7. Good luck. I just did something similar with a house move, albeit over a much smaller timescale. Thing that I missed most is a large monitor. Mind you I’m still missing that as I’m currently working from the kitchen table!

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