Cyber-Nomads: a functional taxonomy of mobile users

With all the attention being devoted to wireless everything, the term “nomad” has come back into into currency to describe mobile road warriors and other hyper-connecteds. The problem is that no one has stopped to actually consider what a nomad really is. A nomad is more than someone in motion carrying electronic gizmos. In fact, strictly speaking, nomads are defined not by what they carry. Rather, they are defined by what they don’t carry because they know what the environment can provide for them. Bedouin for example don’t lug vast amounts of water because they know where the oases are. Similarly, urban cyber-nomads don’t carry sat-phones because they know they can count on ample hot spots in their urban ecology.

All this was clear the last time “Nomad” was a hot term with the advent of laptops and cellphones nearly two decades ago. Back then, the realization that nomads were defined by what they don’t carry led me to create the following taxonomy of mobile users, updated slightly below to reflect the latest tech trends.

Nomads are defined by what they don’t carry because they know their environment will provide. They know where hotspots are — or how to find them nearby. They have a sense of the cyber-fabric of their territory and map it tightly into other dimensions, from knowing where the quietest Starbucks is to which restaurants make the best meeting places.

Astronauts are the opposite of Nomads, venturing into territory so unknown that they must bring everything including their infrastructure with them. Just as spacefaring astronauts have to carry their own oxygen, cyber-nomads must worry about everything nomads take for granted, like wireless and even plain old electricity. A classic cyber-astronaut would be a geophysicist somewhere in a far jungle, toting a sat-phone, portable earth station, and perhaps even a generator along with all the little bits and pieces for making home in a hostile environment. But even ordinary travelers can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the airlock, cut off from the infrastructure they take for granted.

Now, midway between Nomads and Astronauts is a third category: Hermit crabs. These are the poor souls who insist in lugging their cyber-tools in their wheelie carry-ons much as a Hermit Crab must lug its house on its back. Hermit Crabs are Nomadic wanna-bes, unhappy road warriors who scuttle out of known territory just enough to be forced into carrying a bunch of occasionally-used, but essential junk. No astronaut-like romance here, and no Nomad-like freedom either; these people are chained to their rolling suitcase resources.

Finally, there are Cyber-trekkers. Remember those compulsive backpacker friends who cut off the tags on their tea-bags, and sweated every last detail of what to carry and what to leave behind? It was easy to tease them — until hefting their ultra-light pack and noticing with envy how comfortable they were on the trail. Well, cyber-trekkers do the same with their personal info-structure, carefully weighing what they will need every time they depart, and ruthlessly carrying only the cyber-essentials. Most of the Hermit Crabs I know could be cyber-trekkers, but they are too lazy or disorganized to make disciplined decisions about what to take and what to leave behind.