There, each participant was handed a T-shirt with the Nomad Cruise logo emblazoned on it, and – much more importantly – a lanyard to hang around their neck, with a name badge attached. This was a very smart idea. With five hundred digital nomads aboard, many of whom were meeting for the first time, it would have taken a superhuman feat to commit everyone’s name to memory. It immediately became an unspoken rule for everyone to wear their name badge at all times. It was just easier for everyone that way, as it avoided the constant awkwardness of admitting: “Sorry, I’ve forgotten your name”… usually followed by the other person frankly reciprocating with: “That’s alright, I’ve forgotten yours, too.”
But though the lanyards did away with the need for anybody to ask about names, there were still many other Frequently Asked Questions that cropped up whenever two people met for the first time. Among them: “What sort of work do you do?”, “Is this your first cruise?”, and “Where are you traveling to next?”.
Continually answering these same few questions to untold dozens of new people quickly became very, very repetitive. It felt like an interrogation. So much so, that many complained to the Nomad Cruise organizers, and a few days into the cruise, they duly stepped in.
Banal questions were now officially off-limits!
Instead, everyone was encouraged to mix it up. We were now meant to ask questions which revealed something about the other person and their personality – for example: “What are you passionate about?”, or “What is the best advice you have ever been given?”.
But in spite of the organizer’s best efforts, there was still one question that endured.
“Where are you from?”
In the wider population, this question tends to comes up whenever anyone hears an accent different from their own. And, among 500 digital nomads, there was a lot of diversity on board The Sovereign.
Like the other questions, “where are you from” seems terribly unoriginal – a bit like asking about the weather. But asking where a person is from serves a purpose. It reveals something about the other person and their personality – just the sort of question as we had been told to ask!
We humans love to put everything into categories. Through hearing that a person is from Japan, or New Zealand, or Mexico, we can infer certain things about them. Country of origin is usually a pretty good guide to a person’s upbringing, worldview, and culture. Our stereotype of an American is very different from our stereotype of a Chinese. So, asking that question at the earliest possible opportunity allows us to quickly figure something out about the person we’re dealing with – without needing to go to the considerable trouble of actually getting to know them. We can immediately satisfy our natural urge to classify them.
These stereotypes can even become a self-fulfilling prophesies, because “where we are from” can make up such a large part of our identities. Germans have a stereotype of efficiency, and so a given German person may feel a pressure to conform to that – perhaps even subconsciously.
As repetitive as the question of where are you from was, most everyone aboard the cruise simply answered it in the spirit in which it was posed – by replying with the country in which they were born and grew up in.
Everyone, that is, except for Vlad Glebov – the founder of colife.io – who responded with something rather… different.
“I come from Earth”.
Vlad’s answer sounded like something that Captain Kirk from Star Trek would say, when greeting an extra-terrestrial. Or perhaps it was more of an attempt to dodge the question – maybe Vlad, just like everyone, was sick and tired of getting asked it over and over again, and had decided to spice things up with a non-conventional answer.
It would always succeed in getting a laugh. But then, the enquirer would insist: “OK, OK, that’s cute. But where are you really from?”.
Of course Vlad was from Earth! Aren’t we all?!
But this answer had more to it than at first glance:
Among digital nomads, the question no longer matters.
What makes a “culture”? What makes one person part of a certain in-group, and another person part of an out-group? What makes an Austrian different from an Italian? Not genetics. Biologically, we’re one species.
Historically ingroups and outgroups have been defined by shared language and shared values. That used to come hand-in-hand with geography. That, and the bolts of colorful cloth we call “flags”. But the digital nomads on board The Sovereign have global friendships, global businesses, and global identities. English is their Lingua Franca, spoken by everybody. They are living, breathing embodiments of globalization. There isn’t nearly as much that divides them, as unites them.
In fact, the values these digital nomads collectively hold dear – freedom, meaning, location-independence – mean they probably now have far more in common with each other, than they do with “ordinary” people from back home – even if they share the same accent.
So why were we all still asking such an old-fashioned question as “where are you from”?
If you must know, Vlad was born in Russia, but has a strong Canadian accent thanks to all the time he spent there. Now, here he was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Europe to South America – among scores of new friends, many of whom were even more diverse in their upbringing than him.
So, where is Vlad Glebov from?
He gave his own answer by wearing a T-Shirt, created by Stella Airoldi of the 22Stars Foundation.
– Birthplace: Earth
– Race: Human
– Politics: Freedom
– Religion: Love
– Weapon: Education
This is the thing about the Internet. We can find our tribe, even if they are on the other side of the world from us. This strengthens our ties to the rest of the world, but weakens our ties to our local community. When your friends are from all over the world, you wind up having more in common with them than with someone from the other side of the street.
These ultra-cosmopolitan digital nomads simply don’t feel loyal to a flag anymore. And when a person’s identity becomes global, rather than national, it means they come to have empathy with humanity as a whole, rather than whoever happens to hold the same passport as they do.
Perhaps Yuval Noah Harari’s seminal book Sapiens sums the digital nomad’s reality the best:
“As the 21st century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all of humanity is the legitimate source of political authority, rather than the members of a particular nationality.”
Many digital nomads would say: that’s a good thing.