Thinking about location differently, beyond "remote work" or "digital nomadism"
My life totally changed over the course of 2020 as did most people’s, but really it started that metamorphosis when I took a job that didn’t require commuting to an office. In July 2019 I was living in a smallish townhouse in a suburb of Boston, easily commutable to Wayfair’s central HQ in the bustling Back Bay neighborhood but ever-so-slightly quieter and cheaper than downtown. My first day working for Abstract was weird in a sense: I was still paying overpriced rent for a climate-controlled box, but instead of leaving, I was taking three or four hours of Zoom calls from said box. It was both urban and disappointingly disconnected. I relished the opportunity for sustained “focus time” at my desk in the tiny second bedroom Alicia and I shared as an “office,” but I still had to take a train or bus to a decent coffee shop or co-working space if I wanted to get away.
Regardless, I loved the underlying principles of remote work (or, to be precise, distributed work): a team need not be co-located or working synchronously in order to solve great problems, and an individual can perform better in a space they control and are comfortable with. So when my wife and I decided that being near nature was more important that being near a city, we leaned further into it: we cashed out most of the equity I was extremely fortunate to have accumulated from my tenure at Wayfair and bought a house, not in a connected suburb of Boston but a rural town over an hour away from the city limits. Not in the middle of nowhere, but twenty minutes’ drive from an interstate highway in a town offering the “right to farm.” Fortunately, we got pretty lucky with the house: not perfect but with great bones, well in the bounds of what we could afford, and in a nice, safe neighborhood over farmland next to a forest. Not everyone is so lucky or privileged.
The lockdowns started four months in. As I noted two weeks ago, I struggled a bit with depression and nihilism while watching the pandemic spread and our government prove incapable of the basic management of it. Nevertheless, my family was extremely fortunate to realize that, in spite of being unable to engage in “normal society,” we were able to bring important aspects of it into our home to replicate the aspects of it we missed most, like the coffee shops I used to frequent and the meals I used to crave at my favorite spots. We started FaceTiming almost weekly with our parents and siblings, and now feel closer to them than ever. I took on new hobbies (mainly centered around improving the house) and creative outlets (like writing this) to fill time previously spent at shows, bars with coworkers, and warehouse practice spaces with musician friends.
This is what we chose to do. Not everyone thrives in a rural environment. Most important about the past year of discovery was not that we should all move to peace & quiet, but that the situation in 2021 enables us to be and have exactly what we want, pretty much anywhere — even if that somewhere is home. I didn’t attempt to replicate my old music hangs, but if I wanted to, I had the option to pretend I was at a show, courtesy of Instagram Live and Patreon and others, or in a warehouse practice space thanks to those same platforms and tools like Zoom, Twitch and JamKazam, if I so pleased. I could even sign up for high-definition live performance video of my city’s symphony orchestra to re-live the joy of the lower balcony of Boston’s Symphony Hall. With a sub-$500 TV and surround sound system (or even a couple of HomePods), it comes damn close to the real thing.
To be clear: 4K video and livestreaming are absolutely not a replacement for in-person entertainment… but it has closed the gap a bit. And that gap will only get smaller over time such that you won’t need to live in a major city to experience the happenings exclusive to the major city, nor will you need to move to the middle of nowhere to experience the joy of silence in nature.
What is location agnosticism?
The idea of location agnosticism is this: Anything I want to have or do is available at my fingertips, no matter where I am, and in the format with which I am most comfortable.
It’s not really anything new. It’s not simply about defining a methodology for remote work. It’s a values system that can govern many-or all-aspects of your life, as you see fit. It’s something you can decide is important or not to how you live your life, something that helps guide decisions around where you go and what you invest in.
It’s not an excuse for homebody-ism. Sure, I love being at and around my house, but I also get stir crazy. We all crave social interaction. I talk to my neighbors at a social distance and occasionally enjoy the light banter of my mask-covered grocery cashier. I would love to drive back into Boston’s Allston neighborhood to catch a punk show at one of my favorite former dives. In lieu of that, I have alternatives at home that are becoming increasingly compelling.
It’s not something only for homeowners or rural dwellers to leverage. City dwellers obviously have their travel options too — sure, airports during a pandemic are risky, but flying sure is cheap — and options abound for bringing more of the world into a tiny apartment. Modular storage systems, convertible surfaces and even rental furniture, are a thing now blogged about by thousands across the Internet. Delicious coffee from around the world is something you can subscribe to. You can even recreate brick oven pizza in a 8'x6' kitchen if you wanted.
It’s not digital nomadism, either. I don’t want my possessions to be location agnostic just so I can sell my house and freely travel the world — I might’ve mentioned that I love being at home. A lot. But city-dwellers who love living in cities, or nomads who love to travel the world whenever they please, should have access to the most important things to them in their location of choice.
And in 2021 we’re quite close to that being a reality, not thanks to AR or VR, but because of some key advances in a few areas and, more importantly, the mindset shift that the pandemic forced upon many of us.
Say what you will about the pandemic. It sucks. I know people are in survival mode. We’ve all had to adjust. People have left the major cities in droves. Some have decided they regret it, and they’re being gaslighted by the Wall Street Journal. Instead of focusing on ways to make it easier for the people who want to return to cities to do so, we’re forced to choose a side: urban or rural. With location agnosticism, why should it matter?
I’ve also talked to dozens of folks who are struggling, but innovating. I’ve watched creators shift from live to virtual performances, from sponsor-driven revenue to subscriptions paid for by their biggest fans. Jobless folks have turned to Patreon, Twitch, Substack and OnlyFans to try new forms of income — and while millions are still suffering, it’s working out for some. I truly wish success for all these folks, not only because they deserve some amount of financial stability, but also to beg the question: how many of us really want to go back to the old way of working?
If you were considered disposable by your previous employer, why would you want to go work for them again if you didn’t need to? That’s a difficult mental shift, especially in America where so many of our decisions-including where to go and what to invest in-are driven by the power of massive corporations. As more individuals are able to work from anywhere, increasingly for themselves, we remove our dependence on these corporations and can introduce different values into our lives.
I cannot emphasize how grateful I am for the list of innovations I am about to walk through which have expanded the possibilities for location agnosticism:
Modern Apple hardware. Between the most recent round of iPhones, iPads and the new Apple Silicon Mac lineup, there’s no reason for concern of an unreliable computing machine anymore (of course, assuming you can afford it). Each of these devices are so rock-solid for doing any kind of work on a computer — either at home or on the go. (Not that I go much of anywhere, but it’s great to know that I can work from the parking lot of my grocery store while masked.)
Reliable virtual desktopping and intuitive automation. The fact that my Apple hardware is just so reliable means I can access any of it anywhere. If I’m out and about but need to grab a file from my Mac mini at home, I have multiple ways of doing that, either by logging in remotely with Screens, SSHing in with a-shell, or with one of several Shortcuts I had already created for some specific cases.
Reliable noise-canceling headphones, specifically (in my opinion) the AirPods Pro. If I need to step away from my family in a pinch, I can enter a world all to myself. If I need to pay attention to the world, I just hold my earbud for a quarter second and can then hear everything around me. If AirPods Pro are too costly (I know, they are), you have solid alternatives for sixty bucks.
Reliable video collaboration. Say how tired you are of Zoom. I don’t care — it’s near-perfect at helping people talk to each other, especially if you have reliable internet. Speaking of which,
Finally affordable gigabit internet. A year after we moved into our current house, our introductory discounted Internet offer from Comcast expired. You know what was only $8/month more expensive than the shitty default package? Gigabit download speeds. Arguably the most invaluable service I pay for other than electricity itself.
Smarter, unified smart home technology. I’m able to secure my home using a secure protocol honed by Apple, including a virtual alarm system I configured and manage myself that functions like an actual alarm system, without having to pay a creepy third party ridiculous fees to watch my house and call 911 for me. Why does this matter? If I ever want or need to leave the house, the last thing I’m worrying about is whether I’ll know if we’re getting intruders or that my dog is safe.
Increased financial options and improved access to financial information & best practices. All this would be impossible without an increased awareness of my financial options. I am grateful for all the advice I’ve received from parents and in-laws, but I’m even more grateful to have tools like Nerdwallet and Credit Karma and the countless budgeting apps to help me understand what I can do with my credit score and how I can manage debt.
Access to affordable food & health product via Amazon and other online vendors. An example from the past few months: We just bought a portable treadmill for $300 so Alicia could go on walks without having to risk slipping her pregnant body on ice. I remember when it was a big deal for my parents to buy a NordicTrack when I was a kid. Another example: all the gluten-free foods that are available not just in grocery stores, but on Amazon and Thrive Market, shipped to me on an automatic recurring basis.
Where we could keep going
Technology is enabling location-agnostic living, but there’s so much further we can go. If the pandemic doesn’t end quickly, or we find ourselves in another one soon after, there will continue to be massive investments in helping people live more of their lives at home or wherever they choose to be. Those investments fall into three major buckets: logistics, job creation and collaboration.
Amazon and Apple have proven that it’s possible to ship massive quantities of products worldwide in pretty quick timeframes. I already mentioned I started getting some cheap, portable exercise equipment for the house; in a matter of 3 days I had a small home gym.
Shipping perishable food at scale is a really hard problem. Yet hundreds of restaurants both shifted toward takeout and delivery to sustain their business and even began selling their recipes & ingredients to customers. And why not? Why scour the internet for a recipe you’ll struggle to get right, or deal with the repetitive mediocrity of services like HelloFresh, when you can choose to get amazing food from your local restaurant of choice or have them enable a fun at-home cooking experience for you and your family? But this only goes so far: you’re location-locked. There is a decent Mexican family-style restaurant in my town, but what if I want a particular dish from this Venezuelan dive I loved in Bushwick? There’s a realistic future in which I could order the ingredients and recipe from that restaurant’s website, powered by Shopify, and have them shipped to my house four hours away. As a customer I don’t care whether they necessarily came from the physical restaurant location, as long as I know exactly how to recreate the amazing shredded beef arepas I so dearly miss to this day. Were they deep-fried? I don’t remember, but if so, I can get a deep fryer from Amazon in a day or two for 60 bucks — and that time to deliver will keep decreasing, even as the next pandemic triggers the next frantic search for toilet paper.
What’s harder than moving food? Moving our entire lives. A lot of people stay put not because they love where they live, but because the process of moving — let alone leasing or buying a house or apartment — is a ridiculous amount of work. The Internet has made it really easy to find new places to visit or live, but the process of actually moving to those locations is somehow still tedious, expensive and confusing in 2021 between open houses, inspections, the slow process due to the legal and financial burden you’re incurring. If people continue to move out of cities thanks to remote work, what if a startup were to disrupt the legal aspects of renting or buying a house? Drones and great iPhone cameras already make it easy for property managers or realtors to provide virtual tours of a house — what if you could perform a home inspection virtually, hire a property lawyer and close on your new house entirely from your old house? (Sure, most of this is already technically possible, but I hope that over time, folks in legal professions will grow comfortable with new, secure document and video collaboration tools to make this possible.)
As I think about other places I could live in the future, I start to think of Airbnb not just as a way to vacation, but as a way to scout new places to live. I remember staying at a tiny Airbnb in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when Alicia and I considered living there for a while. We wanted to have a hipster New York weekend, but we also wanted to feel out what it would be like to live there. Imagine using the remote Airbnb cabin you book next not just as a getaway, but as a taste of what remote cabin living would look like.
What if, in a few years, you could move out to a cabin in the woods and have access to pretty much all the things you had before, thanks to a process you did entirely virtually with all the transparency you’d have from an in-person real estate agent? What if you hated cabin living and wanted to move back, but you could sell your cabin and get back into a city apartment in a matter of, say, two weeks?
What if you wanted to change up your furniture look for the new house, so you got all your furniture re-sold via Letgo, Poshmark and Facebook Marketplace and rented some new stuff to try via Fernish? What if you could plan out the entire look and feel of your home without even being there thanks to high-res 3D renderings of the home, provided to you by the previous owner or their realtor in a format even they understood?
As much as it’s likely been painful for millions of people to survive 2020 due to job loss (I am immensely privileged and lucky to not know this feeling), it’s comforting to know simply how many options exist to both educate and employ oneself, thanks to the Internet. Learning how to code is free or incredibly cheap now. Anyone can start making money by setting up an OnlyFans or Twitch account about any topic they find interesting. You could even build an entire business with a bunch of cheap online services without any coding experience; there’s an entire community of thousands dedicated to developing and shipping these ideas. I visit Indie Hackers every few weeks to skim the new ideas people are building and am constantly impressed, not necessarily with the ideas but with the diversity of folks exploring new ways to sustain a living.
Let’s say these trends continue. We already know and embrace robots taking over many jobs previously covered by humans; I’m not about to begin complaining about retail self-checkout, self-driving cars or drones delivering my packages. Why not embrace these inevitable changes as improvements to our daily lives, and encourage more creation of new ideas? The beauty of these kinds of jobs is that, in most cases, they can be done from anywhere you have access to the Internet.
I don’t want to talk about web SaaS Products or the business side of collaboration. Remote work will inevitably continue to improve because so many companies are simply bad about it now. The collaboration investments that will matter will help resolve the issue of isolation: the feeling of being socially present, in a shared space with others.
Let’s assume VR keeps advancing. I still debate whether it’ll ever be as good as sci-fi movies purport, but in the meantime, our video collaboration software and hardware is also getting better and better. I avoid Facebook as much as possible, but its Portal can already follow you around your house while you talk to the family. Imagine what Apple’s rumored AR glasses could do with FaceTime or Zoom integrated. Imagine a Fitness mirror but for your family gatherings or job interviews. Imagine an entire wall of your apartment that you could share with your friends in an entirely different house, seeing a virtually live feed of each other’s half of a virtual party. AR, or even a large tablet screen, could enable a near-live game of Monopoly or Catan, as if everyone is literally sitting next to each other (depending on the layout of course). We have a mostly-bare wall in our living room currently, and I get excited thinking about the virtual window it could open to, whether it be my sister’s new house, a shared coworking space with my coworkers, or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. If the video quality and proportions are right, it’ll be like I’m there, and my kitchen is three steps behind me.
The hilarious truth is that we’re really not far away. Fitness mirrors and live virtual classes exist. The only thing holding these things back from being truly compelling are internet speeds, picture quality and cost — each of which will improve quicker than we’ll realize.
And for some of us, it’s already good enough. This guy tried to replicate Disney World for his kids. Was it perfect? No, but a toddler wouldn’t notice.
I often wonder how happy (or depressed) I’d be if I was alone in this house. (Of course, if I was not married, I’d probably have no reason to buy a house in rural Massachusetts and my life would look quite different). Having a spouse and dog I love, plus a child on the way, are truly the elements that made our version of location agnostic living an enjoyable way to live.
I wonder how the ideas of companionship and roommates will shift as the developed world shifts. Not to say that I believe nobody should live alone — I wanted this for myself for a long time — but I wonder about the mental well-being of those living alone while respecting the seriousness of the pandemic. In TV and movies, there’s often the trope of the hacker personality living alone, endlessly staring at a computer screen or the lenses of a VR headset, as a means of coping with loneliness or social anxiety. One of my favorite all-time shows, Mr. Robot, centers around one of these characters. I do genuinely hope that investments in virtual space-sharing will destroy this notion that we are all alone, hunched behind a screen with our pajama bottoms and hoodies on, and that’s the only way to collaborate.
On privilege, location & minimalism
As I wrote this, I kept thinking about how much of the concept of location agnosticism is one of luxury: so many of the decisions I noted were made possible by money I accumulated working a white-collar tech job in a highly segregated city as a straight white man with a liberal arts degree. Even with all that considered, our life is far from perfect, and I still struggle with financial insecurity. I literally have no possible means to imagine the desperation some people are facing right now.
In writing this, I realized that location agnosticism need not be a symbol of privilege, but rather a priority one can make for their life. So many of the innovations of 2020 can bring aspects of location agnosticism to more people than ever, and ultimately it’s up to the individual as to how important it is to have access to your most important things, experiences, and loved ones and in what ways. One does not need next-day delivery from Amazon or quick access to an airport or a huge house to achieve a location-agnostic lifestyle. It’s far more about knowing what aspects of your life are important to you, and ensuring you have the systems and tools available to get at it wherever or whenever you happen to be.
In my case, I’ve decided that a bunch of the services I used to rely on are not worth keeping. I’ve stopped impulse-buying things I don’t need. I’ve instead learned so much about cooking and baking over the last few months, and not only can I prepare a steak in multiple ways better than the best nearby steakhouse, and my family is saving a ton of money in the process because I’m using meat that is delivered to my house every few weeks — and I’m enjoying myself learning these new things. This was one of several intentional decisions made over the past year to cut out crutches and stay focused on the values my family and I care about.
The pandemic obviously accelerated much of the shift to remote work, and the isolation that comes with it. I also do not expect the pandemic to go away quickly, nor do I expect it to be the only one in my lifetime. That said, I feel more prepared than ever, and I hope that some of the developments that have resulted allow us to live more flexibly and comfortably, in whichever way that is for a given individual. Sure, it doesn’t come without a fair degree of privilege, but as innovation continues and prices go down for some of these modern conveniences, more of will be able to live in the way we desire.
Originally published at https://buttondown.email on January 21, 2021.