Is a cyberbum living on your sofa?

Being a nomad is cool - and profitable. All you need is a laptop, mobile phone - and someone else's front room to sleep in, finds Eleanor Bailey
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The nomadic lifestyle is making a comeback - only now it's with a lap top and it's profitable. The cyberbums, the professional drifters, technological back-up their only friend, with no home, no office and no fixed social circle, have arrived.

There is no need to have a permanent home when you can have an E-mail number attached to a cyber-cafe chain and a postal address with some obliging friend. Why go to the office when you can video-conference from the Lake District or the south of France? For the cyberbum there is nothing so routine as a routine.

Charlie, 24, a writer and DJ, has been working and travelling for six months. Ostensibly he wanted space to write his novel; others might see it as a scam to save on rent. "I was travelling all over the country DJ- ing anyway and it was costing a fortune to get home. I had a lot of friends in different places. So I became of no fixed address. My quality of life is so much better. My expenses are low, I have no rent, no bills. I DJ maybe three times a week for the cash and the rest of the time I write on the beach or in the hills or in cafes. It's very liberating."

Of course, it's less liberating for the friends whose sofa is out of action for weeks at a time and the cafes whose space is taken up by cyberbums looking for free office space. "We try and discourage people from coming in and working all day on their laptops because it isn't conducive to eating and relaxing for the other customers," says Judy Garziglia of Cyberia, the chain of internet cafes in Britain and Asia. Some of the Cyberia outlets now charge pounds 1.50 an hour in the expectation that wandering working is going to become more and more common.

Abandoning home and office for a more fluid existence is gaining ground in both conventional and alternative lifestyles. Companies like Anderson Consulting and trendy ad agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury have taken the first step to nomadism by introducing hot desking, where no one has their own space - it also happens to be a handy money saver. At the other end of the spectrum, professional protesters are increasingly teched up, using computers and mobile phones while moving from site to site.

Professional nomadism is no longer the preserve of the sad door-to-door sales man. Patrick Fitzgerald, 33, was once an explosives expert in the Australian film industry but moved into computer system installation. He now has his own company, Ocean Wave Digital. At 30 he was successful but too cosy in Sydney. "Everything was going exactly as it should and I was in danger of becoming too suburban," he says. Without contacts, he headed off to South America where, armed with with a modem, laptop, a few floppy discs and a GSM satellite phone, he set about connecting Chile and Bolivia to the Internet.

Fitzgerald would set up the "office" beside his hotel bed every morning. He would pick up messages from his voice mail and have faxes forwarded. There were downsides. "It can get lonely. I couldn't have done it if I had been in a relationship. You have to meet new people all the time. You get sick of living out of a suitcase."

He is still travelling, but now at other companies' expense. Known as the Red Adair of the computer industry, he has spent the last year hot- footing around four star hotels installing systems and trouble-shooting. It's a glamorous life but not one that he'll keep up indefinitely. "I'm only a 90 per cent traveller, I think. Some are 100 per cent. I dream of things like a living room and a fridge which will always have something to eat inside. One needs some sort of base."

It also helps to have money. Rick Hamilton (not his real name), 40, is working from an exclusive safari camp in an isolated game park in Tanzania. Nearest village (and land phone) is a rocky 12-mile four-wheel drive away. Yet this morning Rick is making a killing in Eastern Europe. In Ralph Lauren casuals, he pores over his satellite equipment while his wife prepares to go and photograph big cats. The fortune he makes in the futures market allows the couple to spend six months of the year abroad.

"I can work from anywhere in the world," says Rick. "There is no need to be based in the States. My wife and I have a passion for safari so we normally spend three months in Africa. I do a few hours work in the morning and then join her in the bush in the afternoon."

"For less than pounds 5,000 you can get a satellite phone that covers 99 per cent of the world's surface for $2.4 a minute," says Edward Waller, deputy editor of Middle East Communications. (The remaining one per cent are obscure parts of the ocean where the only potential customers would be swimming in shoals). "Then all you need is a laptop PC with video conferencing facilities, fax, printer and modem."

But while the lifestyle might seem cool, being rootless is hard for most people. Dr Jonathan Sime, environmental psychologist at the University of Surrey, says even cyberbums need some familiarity. "People still want to mark out their territory," he explains. "They still need a sense of being rooted. The road protesters customise trees. The suitcase becomes the home that you carry with you. The hotel room becomes a temporary home. People who travel constantly still have objects that they always carry with them. It confirms to you that you exist."

And life for a cyberbum isn't all roses and other people's electricity bills. Patrick Fitzgerald is currently hunched over an inexplicably blank laptop screen, and attempts to contact Blue, the technologically switched- on road protester, failed because his mobile phone was switched off.

Cyberbum checklist

IF YOU'RE READY TO ROAM ...

You spend at least three nights a week sleeping on friends' sofas

You often have to buy underwear on the way into work

You waste endless effort working out new routes to the office

You make friends easily but chuck them aside after a fortnight

You know your train timetable off by heart

You have a subscription to a D-I-Y magazine

You're a bit worried about the health risks of mobile phones You have a cyberbum friend staying on your sofa

Surfing that sofa

As I write this, I'm lying on the side of the Malvern Hills, sipping a glass of chilled Muscadet. Glorious views up here. With the latest technology you can not only work anywhere, you don't even have to live anywhere either any more, and armed with a lap-top, modem and mobile I decided a couple of months ago to prove it. One morning in May I stepped from the bath and something snapped. Through the window I watched my next door neighbour desperately trying to shield her kids from the sight of my naked body. It suddenly occured to me that over the past seven months I'd paid my landlord pounds 4,000 and he still hadn't put up curtains in the bathroom as promised. I'd had enough. I wasn't going to play that game any more. My first month as a cyberbum was elating. I spent two weeks in Ibiza (total cost pounds 149). Since then I've sofa-surfed through Brighton, Dover, London, Belfast and Hereford. Catching up on friends and rellies was fantastic, especially as the only money I spent was on train fares. I'm happier and more relaxed, and I'm also earning consistently more. But before you all stampede to jack in the mortgage, I did discover several downsides to virtual virtuosity. To start with the nearest thing I had to a laptop was my old desktop Apple Performa - fast, and all netted up, but about as portable as Pat Butcher. Also keeping all this technology on the road fills two bags. I'm carrying enough cables, plugs and jacks to rewire Canary Wharf, leaving little space for human needs. Worryingly, now the novelty has worn off friends are screening calls when they know I'm in town. Last visit to London I had to fork out for a hotel. Hmmph. Worse, last Friday my computer exploded. Au revoir, contacts database and novel. Still, with the dough I've saved on rent I bought the pocket-sized Apple Newton 2000. OK, so one day I'll run out of friends to scrounge off - but frankly, I'm addicted.

Comments