Species of the Instant Age

“We must take the feeling of being at home into exile.
We must be rooted in the absence of a place.”

– Simone Weil

I was on planes so empty I could stretch over four seats in coach and planes so crowded that people had to stand in the aisles as if it was a subway. I have experienced aborted landings and aborted take-offs. I was delayed, rerouted or grounded because of bad weather, missing luggage, medical emergencies, mechanical problems or lack of fuel. Once I saw a commercial airliner swim by my apartment in a river. Once the left wing of my 747 crashed into the left horizontal stabilizer of a 767 while being pushed back: The flight was later resumed with one winglet on the right wing of my plane and no winglet on the left.

Air China 747 vs. Delta Airlines 767

In roughly the past 12 months alone, I flew about 73500 miles or 118200 km; nearly three times around the globe. I was on about 20 separate flights, went through immigrations about the same number of times and visited more than 10 different airports. During that time, I flew over the North Pole, saw northern lights, spotted the K-2 from my window and the Great Wall, crossed the epic grasslands of the Siberian tundra or the seemingly endless bodies of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. My longest nonstop flight was over 7370 miles (11860km), scheduled with 15 hours and 5 minutes and led via twelve time zones. On one occasion I went through four different countries on three different continents within 48 hours; on another to three different continents within 12 hours. – And all of this was not for business and did not account for the domestic flights I also took.

There are many people like me. It is in the need of mitigating personal and professional interests that non-business related journeys like these become necessities. Air travel enables us to build lifestyles around these journeys through which life becomes sequenced into different stages and is built from episodes in many places and cultures. To take myself as an example again: Over the past 10 years, I have lived in 13 different apartments in seven cities on three continents. My belongings are equally spread over the globe and never seem to be where I actually need them, let alone agglomerate in one place only. I have stuff in Germany, the United States, and China.

I am a glomad, a globalized nomad. Glomads do not have an understanding of a permanent home and an ambiguous relationship to their citizenship and the understanding of where they come from and where they might go next. Glomads live within different cultural regimes and identities. They live cosmopolitan lives, are multilingual and often educated at different institutions in different countries. Their possessions are dispersed and they either have few personal items or doubled up belongings: two apartments, two cars, and two pianos.

Glomads are an increasing species of travel-savvy wanderers, driven by the global tides of labor demands, specific programs at universities, personal interests, or the lure of professional opportunities. Glomads are typically in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, can be single or married, even have children, but otherwise challenge easy categorization. Glomads live this life on the move until some of them settle down to solidify and simplify their lives whereas others never do. They often defy the typical chronologies and routinized lifestyles of the general population, in which one goes to high school, then college, gets a job afterwards, marries, buys a property, and has kids (in that order).

Glomads need new passports, not because the old one expired, but because all pages were filled in

One of my glomad friends has an Italian father and a German mother and speaks five languages. She grew up in Germany, also studied there and in Italy, later worked in New York and then in Shanghai. Her next stop might be Hong Kong or someplace in Australia, but she is not sure yet herself. – Another glomad’s parents are both German, but the whole family lived in France for a long time where she also attended high school. She went to Italy as an au pair for a year after graduation, then studied in France and Spain, then moved to the United States to work and later to China. She speaks six languages.

Next to Skype and MSN, extensive air travel is their way to stay in touch with family and friends. Only flying enables such lifestyles, may they be chosen or not. The advent of the Instant Age has aided the phenomenon of the glomad, but not triggered it: It was the jet engine and its melting of distances that laid the foundation for glomads’ living arrangements. While the Internet makes information and communication instantly available, it cannot substitute aviation’s physical mobility. The promise of aviation’s spatial freedom is what is of utter importance for glomads, and the airport serves as the physical incarnation of this promise. Glomads see its worth in connecting people and transporting goods and ideas. Glomads therefore could be seen as almost natural inhabitants of the aeroSCAPE[1] and the airplane and the airport as one of their important lifestyle tools.

A Scythian horseman from Pazyryk (Central Asia), 300 BCE: What was once the horse for the nomad, today is the airplane. – The meaning of the Latin-rooted word ‘nomad’ describes regionally, sometimes nationally roaming people without a permanent home. In today

Glomads are not expats. Expats are company-sent business disciples with set itineraries, schedules, and securities whereas glomads operate and organize on their own. They constitute a nascent phenomenon that has not been branded yet, and the difficulty in categorizing them has so far eluded them from the focus of the media world and the economic sector. Still, with their ephemeral, individualized lifestyles glomads are at the forefront of globalization, foster understanding between different people and their cultures, exchange and test ideas crossed-culturally and expand the meaning and the needs of globalized citizens.

[1] The aeroSCAPE is the landscape, infrastructure and airspace associated with and used by air travel.

Note: For a more academic paper underlining the same issues, please see “A life in corridors” – Social perspectives on aeromobility and work in knowledge organizations” by Claus Lassen, published in the book Aeromobilities (Cwerner, S. / Kesselring, S. / Urry, J. (eds) (2009): Aeromobilities  |  New York: Routledge)