I want to take a look at why the bedouin tribes of the Arabian, Sinai, Sahara and Negev deserts serve as the allegorical template for the mobile worker. Bedouin is actually an English word, derived from the transliteration of the Arabic word for ‘desert dweller,’ badawi. […]

I want to take a look at why the bedouin tribes of the Arabian, Sinai, Sahara and Negev deserts serve as the allegorical template for the mobile worker. Bedouin is actually an English word, derived from the transliteration of the Arabic word for ‘desert dweller,’ badawi. The bedouin are, traditionally, fiercely tribal, with the bayt, or family tent, the basic unit of social structure. The primary industry of the bedouin is, naturally, trade; the critical tool is the dromedary, or camel; and regional claims by tribes are largely formed around wells, oases, cities and the routes between them.

But how do we define the ‘web bedouin?’ Some analogies to the life of actual bedouin are obvious, with internet hotspots serving as watering holes, data storage such as hard drives serving the camel’s role as a beast of burden, and the team behind a startup or corporate identity defining tribal allegiance. But at least in the last instance, the tribal identity and boundaries are much more fluid for us, trade routes on airlines and highways are set in stone, and (thankfully) conflicts are rarely settled with arms.

So what do you think are the keys to our identity as a group? Is it the tools we use, the habits we foster or just that we aren’t working within the confines of a corporate cubicle? And is bedouin culture the best analogy, or just the best analogy available? Have you gone, or do you want to ‘go bedouin?’ And if not, how would you rather define how or desire to work?

  1. My 1st memory of the word Bedouin is associated with the current Iraq war. I remember watching Live! CNN footage of our tanks racing across the dessert in the 1st hours of the war. The embedded journalist saw something on the horizon, the tanks slowed down, and it turned out to be a group of Bedouin farmers. Surprisingly, they didn’t pay all that much attention to the massive tanks as the rolled past in a storm of dust – I imagine they’re accustomed to war. I was totally blown away. Technology (satellites, modern military equipment) were clashing or racing past people that still sleep in tents, live on almost nothing, and know very little in the way of technology. On the other hand – the lack of technology is probably why they’re still alive. What does that say?

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to associate the word Bedouin with mobile workers. Bedouin farmers are stuck in the past, mobile workers are all about the future.

  2. I just finished college and there was a whole group of us who preferred to work at a coffee shop rather then our apartments or dorm rooms. We all were busy and did a lot of work but we all knew each other. It was a cool group. It was this way with both of the coffee shops that I hung out at.

    I don’t know. I get a little nutty if I am sitting in a cubicle by myself. I like to have people around me. That is why I really enjoy working from coffee shops. It also makes it easy to bounce ideas off people. We can collaborate.

    Only if they had white boards in Starbucks.

  3. It seems like strong tribal and familial bonds are really the defining feature of nomads. Saying that, except for that, you are basically a bedouin is like saying something tastes like honey, except its not sweet.

    Also, according to your link, bedouins are primarily pastoralists, not traders. Could you describe the relationship between a web bedouin and his work as a shepherd-sheep relationship? I don’t think so — I think the relationship is much more like a hunter-gatherer, who follows herd animals on migratory routes in a chaotic, every-changing system. Hunter-gatherers generally don’t have a conscious group identity — everything that exists is unconsciously related to the chaotic system. At some point, hunter-gatherers evolve into pastoralists because they realize they can partially control this chaotic system. They do this by anthropomorphizing it — appease the spirits, honor the ancestors and perform magical rituals to guarrantee their food supply. It may be that some mobile web workers are evolving from a survivalist hunter-gatherer mode into a magical pastoralist mode. Magic, in this context, would mean things like “networking” and “creating buzz” and “word of mouth”.

  4. Neat analogy. I could romanticize bedouins as choosing independence over being tied down to one place, but I don’t know if that’s the case. Perhaps trading is all they know, or they don’t have a homeland to call their own.

    Another analogy I’ve thought of is the web freelancer as “tinker”, the roving tinsmith who sells and repairs pots, and also sells his expertise. We’re a little different from the bedouins in that we actually can create stuff from scratch. We also may be traders in terms of IDEA carriers…for example, selling people on the idea of web standards, being part of the viral mechanism that slowly is turning the rest of the world on to it.

    In terms of identity, I’ve liked the idea of being an independent group of people with similar values and principles, free to move to where the best and more interesting jobs are. Free also of suffocating internal politics, staying long enough to get the job done well, then moving on.

  5. The analogy that hit me in the face immediately is that without going native (or serious anthropological research), the values and habits and the way of bedouin life are difficult to get a handle on. There is, perhaps, a little rozy romantic sheen involved (oh, the freedom! oh, the joy of brotherhood!). Intellectually, you may know that the lifestyle will bring certain hardships, but you may not be able to appreciate them completely until you try to walk the walk.

    And the difference between a bedouin and a web worker? The bedouin’s mother-in-law will never ask: “When will you go back to being a hired hand in yonder town again?” ;)

  6. I tend to describe myself as a “digital bedouin” (there are multiple seemingly accepted spellings for this word, I’ve also seen Beduin) – by which I mean that I can (and have for about the past year pretty much) live and work anywhere I have wifi, my laptop, and cell coverage. While I value facetime with clients and friends – and physical networking is vital to my business, what I “do” is not tied to any place. (and if I were as I plan to shortly get an EVDO card even my need for wifi coverage is much reduced). Indeed one of my blogs bears the tagline “rambles of a Digital Bedouin” (http://shannonclark.vox.com/)

    For me it is a term that describes a nomadic, roaming lifestyle – one that has strong elements of being able to be set up nearly anywhere quickly and relatively effectively. As more and more of what I “do” has been migrated to the web (blogs replacing much of past local writings, gmail, google calendar, wikis and other collaboration tools, the occasional ebay or other service for fullfillment, paypal for payments, ebanking for the rest etc, I no longer need a physical office or indeed much more than a few changes of clothes and a laptop.

    Yes, I did move a lot of belongings from Chicago the bay area a few months back, but when I look seriously at what I use and need, it mostly fits into a single suitcase + my trusty crumpler shoulderbag.

    I find a synchonicity with the trend (at least on the part of some people) towards a simpler lifestyle as well – over the past few years I have shed many possessions and items I once always carried – I replaced a too thick wallet with a smaller one suitable for just a few critical cards and cash, a few years ago I sold my car without replacing it, when I moved to the Bay Area my TV stayed behind, etc.

    Though I do find myself planning a bit of a return to more “normal” modes – probably buying a desktop computer later this fall for example, but I’m also planning on adding a handful of new digital tools to enable me to be even more mobile (an evdo card, a portable podcasting rig, likely a new even lighter laptop, a small but effective digital camera, possibly a digital video camera as well)

    In a few weeks I hope to build an application (help is welcome, I’m planning on writing it at Yahoo’s HackDay at the end of the month) that will enable users to geocode their addressbooks and then once geocoded generate on-the-fly small groups to invite to spur of the moment events (such as an invitation to 5 colleagues to meet you for coffee between afternoon meetings). I hope my small app is not the only similar application – that more tools to help digital bedouins to navigate the new world of work are developed – and that many of these embrace network weaving and small group forming activities.

    A modern version perhaps of the hospitality of the “real” Bedouin.

  7. It’s early, early in the morning for me, so pardon me if I ramble. This is usually the time of day when I paddle down the ol’ stream of consciousness. (Helps me develop a plan of attack for my day.)

    The word bedouin has listed as one of its synonyms, nomad. Are web workers nomads? Yeah, it would seem so, but most of them fall victim to entropy sooner or later and then just wind down to settle in one place, lump-like.

    Tribal? Yeah, that appears to fit, too…but is it tribalism or clique-ishness. There are groups of ‘web workers’ who are close-knit and hang together at cons and symposiums and other gatherings, but tribal? I wouldn’t say so.

    Also…homeless wanderers? What about cyberspace? That seems to be the home of all of us. We meet, work, talk and even socialize here in cyberspace. Food (and a cup of Java) for thought?

    I’m prolly not a bedouin. In my teens, struggling with the newly emerging “flower power” culture, I had decided that I was still “beatnik” and/or “bohemian”. (I had discovered that I actually had recent ancestors from Bohemia. Cool, huh?) Anyway…since I had already embraced Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and their kind that I’d remain “bohemian”.

    I still pause at the bedouin’s oasis, Starbuck’s or Cool Beans or Cafe Mundi, but I’m searching for the bearded, sandaled guy with wi-fi enabled bongos. Sigh.

  8. New Web Site: Web Worker Daily

    Om Malik of GigaOm recently introduded a new website called Web Worker Daily.

    This site is going to highlight the lifestyle, work habits and technology of the mobile web workforce or the Web Bedouin as they call it.

  9. I find myself not really resonating (corp-speak… bleh) with the term “bedouin”. Perhaps because of the family ties that don’t really bind for most web 2.0 workers. Tinkers sounds closer, but still – there’s an element of the family ties involved with them as well.

    So what about “carnies“? As with tinkers, there’s a subtle indication of what the “others” feel towards carnies – suspicion, envy, fear of “stealing children”. But unlike bedouins or tinkers, carnies are free to come and go from the show (project or job) – to jump over to another show, or to settle down for a while.

    Carnies have their own jargon as well – it’s not deliberately used to confuse the marks, but it does separate “us” from “them”. And with carnies, there’s no specific tool that’s required – you can be a tight-rope walker or a horse-handler – but all are involved in the show.

    Just some rambling. This web-carny is going for more coffee :)

  10. For me at least, the biggest part of the “bedouin” lifestyle is the fact that it seems to enhance my creativity. I think I work better when not trapped behind a desk. Getting out into the world helps me relate to what people are doing NOW, not what I think they are doing.

    There are times when I have to be at home focused on one thing or another. I admit that I have thought about actually recording the noise of a busy cafe to aid in the creative process.

    My startup focuses primarily on web design right now. I’m building a site to help people in the life science industry communicate with each other. Here in my local wifi cafe, I can sit down and see people communicating in so many different ways. I use a lot of the ideas that I get from everyday people around me and somehow find a way to shape them into something I can use in my design.

    I must confess to being a part time bedouin, working mostly on the weekends to get my small startup moving, but any place with a passable cup of coffee and wifi is home to me.

    Jamie Sundsbak
    Currenly hangin’ at Panera.


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