If you ask Holm Friebe and Sascha Lobo, the digital Boheme can be found sipping caramel macchiatos at your local Starbucks. Instead of cudgeling their brains about how to make a living with their art, these new Bohemians just log into Facebook or LinkedIn and get a temporary job or a client’s commission in order to earn some money. But once the rent is covered, they leave paid work behind, and engage in personal projects, embracing a new kind of liberty attained through digital technology and savvy self-marketing.
This is the image of the digital Boheme created by Friebe and Lobo in their 2006 book, Wir nennen es Arbeit.1 According to them, more and more people get bored by office politics and a hopelessly oversaturated labor market – and start working on their own.2
Origins of the Digital Bohemian
Almost a decade earlier, Daniel Pink described a similar development during the heydays of the new economy. He saw the future of labor in a nation of “free agents” working happily on their own rather than to seek fixed employment. For Friebe and Lobo, the dot-com bubble of the 1990s was precisely the environment where the groundwork for the digital Boheme was laid: Large numbers of liberal arts students decided to skip classes and get on board of one of the web start-ups – that were springing up like mushrooms during these times. Venture capital was easy to get, and there was a huge demand for marketers and people with even rudimentary HTML coding or graphic design skills.
Once the bubble exploded, though, the regular employment train for many of these media workers had left. But instead of trying to finish their university studies or reskill and get a job, many of them took a different decision: They used their unemployment pay as seed capital, and searched for ways to make a living on their own. Apparently, the old regime of face time, 40-hour weeks, unfriendly bosses and boring office politics had lost its attractiveness to them.
Technology and the Dilettante Business
Advances in technology were key for the creation of the digital Boheme, as conceived by Friebe and Lobo.
On the one hand, the archetype of the digital Bohemian mostly works on immaterial matters (or at least manages her work on a computer), expanding her skills acquired during the bubble.
On the other hand, digital technology facilitates the creation of new kinds of businesses never seen before, with a very low overhead: Computers and wireless connections become more powerful and affordable each year, while the simplicity of digital publishing practically ended the dominance of gate-keeping media corporations. Instead of trying to create brick-and-mortar businesses with employees and rent to pay, the digital Bohemian just sets up an online shop for a couple of dollars and is in the trade right away. With clients coming from all over the world, even obscure market niches can become profitable. Even successful Bohemians continue to work from coffee shops – without the slightest intention of ever building a larger company. Everybody works on their own and only builds ad-hoc teams as needed for larger projects.
This approach allows to combine different activities in a sometimes dilettantish manner – and still make a living: A blogger can also become a book author and work as a DJ, while making the bulk of his income as a copy-writer and translator. Several income streams can be combined freely, lessening the dependency on one single man who signs your paycheck. Successful projects can be deepened, unsuccessful ones dropped. Also, procrastination can be used in a structured and ultimately productive way: As long as you procrastinate on one project, you have a good excuse to work on another one (or to enjoy the beach).
The Case Against the Digital Boheme
Critics of this model emerged soon. As was to be expected, conservatives dismiss the idea of new work and the digital Boheme altogether. In the end, they argue, someone has to take out the trash – or to grow, reap, roast, deliver and prepare the coffee to cater the digital Boheme at their coffeshop workplaces.
Even more importantly, work couldn’t possibly be just fun! Work means being on time, being seriously dressed and being committed to whatever task a boss makes up for you! The alternative, according to those critics, would be to create just another bubble – with the difference that it wasn’t based on companies now, but on individuals.
The strong individualistic stance of Friebe’s and Lobo’s model was rejected by the Left, too. For them, the digital Boheme was nothing but a neo-liberal’s wet dream come true: Interchangeable geeks with laptops, eager to work extra-hours, with no expectations of benefits or social security, undercutting each other in order to obtain one of the scarce assignments that still require a human being rather than a machine to deal with. Somehow in line, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier sees the digital Bohemians not as self-determined free agents, but as digital peasants creating content for the modern lords of Google and Co.
It’s true that we still have to see where this new approach of work leads us. For sure, the lifestyle described by Friebe and Lobo will never be attainable for large parts of the workforce – but nor will it appeal to them! Just as in the 19th century not everybody wanted to hang out in cafés and live on the border of poverty just to avoid real employment, many people nowadays don’t want to become digital content creators and work on their own.
The precarious labor situation of many digital Bohemians is certainly worth criticizing. As barriers between work and leisure fade, the gates to self-exploitation open. And there are still people that will work for free, only to have a big name in their resume or portfolio.
On the other hand: If amateur photographers and designers can provide the desired quality and have fun in the process, it is really up to them how far they want to go – even if the old professional finds himself in angry opposition to their behavior. The main point, though, is that this kind of self-exploitation is by no means a new or exclusive trait of the digital Boheme! For decades, people in the creative field have been doing unpaid internships – and for centuries, artists have had trouble getting paid for their work.
The psychological side of the digital Boheme is a lot harder to evaluate. The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung found the new Bohemians to reject classical work models – only to exchange them for a kind of “alternative conformity”. According to the paper, the youth’s resignation of not getting a real job would only be marketed as something more attractive or even desirable when being labeled as Bohemianism.
While I would not be overzealous to judge self-deception as a specific problem of the digital Boheme – in the end, that’s as well a characteristic of the millions that are unhappily employed – the charges of “alternative conformity” make some sense indeed: All we need to do is look at the rows of hipsters sitting behind their Macbooks in stylish coffee shops all over Berlin, London and New York City.
The real fraud to me, though, is not to be found in any misconceptions of new work. It’s that Friebe and Lobo get off calling the baby “Boheme” in the first place! Fair enough, the authors have been open in this respect, making clear that they really only care about the work aspect in their book: To them, a digital Bohemian is pretty much anybody who works on his own by means of a computer.3
What about the New Escapologist definition of Bohemia as “Utopia in which one can prioritise the tenets of creativity, love, merriment, experimentation and arousal of the senses”? If we dare to compare it to the reality of the so-called digital Boheme, I feel that there isn’t much love and merriment to it as long as it’s just about work. The arousal of the senses gets reduced to the smell of freshly ground coffee. The only experiment is to work outside of an office context, and creativity is probably not your most important character trait if all you do is search engine optimization (SEO).
The real reasons for Friebe and Lobo to appropriate the term might just have been marketing considerations. And it’s probably easier to sell a book that just focuses on the Bohemian work aspect, leaving further lifestyle speculations aside. Lobo even got himself a red mohawk and thus convincingly proved his seriousness when it comes to self-marketing.4 But just as much as this punk chic only serves as a fashion, the Boheme falls danger to become nothing more than a catchy label. It reminds me of the mediocre “Café Boheme” you’ll find in every major city, selling overpriced red wine to their Gauloises-smoking customer base.
The Boheme and the Social Network Economy
The real trick of the digital Boheme, Friebe and Lobo argue, is to be found in new forms of economy and cooperation. While initially oriented towards individual satisfaction, digital Bohemians would help each other out, creating an “economy of favors” based on reciprocity. Not money is a digital Bohemians most valuable asset, but a trusted social network and the respect and credibility he gains from what he’s doing. Opposed to the volatile good of attention, the three magic R’s of the Bohemian economy are considered to be reliable in the long run: Relevance, reputation and respect.
It is here where the idea of the digital Boheme shows its potential, but maybe the authors showed a bit too much restraint from taking a stand on political and societal issues. To a certain degree, this made their text ambiguous and vulnerable to attack. Their reluctance to embrace an unconventional lifestyle beyond individual working conditions, and their openness to work for the mass society as long as it serves them, doesn’t have to be wrong – but it leaves a foul taste when using the term Bohemian. Because as long as we only look at the work level, there is already a term for these people: They are called freelancers.
The Digital Boheme: Beyond Work
I believe that it doesn’t make sense to reduce a Bohemian lifestyle to work alone. Interestingly, the original inventors of the term “digital Boheme” seem to agree. It was the multimedia artist duo Station Rose that first came up with the term. Their “pioneering work in the field of multimedia”, as applauded by Timothy Leary, began in the 1980s with the use of C64 and Amiga computers, followed in the 90s by live streaming performances broadcasted from their website.
The duo understands the digital Boheme as the return of the artist from a separated existence back to the center of the societal stage: A resurrection of the archaic shaman-artist as a guide for the attendants of a show. Station Rose also adapts the Bohemian concept of the lounge or “salon”, mixing people from different backgrounds and scenes. Their events sometimes “brought together psychoanalysts, techno DJs, grunge musicians, philosophers, medical doctors, painters, multimedia artists and lawyers, discussing the same topics,” as they explain in a 1996 interview. The closeness to the digital Boheme as perceived by Friebe and Lobo is apparent when it comes to making an income. Money is important to survive, Station Rose admits, but it should not be taken too seriously: “The way we work is completely our own choice.”
The two artists understand the digital Boheme as a 24 hour lifestyle opposed to a 9-5 job, and they embrace influences and ideas from all times of human existence, consciously “sampling” earlier ways of life. They see a certain “chaotic consciousness” as a requirement for becoming a digital Bohemian, and with that they embrace many ideas of early web pioneers, hackers and inventors.
Whatever you think of this, I believe it is the broadness and certain nuttiness of the Station Rose approach that the model of Friebe and Lobo lacks. Still, both of them have valuable lessons to teach: New forms of work and life cannot be created theoretically on a drawing-board, but have to be experienced within existing conditions. Ignoring the system instead of trying to fight it while building an alternative is more sustainable, and in the long run probably more successful. Adopting new and old forms of life and work, remixing them as you see fit, and always putting freedom and creativity above anything else is the beginning of embracing a digital Bohemian lifestyle. But then, free love, absinthe and merriment shouldn’t be dropped too fast in the attempt of exploiting the resale value of a romanticized image, or the digital Boheme wouldn’t be more than hollow marketing gag.
Experimenting with new forms of life and work is fun and fulfilling. More than just a catchy phrase, the digital Boheme could be a wonderful model for that.
A version of this article was published in New Escapologist, the Bohemias issue. Get a copy here.
Holm Friebe and Sascha Lobo: Wir nennen es Arbeit: Die digitale Boheme oder: Intelligentes Leben jenseits der Festanstellung, Heyne (Germany), 2006. [↩]
- Hell yeah, we do! [↩]
- Lobo actually goes so far to include eBay powersellers. This is certainly in line with his web worker concept, but is it Bohemian? Mind you, these powersellers live in semidetached houses in the hinterland, have 2.3 children and drive a Renault Kangoo. If this is the digital Boheme, then my conservative grandmother is an old-hippie. [↩]
- Disclaimer: Lobo is also a pretty brilliant web commentator in Germany. [↩]