Globalisation=liquefaction: stream citizenship

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2011

Venkatesh Rao puts his finger on a pervasive but little-studied harbinger of post-geographical citizenship: the stream.

For most of the last decade, Israeli soldiers have been making the transition back to civilian life after their compulsory military service  by going on a drug-dazed recovery trip to India, where an invisible stream of modern global culture runs from the beaches of Goa to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in the north.  While most of the Israelis eventually return home after a year or so, many have stayed as permanent expat stewards of the stream. The Israeli military stream is changing course these days, and starting to flow through Thailand, where the same pattern of drug-use and conflict with the locals is being repeated.

This pattern of movement among young Israelis is an example of what I’ve started calling a stream. A stream is not a migration pattern, travel in the usual sense, or a consequence of specific kinds of work that require travel (such as seafaring or diplomacy). It is a sort of slow, life-long communalnomadism, enabled by globalization and a sense of shared transnational social identity within a small population.

I’ve been getting increasingly curious about such streams. I have come to believe that though small in terms of absolute numbers (my estimate is between 20-25 million worldwide), the stream citizenry of the world shapes the course of globalization. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that streams provide the indirect staffing for the processes of modern technology-driven globalization. They are therefore a distinctly modern phenomenon, not to be confused with earlier mobile populations they may partly resemble.

Here’s a couple of items from his list of characterizing features:

2: Partial subsumption: Streams subsume the lives of their citizens more strongly than more diffuse population movements, but less strongly than focused intentional communities like the global surfing community. There is a great deal more variety and individual variation. In particular, there is no solidarity around grand ideologies in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.  In this, streams differ from nation-states, even though they provide something of an alternative organizational scheme. Not only is the subsumption at about a middling level at any given point in time, it varies in intensity throughout life, being particularly weak early and late in life.

4: Exclusionary communality: streams provide a great deal of social support to those who are eligible to join and choose to do so, but are highly exclusionary with respect to very traditional variables like race, ethnicity and gender. The exclusionary nature of streams is not self-adopted, but a consequence of the fact that streams pass through multiple host cultures.  A shared social identity in one host culture may splinter in another, while distinct ones may be conflated in unwanted ways.  So only relatively tightly-circumscribed social identities can survive these forces intact.

11: Direct connection to globalization: In a sense, the notion of “stream” I am trying to construct is a generalization of the Internet-enabled lifestyle designer, which I think is much too narrow. But streams are definitely a modern phenomenon, and owe their capacity for stable existence to some connection with the infrastructure of globalization. The Internet is the major one for the creative class, but anything from container shipping to the Chimerica manufacturing trade to the globalized high-rise construciton industry qualifies.

Finally, a deliberately incomplete list of examples:

  1. The Israeli stream
  2. The Indo-US technology stream
  3. Eat-Pray-Love [“self-discovery”/early-mid-life-crisis tourism – PGR]
  4. Tibetian expats
  5. Americans camping out in Eastern Europe for several years
  6. Mainland Americans moving to Hawaii to set up what appears to be an economy based entirely on yoga studios
  7. Lifestyle designers converging on Thailand and Bali

I’m going to avoid appending any of my own waffle here, partly because I’m not immediately sure what value or utility this concept has to my own thinking (though I instinctively see it’s something I need to pay attention to), and partly because I’m madly busy preparing for my first day at grad-school tomorrow. So go read the whole thing… and if you reckon you can call out any other streams or poke holes in Rao’s theory, please do so, either in the comments there or the comments here. 🙂

More calls for web citizenship, plus precedents

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

In light of the internet’s inescapable role in the Egyptian revolution*, Stowe Boyd is the latest pundit to suggest some sort of post-national citizenship-of-the-intertubes set-up, which is something we’ve discussed here in recent months. Boyd cites the precedent of the Knights of Malta, which is a UN-recognised nation-without-a-nation that issues its own passports and everything; riffing on their remit, his initial conception of the United States of Intarwub is a bit wishy-washy, though it has noble ideals at heart:

Perhaps we should structure an equivalent organization — directed toward saving the planet, perhaps — and centered on a religious military order dedicated to Gaia: the belief that the world is a living whole, that she and all her parts need to be protected from those that would destroy her, and that the place of greatest freedom and promise on Earth today is the web and the culture we are building there.

The Knights Of Gaia is a bit over the top. [ O RLY? – PGR. ] But, taking on the metaphor of the web as the Eighth Continent, I suggest The Eighth Continent Contingent. Perhaps we need to actually hold a continental congress? And truly, collectively, declare our independence, and create a constitution?

Yeah, it’s a little bit crazy… but last time I looked at the firehose of global news, the world was looking pretty damned crazy as well. Desperate times, and all that.

Reading about the Knights of Malta reminded me of another precedent, albeit an agit-prop-art version that never achieved (nor, I suspect, ever sought) official recognition. I’m thinking of Laibach, the controversial Slovenian art collective; best known for their subversive and provocative faux-totalitarian imagery (and a distinctly Teutonic flavour of sludgy industrial music, which was an acknowledged influence on the much better-known Rammstein), the art collective of which they are the musical wing, the NSK, went through a stage of issuing passports to anyone who’d stump up the cash… a service for which they apparently still receive numerous enquiries, especially from African citizens. While NSK’s intent was/is to provoke a questioning of the meaning and legitimacy of the nation-state (especially the hypernationalist nation-states of Eastern Europe in the late 20th Century), from our vantage point here at the beginning of the Twentyteens, they’re looking more than a little prescient.

Walden3.0, or “why can’t we be citizens of the internet?”

Paul Raven @ 10-12-2010

Yeah, I know the versioning-suffix gag went stale in 2008, but I think it fits here. Two posts where people think aloud about post-geographical communities; the first is from Ian “Cat” Vincent, who wants to be considered a citizen of the internet (emphases mine):

I do not trust the government of the country of my birth. I do not feel any loyalty to them, or any other country, whatsoever. At best, I see them as an especially powerful mafia I have to kowtow to and buy services from. The closest thing to patriotism I have ever felt is to the Internet.

So, why can’t I take Internet as my nationality?


My own country’s government – run by a weak coalition government which is acting like they have a landslide mandate – is cutting vital services to the poor and disadvantaged to pay for deficits caused by their banking pals’ having been caught running the largest Ponzi scheme in human history… and their representatives have the gall to blame those poor and disadvantaged for the financial mess. Students are taking to the streets in protest. They are not my rulers, except by virtue of monopoly of violence and general habit.

When we’re at the point where The Economist refers to Anonymous as “a 24-hour Athenian democracy” I think it’s time to at least consider the idea.


Citizenship implies abiding by, and contributing to, a social contract. Doing Your Bit. I have to tell you I’m far happier doing that for the internet than for any state. It’s rules, customs and rituals make more intuitive sense to me than any state I have ever heard of. And yes, I would cheerfully give up my right to vote in the UK and EU for the rights and responsibilities of Internet Citizenship. (Dear David Cameron – that’s what a Big Society really fucking means.)

I am completely with Vincent on pretty much everything in that post… which will come as no surprise to regular readers, I suppose. But I’m sure we’re not alone, even if the urge to join a community where one feels one truly belongs may express itself a little differently. Jeremiah Tolbert:

I never seem to have much trou­ble find­ing com­mu­nity online.  This year, my com­mu­nity online seems to be cen­tered around Twitter.  I have some qualms about hav­ing my major sense of belong­ing tied to some­thing that is lim­ited to 130 char­ac­ters at a time, but it does work.  And when you work from home alone day in, day out, hav­ing some way of feel­ing like you’re not alone is help­ful.   Twitter fills that role for me now.  In the long run, I would like a “real world” com­mu­nity to belong to—something Rockwellian, only full of artists and cre­atives maybe. John Joseph Adams and I have talked sev­eral times about his notion of Geektopia—a com­mu­nity pop­u­lated entirely by geeks who relo­cate to cre­ate a com­mu­nity of their own.   If such a place existed—I would seri­ously con­sider mov­ing there.  We’ve been eye­balling the parts of the coun­try where you can get free land.   Problem is, build­ing an entire town from scratch costs mil­lions.  So until we get some mil­lion­aire back­ing the idea, it will remain a pipe dream.  But it’s one that I would love to see become a real­ity.  Some day.

Until then, the inter­net is my com­mu­nity, for bet­ter and worse.

I suspect Jeremy’s not alone in feeling that way… and think about it: if an increasing number of people dissatisfied with the meatspace communities available to them all flock to the internet – which is, as if we needed reminding, a non-dimensional space largely defined by its proliferation of tools for community-building and its corrosive effect on geography – they’re in the best possible position to start building and planning a world that runs on their own terms.

And I suspect that’s exactly why the deep implications of the Wikiwars are so terrifying to authoritarians and nation-states; it’s the same reason the beech tree fears the ivy.

Climate change, ghost states and conceptual territory

Paul Raven @ 02-10-2009

Tuvalu - here today, gone tomorrow?Warren Ellis flagged up a Guardian article about another of my perennial obsessions, the shaky future of nation-states. What happens to a nation-state when the territory it occupies disappears?

Francois Gemenne, of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, said the likely loss of small island states such as Tuvalu and the Maldives raised profound questions over nationality and territory.

What would happen if a state was to physically disappear but people want to keep their nationalities? It could continue as a virtual state even though it is a rock under the ocean and its people no longer live on that piece of land.

Gemenne said there was more at stake than cultural and sentimental attachments to swamped countries. Tuvalu makes millions of pounds each year from the sale of its assigned internet suffix .tv to television companies. As a nation state, the Polynesian island also has a vote on the international stage through the UN.

“As independent nations they receive certain rights and privileges that they will not want to lose. Instead they could become like ghost states,” he said. “This is a pressing issue for small island states, but in the case of physical disappearance there is a void in international law.”

I’d suggest it’s not just climate change that could cause ghost-states – surely the Tibetan government-in-exile is something of a ghost-state, also, and conflicts like the Russian invasion of Georgia could lead to glove-puppet states whose citizens are pretty much disenfranchised by political machinations beyond their control.

As the old saying goes, the map is not the territory – and this will become more true as time goes by. Will corporations offer a more attractive package of rights to ghost-state citizens than other nations? As climate change refugeeism increases (and on the assumption that the consequential increase in immigration and asylum-seeking will tend to make richer nations raise their borders rather than lower them, unless they see immigration as a solution to a greying population), I think it’s safe to assume that they might. [image by mrlins]

The proliferation of pirate micronations (like smaller versions of the Raft from Snow Crash, perhaps, bypassing the need for physical territory by way of mobility and/or the colonisation of interstitial territories, be they land- or ocean-based) seems inevitable.

New Aussie drinking game – “spot the wetback”

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2009

Texas-Mexico border fenceHere’s an odd twist on crowdsourcing; the publicly-accessible cameras along the Texas-Mexico border have attracted amateur border guards from a number of the southern states… and beyond. In fact, it seems to be quite the international pastime:

So far, more than 100,000 web users have signed up online to become virtual border patrol deputies, according to Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, which represents 20 counties where illegal crossings and drugs and weapons smuggling are rife.

“We had folks send an email saying, in good Australian fashion, ‘Hey mate, we’ve been watching your border for you from the pub in Australia’,” he said.

Not everyone is quite so impressed, however, especially considering the system’s cost measured against its successes:

Opponents have dismissed the project as “the perfect Google border” and say the cameras do little to deter criminal activity. “Border security deserves trained professionals, not pub-goers in Perth,” said Eliot Shapleigh, a state senator from El Paso, Texas, who claims that the programme has resulted in only a handful of arrests. “It’s wholly ineffective for the governor’s stated goal of security, it panders to extremists for political purposes and it’s not an effective use of $2m for just three apprehensions.”

One has to wonder whether all the people who’ve signed up to watch the border are sincerely interested in reporting transgressions rather than turning a blind eye to them; the barriers to entry are pretty low, after all, and not everyone wants to take America’s side these days. [image by Daquella manera]

But what interests me most about this story is that it seems to highlight one of my current obsessions, namely the fragmentation of nation-states into parts that borders on a map just can’t represent. If an Australian is voluntarily watching a piece of land at the edge of Texas (which, a long time back, was part of Mexico) to make sure that no Mexicans (or Guatemalans or Hondurans or anyone else) cross that fence-line, could he not be considered a temporary US citizen? Or is he merely a form of contractor, or neither?

Think about it – to enforce a geographical boundary, the US is using tools that contribute to the ongoing erasure of geography; meanwhile, non-citizens on the other side of the globe do work that a citizen would need to be security-screened for… and do it for free, or for kudos. What does being a citizen actually mean, beyond defining who you pay your taxes to? Where does citizenship actually take place – on the ground, in our own minds, or in the network of mutual assumptions that we call society?

Isn’t it possible that one day that one way to cross the conceptual border of the US and become a citizen thereof would be to have spent a considerable amount of time and effort ensuring that other people didn’t cross the geographical border?

[26/03/09 – Note: it has been brought to my attention that the term ‘wetback’ is a lot more fundamentally racist than I – unused to some of the subtleties of US slang – initially thought; had I thought it referred to anything more than person who attempts to cross the Rio Grande, I wouldn’t have used it, and I’d like to apologise for any offence caused.]