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. 🙂


#bordertown: The Canonical City

Paul Raven @ 26-09-2011

“We all like to congregate at boundary conditions. Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where bodies meet mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other” – Douglas Adams

***

Perhaps the concept of the border goes right back to the most basic bits of biology. Imagine yourself in the primordial soup of a young Earth, and look around: barring the physical limits of the sea itself as it thrashes against rocks (which in this instance counts as the edge of the perceivable universe, beyond which is beyond imagining), the only walls you can see are the cell membranes of the crudest lifeforms, each tiny critter an independent fiefdom of security and gathered resources, a little living city-state. And even here, even this early, we see the necessity of border permeability; food must be brought into the city for it to survive, so the walls must allow for that passage, as well as for the expulsion of the toxic and unwanted.

Some evolutionary biologists hypothesise that the earliest stages of single-celled life consisted of symbiotic mergers. It might well be that mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally independent bacterial lifeforms that finagled themselves through the walls and into the security of one of those little city-states, wherein they discovered that their own unique abilities would improve the lot of their adopted home; there we have the hopeful narrative of the economic migrant, born before even the first multicellular lifeforms.

Chloroplast 12000x

And what a border the surface of the sea must have been to the first creatures to contemplate it – as challenging, unassailable and inhospitable as the border between the atmospheric envelope of Earth and outer space seems to us now, if not more so. We’re drawn to borders, challenged by them, inspired or intimidated by them. They are a function of our sense of identity, a mapping of ourselves onto the world around us. We understand their necessity, and yet we dream of transgression, of the meadow on the far side; the grass is always greener in the other guy’s stash.

The work of British science fiction author Chris Beckett is full of explorations of that contradictory tension between manning the city walls and sneaking through the postern gate, in either direction (because to leave the city is only to enter another territory). As climate change, post-growth economics and the inevitable evisceration of the nation-state make a mockery of map and territory alike, the questions he asks will only become more relevant.*

***

Given its harrowing history, it seems almost inconceivable that you could meet a Berliner who resented the loss of the Wall. And while no one but a last lingering few folk with a hard-on for the authoritarianism of the past (so much less subtle and velvet-gloved than that of today) would ever wish for a return to the oppression and hypocrisy that the Wall symbolised and enforced, it doesn’t take a long stay in that fine city for you to encounter the symptoms of a nostalgia for division. It’s probably clearest (and most commercially viable) at the level of aesthetics; there was a successful campaign to resist the replacement of East Berlin’s distinctive Ampelmännchen walk/don’t-walk signage characters, for instance, and – much as in any major city – the tourism industry makes money from tying ribbons around things dug up from the boneyard of the not-so-distant past. Sepia photography, the patina of age… these things have an authenticity that we find to be rare in the altermodern swirl of our mediated lives, an authenticity we seek to overlay on our experiences here at the cutting edge of time.

Conrad Schumann

(I can get an infinitely reproducible copy [reproduced from Wikipedia under Fair Use terms; please contact for takedown if required] of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home. Geography has a residual emotional power, even when we think it doesn’t, or shouldn’t… and time is just another dimension of the map.)

But I encountered a different, deeper sense of loss among the Berliners I met – a contradictory thing that baffled (and sometimes angered) people as they tried to explain it to me across the pocked no-man’s-land between our native languages. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that I have misinterpreted what I was being told, of course, but the sense I got was that while no one misses the cruel and arbitrary physical schism of the city, they miss the sense of unity that the schism gave them. Berlin was once united in its hatred of the Wall; as such the Wall became a huge part of Berlin’s sense of identity. The euphoria that accompanied its dismantling is long gone, leaving behind the unscratchable itch of a once-hated phantom limb. Formerly united by their division, Berliners are now divided in their responses to their unity; their discussions of contemporary civic politics now include the same gripes about zoning, gentrification, class and race as any other big European city, but there’s always an underlying sense that, even if the Wall was a horror, it at least made things simple: you always knew where you stood, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be stood there.

Graffiti on the Berlin "death strip"

***

China Miéville’s novel The City & The City reminded readers of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and many other brutally divided territories, past and present; indeed, the ease with which the book could map onto the politics of postmodernity is a testament to Mieville’s powerful command of metaphor. But there is a crucial difference: Miéville’s twin cities share the same physical space, and for the most part there is no physical or material obstacle between one city and the other. Indeed, the mapping of the two cities – and the necessity of unseeing the city that you do not belong to, and all the people in it, despite them sharing the street or building or park with you – is entirely the work of the citizens themselves. Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, at least in the crudest architectural sense, but their mutual invisibility is rigorously policed and enforced.

Miéville strongly yet politely resists attempts to canonise any single reading or interpretation of his books, but given the inescapable facts of his staunchly Marxist politics and life-long love for England’s ancient capital city, we can make an interesting case for TC&TC as a model of a schismatic London – the same class-riven metropolis that erupted in riots earlier this year. (I can’t take credit for that interpretation, though it was astonishingly obvious in hindsight after I saw it made by Owen Hatherley, who himself saw it made by a commenter elsewhere.)

Anti-cuts Riot in London

As Hatherley and others have noted, Paris has long had “no-go” underclass neighbourhoods prone to violent car-burning unrest, but they are geographical outliers, their inmates unable to easily attack anything other than the squalor that surrounds them. For more reasons than one could ever list – historical, political, economic – London is marbled with strata of class, the privileged living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. Physical borders would be impractical, expensive… and so Londoners soon learn to unsee those places and citizens who do not belong to their own city. (The same doubtless applies to many British cities, including my own hometown of Portsmouth, which has been so often described as a Northern industrial city that somehow ended up in the South that no one knows who said it first; I dare say it applies in many other countries, too. We’ll notice which ones, soon enough; keep an eye on the headlines.)

There are streets you don’t walk, shops you don’t use, pubs you don’t drink in, people you don’t acknowledge; the borders are powerful, and they cascade down to the scale of individual citizens in fractal complexity, but they only exist only in the collective, by an unspoken consensus. When enough decide to abandon or defy that consensus, a liberating permeability offers itself, and the underlying fragility of the city-as-system is laid bare, its viscera exposed, twitching in the dirt of the street like the victim of a Ballardian mugging. Within the city are many cities, interwoven or entangled, sometimes at detente, sometimes at war; an organism so complex and poorly understood that, as medicines for the body civic, contemporary politics and economics look little more rational than leeching and the balancing of bodily humours. If we have a long-term future as a species, the city will be an ever-larger part thereof; its diseases must be studied, lest we treat only the symptoms while we watch the patient die.

***

STONER KITTAH

Cats are territorial animals, but their conception of territory is four-dimensional. Where a dog works on the theory that its back yard is always its back yard, accessible only to pack-mates (of whatever species, honorary or otherwise), cats make allowances for their greater ability to get past physical obstacles by timesharing their favourite locations. That spot on the corner of the garage roof might be a young tom’s turf until the midday sun makes it more desirable, at which point it becomes the fiefdom of the local bruiser; as the sun moves on, so does the boss, and the residual warmth gets soaked up by someone else; then, at 3am, the whole breadth of the roof might become a hybrid of nightclub, knocking shop and backyard fight venue.

It’s a lot like the way we share cities, isn’t it?

***

Donning our speculative techno-urbanist hats for a moment, we can assume that once augmented reality navigates its way rightwards across the Gartner hype cycle and gains widespread adoption, the post-geographic schisming of physical space will become even more normal, with Miéville’s metaphorical act of unseeing becoming one component of a multitude of possible layered maps of the city. Offended by rotting Brutalism, or the glistening thrust of postmodern monstrosities in the heart of the city? Then choose a layer where they do not exist, and never see them again. Do the same with the homeless, or the rich; choose to swap the iconic London buses for steam-driven robot elephants, or to swap brown skins for a lighter (or a darker) shade; see the city of the Reformation as Sam Pepys would have seen it, bumbling down a side-street to some secret assignation; see the Londons of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels, or Ballard’s Drowned World, or Moore’s From Hell; see a city, see any city, see every city. Geography is just the screen, the Canonical City, the hardware on which we run the software of urban life: we project the city on to it, drawing our borders in the gaps as instinctively as we draw the line between me and you, between Us and Other.

A metaphor too far? I disagree; I’ve seen and participated in layerings of exactly that sort in my own home town over the years, and I expect the same happens wherever people may be found – but the complexity of manifestation is a function of population. The layers are cultural, and they’re spooled out in realtime on the wetware between our ears. My city is not the same as your city.

Albert Road

When I walk down Albert Road, nominal main drag of Portsmouth’s unevenly distributed bohemian quarter (as in London, geographical constraints to expansion have led to a patchwork demography), my cultural affiliations and long period of residence determine the things I notice most: the second-hand bookstores; that flat-above-a-shop where I once DJ’d to a full room at 5am on a summer morning in 1996 before the police turned up and impounded the sound system; that guy sat eating lunch by the window of Little Johnny Russell’s, who was in a band that a friend once played bass for; the plastic nick-nacks and Spongebob lunchboxes in the window of Passionfish, one of the few indie stores that’s been a going concern since before I moved here, and which has employed at least a dozen of my friends; and of course the Wedgewood Rooms, the music venue that has employed and entertained a hefty tranche of P-town bohemians over two and a half decades.

Each journey I take has different highlights of attention, of course, but to a tourist passing through on their way to the historic dockyards or the Gunwharf “shopping experience”, it’s just a narrow and somewhat grubby strip of pubs and takeaways, devoid of places to park. Perception is reality. My Albert Road – our Albert Road! – is not your Albert Road, but all the Albert Roads – actual, virtual, fictional, possible – are anchored to that same physical space. You can’t touch the borders, can’t spray your name on them, but you can see them if you sidle up to them just right: try dressing a tad too metrosexual on beer’n’curry Wednesdays at The King’s Arms, maybe, or elbowing your way to the bar of the One Eyed Dog at 10pm on a Friday night while wearing a Square Mile suit.

Oi!

That sharp hard glint of who-the-fuck-are-you in the eyes of the other customers?

That’s your border, right there.

***

For every wall we build in the world, we build one that matches in our hearts.

***

* In the interests of full disclosure, Chris Beckett is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his writing before that was the case.

With the exception of the Conrad Schumann image (which I ganked unashamedly from Wikipedia) the above images are linked to their originals as found on Flickr. The London riot cops were found using the indispensable Compfight search engine; some are my own, and the rest are by my good friend and erstwhile bandmate Rusty Sheriff.


A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2011

This is a rather excellent essay, and you should go and read it. With all the normal I-am-not-an-economist caveats, Venkatesh Rao’s reading of post-Enlightenment history in terms of the rise and fall of the concept of the corporation is powerful stuff, and – unlike a lot of economics material I’ve read recently – it actually manages to look beyond tomorrow afternoon, albeit with a certain amount of shrugging (I’d much rather have someone admit they’re not sure how something’s going to pan out than dress up a guess as a given). It clocks in at over 7k words (!) so you’ll wanna set aside some time to read the whole thing; I suspect that even those among you who’ll disagree with some of Rao’s mappings will still find plenty of stuff to think about.

But hey, this is Futurismic, and we’re all about the hand-picked excerpts, so here’s a teaser that makes it clear that not only are today’s rapacious and out of control corporations nothing new, but that they’re also pussycats compared to their historical forebears:

The [East India Company] was the original too-big-to-fail corporation. The EIC was the beneficiary of the original Big Bailout. Before there was TARP, there was the Tea Act of 1773 and the Pitt India Act of 1783. The former was a failed attempt to rein in the EIC, which cost Britain the American Colonies.  The latter created the British Raj as Britain doubled down in the east to recover from its losses in the west. An invisible thread connects the histories of India and America at this point. Lord Cornwallis, the loser at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the revolutionary war, became the second Governor General of India in 1786.

But these events were set in motion over 30 years earlier, in the 1750s. There was no need for backroom subterfuge.  It was all out in the open because the corporation was such a new beast, nobody really understood the dangers it represented. The EIC maintained an army. Its merchant ships often carried vastly more firepower than the naval ships of lesser nations. Its officers were not only not prevented from making money on the side, private trade was actually a perk of employment (it was exactly this perk that allowed William Jardine to start a rival business that took over the China trade in the EIC’s old age).  And finally — the cherry on the sundae — there was nothing preventing its officers like Clive from simultaneously holding political appointments that legitimized conflicts of interest. If you thought it was bad enough that Dick Cheney used to work for Halliburton before he took office, imagine if he’d worked there while in office, with legitimate authority to use his government power to favor his corporate employer and make as much money on the side as he wanted, and call in the Army and Navy to enforce his will. That picture gives you an idea of the position Robert Clive found himself in, in 1757.

He made out like a bandit. A full 150 years before American corporate barons earned the appellation “robber.”

Rao’s thesis here is that the corporation – in terms of its power and influence – is actually entering its twilight years as we hit the limits of certain forms of economic growth; as such, I guess we have to view the recent banking crises as one last desperate – and rather savage – grasp for power and influence over a changing world. I certainly hope he’s right… though his concept of “Coasean growth” probably won’t be as appealing a replacement for the status quo for others as it is for me.


Grasping around for a new enemy: Pentagon redefines hacking as act of warfare

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2011

So, with OBL offed and Al Qaida effectively beheaded (as if it hadn’t already been waning considerably in its ability to achieve anything of note), the defence budget of the US needs a new enemy to justify its continued expansion. But no one with sense would start an old-school land war these days (missions of liberation and the insurgencies they provoke are an entirely different category, of course), so what is there that merits a bit of saber-rattling?

“People we don’t like who also have nukes or are trying to get them” is a hardy perennial, but most of them have gathered enough friends (or mutual enemies-of-their-enemy) that it’s getting hard to make anyone care other than the lapdog allies over on Airstrip One. Something current, scary and poorly-understood would be ideal… something like the nebulous and poorly-defined notion of “cyberwarfare”, perhaps?

The Pentagon’s first formal cyber strategy, unclassified portions of which are expected to become public next month, represents an early attempt to grapple with a changing world in which a hacker could pose as significant a threat to U.S. nuclear reactors, subways or pipelines as a hostile country’s military.

In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” said a military official.

Recent attacks on the Pentagon’s own systems—as well as the sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear program via the Stuxnet computer worm—have given new urgency to U.S. efforts to develop a more formalized approach to cyber attacks. A key moment occurred in 2008, when at least one U.S. military computer system was penetrated. This weekend Lockheed Martin, a major military contractor, acknowledged that it had been the victim of an infiltration, while playing down its impact.

The report will also spark a debate over a range of sensitive issues the Pentagon left unaddressed, including whether the U.S. can ever be certain about an attack’s origin, and how to define when computer sabotage is serious enough to constitute an act of war. These questions have already been a topic of dispute within the military.

I expect that open-endedness is a feature rather than a bug, because it offers a great opportunity to put the great economic enemy in the frame: if China’s consolidating the stranglehold on your economy which your own foreign and fiscal policies practically begged them to begin, it’s time to puff up your chest and get stern with them commies! Don’t take it from me, though – here’s Thomas P M Barnett with a plainly-titled post at TIME: “According to new Pentagon cyber strategy, state-of-war conditions now exist between the US and China“. Ouch.

In other words, if you, Country C, take down or just plain attack what we consider a crucial cyber network, we reserve the right to interpret that as an act of war justifying an immediately “equivalent” kinetic response (along with any cyber response, naturally). If this new strategy frightens you, then you just might be a rational actor.

Theoretically, this means if you, Country C, hack and disable the net of crucial US installation X, America can fire missiles at your equivalent civilian or military installation (C)X. Of course, by responding to your “act of war,” we are initiating our own war response, meaning we’d need presidential approval to start the fireworks. But the key point is, by hacking something that we consider to be national security-sensitive, you leave yourself open to a state-of-war response from the United States at the time of its choosing, so be forewarned.

Which facilities fall into this “eye for an eye (or ear or . . .)” category? Naturally, America shouldn’t say, so as to keep Country C in the dark (the essence of deterrence), but putting us in the dark (take-down of an electric grid) is an obvious one cited in the WSJ piece. Again, theoretically, almost anything can be described as crucial on some national security scale (e.g., hack Monsanto in just the right way and maybe you put US food security at risk), because the small damage that you, Country C, choose to create in our nets might easily cascade into something far larger, so virtually any hack emanating from your networks puts you at risk for a US war response.

(I wonder what the reaction would be to an equivalent policy elsewhere? Let’s say – strictly hypothetically, of course – that Big Nation-state A is revealed to have funded and built some sort of infrastructural sabotage virus with the strict intent of targetting the facilities of Nation-state B; will the US fully understand Nation-state B declaring war on A, or will that be considered a disproportionate act by a rogue state? Guess it’ll depend on which of the two the Pentagon is more interested in keeping on-side.)

Seriously, though: when a pro-intervention pro-globalisation type like Barnett thinks this is a bad play, it’s got to be a real dick move:

This is an destabilizing step sideways in our security relationship with China: Beijing is being warned that its current and ongoing behavior can – at any time – be loosely interpreted as an act of war. Whatever situations or crises ensue, that handy rationale is now always sitting in the Pentagon’s back pocket, because I guarantee you, whenever big-war enthusiasts want to play that card, the Defense Department will be able to muster – at a moment’s notice – a long list of Chinese hacking attacks over the previous X hours/days/weeks/months. So when the President asks, “Do we have evidence that the Chinese are targeting us at this time for cyber-sabotage?” The answer will always be yes.

[…]

Bottom line? Strangelove has re-entered the Building.

That last line implies Strangelove ever left the building; I suspect he’s been stored in boardroom cupboards against the appropriate moment.

Deliberate or otherwise, the daftest thing here is that the Pentagon can grok that “cyberwarfare” is a threat, but doesn’t seem to entirely grok the fact that cyberwarfare doesn’t need to be a function of nation-state level decision-making. Indeed, the real threat is from non-nation-state actors, wherever they may be based. NATO seems wise to this, though, with the General Rapporteur issuing dire warnings to Anonymous, Wikileaks and their ilk:

Describing the rise of the group from its beginnings on internet picture message board 4chan, via campaigns against the Church of Scientology and, more recently, in support of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, the report continues: “Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership.”

The report goes on to lay out a stark warning to the group’s nameless participants:

“It remains to be seen how much time Anonymous has for pursuing such paths. The longer these attacks persist the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated and perpetrators persecuted.”

Well, good luck with that, folks. If you thought trying to tame countries full of warring factions whose only common ground was a desire to get shot of the meddling infidels was no picnic, declaring war on the fluid alliances and ad-hocracies of the intertubes is going to be a long and frustrating game of whack-a-mole which, I fully suspect, you have no chance of winning. After all, Anonymous doesn’t have anything you can aim a missile at, does it?


Declared Void

Paul Raven @ 28-03-2011

Declared Void - Carey Young

Carey Young, via This Isn’t Happiness. Offered without comment.


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