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. 🙂

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.

Defining society: the anthropologist’s dilemma

Paul Raven @ 10-08-2010

Keith Hart think’s he’s uncovered anthropolgy’s biggest challenge, and the issue that’s hampering its progress as a science: defining the word ‘society’ in a way that makes sense for the times we live in.

I believe that humanity is caught precariously in transition between two notions of where society is located, the nation-state and the world. The dominance of the former in the 20th century fed the ethnographic revolution in anthropology which, rather than following the needs of colonial empire as is commonly assumed, was in fact an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity. The centrality of the state to such a concept of nation was negated by the study of stateless societies in these terms.

Clearly world society is not yet a fact in the same sense as its principal predecessor. But the need to make a world society fit for all humanity to live in is urgent for many reasons that I don’t need to spell out. Retention of ethnography (which first emerged in Central Europe to serve a nation-building project) as our main professional model has made most of us apologists for a fragmented and static vision of the human predicament, reinforcing a rejection of world history that amounts to nothing less than, “Stop the world, I want to get off”. We no longer study exotic rural places in isolation from history, but, in abandoning that exclusive preoccupation, we have failed to bring the object, theory and method of anthropology up to date.

Note the similarities to concerns about the nation-state as dominant identifier coming from all sorts of other disciplines (as frequently documented on this ‘ere blog, among other places). Nationality is increasingly coming to be seen as the hollow sham it has always been. Think about it: the problem with identifying with a nation is that you’re identifying with nothing more than a word and a piece of multicoloured cloth. The ideological continuity that nationality implies is a complete fiction: if I’m “proud to be English”, am I proud of the same things Churchill would have held dear? Is it the citizens of England I identify with, or its values and laws, or even the physical ground itself, that territory which is no longer the map? None of these things are constants; they are different now to how they were a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago. No one chose where to be born… so why this fanaticism for a fluke of geography and childhood survival statistics? You don’t see people born on a Wednesday singing anthems about the wonderfulness and well-earned superiority of Wednesdays, do you?

“England” (or “America”, or “China”, or or or… ) is a hollow word, and the vacuum at its heart is easily filled by people with agendas that have nothing to do with bringing people together. You don’t bring people together by labelling them, by gathering them beneath a banner; that’s the definition of segregation. Nationality is at best meaningless, and at worst extremely dangerous. Nationality is apartheid.  It’s an idea that makes no logical sense in a networked world, where geography increasingly constrains only your individual access to physical resources. Until we get past the idea of ‘society’ being something to which we may belong, but to which some (most!) other humans do not, solutions to all our most pressing problems as a species will continue to elude us.

My two cents, there. 🙂