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. 🙂

How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Population Boom

Paul Raven @ 31-05-2011

Via MetaFilter, Foreign Policy points out that worrying about the environmental and economic effects of an increasing world population is a displacement activity that helps us Western developed-nation types avoid the real source of the shortages problems to come… namely ourselves.

Yes, threats to global sustainability are clear and present dangers. But the 10,760-fold increase in aluminum production reported by environmentalist Clive Ponting, or the 380-fold increase in oil production, or even the 24-fold increase in global GDP over the course of the last century isn’t driven by population growth. It is growing consumption per person that is the problem. And that, of course, is not the fault of Africans. The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people – GDP per capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high.  And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world’s population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning.

And from the same MeFi post, the wonderfully-monikered Rick Bookstaber suggests that the consumption-per-person problem might be about to hit a paradigm shift:

The real paradigm shift, or more like a paradigm drift, because it is slowly enveloping us, is that we are moving toward preferences and lifestyle where we will simply consume less. A lot less. Like improvements in efficiency, changes in tastes and preferences are nothing new, but this time is different.

I have already discussed this in previous posts on life in the experience machine and the world of smaller scale. In The Accidental Egalitarian I make the point that with the increased focus on technology – where we spend more and more of our time on our cell phone, doing emails, watching DVDs and surfing the web – there is less of a difference between how the super rich and the reasonably well off spend their time hour by hour during their typical days. The point of that post is that in practical terms the income gap is not as large as it might seem; that several orders of magnitude differences in income don’t make all that much difference in what these people do with their time. The point here is a corollary: those activities do not require much in the way of material consumption, and therefore not much in terms of commodities.

In The Technology-Driven Consumption Trap I argue that in the not-so-distant future the main items we will demand, beyond food, clothing and shelter, are “game systems” that approach the level of Nozick’s experience machine, allowing us to have the experience of being anyone we want, wherever we want (even in a world we have designed), accompanied by whomever we want, all in Realicta Immersion 3-D® with full sensory feedback.

Our demand for housing and transportation, two of the biggest commodity hogs, will be lower. McMansions will be totally passe. It should already be dawning on people that most all of our non-sleeping hours at home are spent in the kitchen and its adjacent family room. Living rooms and dining rooms are relics. When people internalize the fact that they spend most of their non-sleeping, non-bathroom, non-eating time in a ten by twelve foot space with their various experience machine prototypes, large homes will, by and large, go the way of cars with fins and chrome.

A rather market-Panglossian view of things, perhaps (especially coming from a guy who works for the Financial Stability Oversight Council at Washington – optimism must be more vital than oxygen in that office, I’m thinking), but I wouldn’t want to entirely discount the forces and pressures Bookstaber is talking about there, either. Perhaps the shift to a predominantly digital economy will change the way we define wealth… though as we continue down the path of urbanisation, excess living space is surely always going to remain a display for conspicuous consumption? (Insert Soylent Green reference here.)


Paul Raven @ 04-01-2010

It’s a new year, and we have new fiction at Futurismic once again, courtesy of a familiar face. We’ve published more stories by Jason Stoddard than any one other author, and if you can read White Swan and still wonder why that is… well, I don’t know what to tell you!

“White Swan” sees Jason taking on a different style and voice, and very successfully. It’s a tale of small bright hopes in a dark and difficult future, and a shining example of why optimistic sf doesn’t have to be unrealistic, trite or panglossian. Read and enjoy. 🙂

White Swan

by Jason Stoddard

The tiny room stinks of kid-sweat and puke, and greasy Portland rain, endless, rattles the thin plastic window. Little Beny thrashes in his narrow bed, clawing unseen monsters.

This is the hardest time, Lili Antila thinks.

Hardest because she knows Beny’s cries are echoing through the thin walls to reach his mother and father, who drip exhausted tears on screens bright with electronic hope. Hardest because this is when she always thinks, What if it doesn’t work this time? Hardest because it brings back gauze-wrapped memories of bright-lit hospital rooms and hard-faced doctors and soft sheets rough like sandpaper on her own changing skin–

Lili blinks back tears and turns to the wall, which is playing one of her favorite movies on a window not much bigger than her hand: Bad Girl. A black-and-white James Dunn is waxing on about his dream of owning a radio store. Lili knows what a radio store is. A physical location to house goods for sale, electronics so hopelessly primitive that they were not even interactive. She also knows it is a sad and impossible dream in the First Depression. The screen is smart enough to know this, and it displays the movie with no floaters, no contextual hints.

There is a scuffle of feet at the door. A polite noise. Lili waits for Freya to walk up behind her. She can feel Freya’s body heat in the chill room. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: WHITE SWAN by Jason Stoddard”

The socioeconomics of human longevity

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2009

generationsAlmost as if they timed it to coincide with the just-finished Singularity Summit, a group of medical researchers published a paper last week in the prestigious journal The Lancet which shows that life expectancy in Western nations is increasing steadily, alongside quality of life in those later years. The trend shows no signs of levelling off any time soon, leading other ageing experts to hypothesise that there may be no intrinsic cap on the human lifespan. [via NextBigFuture; image by technowannabe]

The Guardian picked up the same press release and ran with it, providing us with the increasingly common spectacle of regular journalists and scientists engaging in science fictional speculation:

Life expectancy is increasing so fast that half the babies born in 2007 will live to be at least 103, while half the Japanese babies born in the same year will reach the age of 107.

The bad news is that the ageing populations of rich countries such as the UK threaten to unbalance the population. It “poses severe challenges for the traditional social welfare state,” write Christensen and colleagues.

But they have a radical solution: young and old should work fewer hours a week. Over a lifetime, we would all spend the same total amount of time at work as we do now, but spread out over the years.

“The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income. The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work,” they write. “Redistribution would spread work more evenly across populations and over the ages of life. Individuals could combine work, education, leisure and child rearing in varying amounts at different ages.”

It is a theory that is beginning to receive “some preliminary attention”, the authors say, citing a study in the Science journal three years ago which suggested that shorter working weeks would help young people and increase western Europe’s flagging birth rate.

Shorter working weeks might further increase health and life expectancy, Christensen and colleagues write. But redistribution of work will not solve all the problems caused by a society with a large number of very old people. Beyond a certain point, the old will need younger people to look after them – although technology is likely to provide some help in advanced countries such as the UK.

The four-day week idea has been growing in strength ever since the markets nosedived about a year ago, and experiments indicate that it has lots of beneficial effects for both workers and their employers.

But once again we’re back to the issue of greying populations and sustainable reproductive rates, which looks like its going to be the meme of the season… thanks in no small part to the US healthcare debate, which – if you ignore the hot-air rhetoric and obfuscation on all sides – is largely about finding a fair way for the increasing number of elderly citizens to be supported by a diminishing number of younger workers. We’ve got no cause to feel smug on this side of the pond, either; free healthcare may be commonplace in Europe already, but it’s going to be just as stretched by demographic shifts as it will be in the States.

Europe: less people, mo’ problems?

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2009

Global population density mapLeading on neatly from Tom’s post about sustainable population growth is another New Scientist piece, which posits that Europe’s predicted decline in population will actually bring a whole raft of economic and infrastructural problems with it:

… look a little deeper, and the picture becomes more complicated. Decreasing population does not necessarily promise environmental benefits. The cost per head of population for infrastructure such as sewage systems or electricity supply increases when population numbers go down, making clean water and non-polluting energy even more expensive than they are today.

So can Europe overcome its demographic and ecological challenges at the same time? The solution might be found in a rarely discussed concept: demographic sustainability.

High population growth, such as that now taking place in many African countries, is not sustainable. But very low fertility rates are unsustainable too. It will be hard for countries with persistently low fertility to remain competitive, creative and wealthy enough to keep ahead of their country’s environmental challenges. What is needed is a middle ground.

A demographically sustainable Europe needs to have a stable or slowly shrinking population as the existing infrastructure operates most efficiently when the number of inhabitants remains fairly constant. What would it take to achieve this? At present, the average fertility rate in Europe is 1.5 children per woman, and in countries below this line there is an urgent need for family policies to encourage women to have more children. Countries with fertility rates above 1.8, including France, the UK and Sweden, do not need further pro-birth policies as immigration will fill the demographic gap.

I’m not going to contest the maths, but I think pro-birth policies will probably be unnecessary. Climate change is going to produce a whole lot of environmental refugees in the next few decades, and those countries with a declining birth rate could open their borders to them – two birds with one stone, if you will.

However, if those countries also happen to be the ones most paranoid about being “overrun” by immigrants, I guess it’s back to the government-sponsored Have More Kids campaigns… [awesome CGI population density map image by Arenamontanus]

[ For the record, I think that it behoves us as a sentient species to limit our population so as to best protect and sustain the environment that keeps us alive (and hence protect and sustain ourselves). However, sentience and sense have never directly proportional, and show little sign of becoming so any time soon… so I guess mitigating the fallout is the best plan in the meantime. ]

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