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.

The fate of the post-geographical nation-state

Paul Raven @ 08-12-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, a reiteration of a question we’ve asked here beforeif a tiny nation-state’s territories are wiped out by climate change, such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, what becomes of that nation-state as a political and social entity?

What happens if the 61,000 Marshallese must abandon their low-lying atolls? Would they still be a nation? With a U.N. seat? With control of their old fisheries and their undersea minerals? Where would they live, and how would they make a living? Who, precisely, would they and their children become?


“We’re facing a set of issues unique in the history of the system of nation-states,” Dean Bialek, a New York-based adviser to the Republic of the Marshall Islands who is also in Cancun, told The Associated Press. “We’re confronting existential issues associated with climate impacts that are not adequately addressed in the international legal framework.”

This is probably the very thinnest thin end of the wedge, too. Sadly for the Marshallese and others like them, it won’t be until similar issues start hitting bigger nations that the legal framework will be looked at; until then, the transition from citizen to unrepresented and unprotected climate refugee will become increasingly ubiquitous, and noticed only by the majority – by us – as a steady increase of blank and desperate faces in the internment camps at the border.

We’ve made our bed, but we’re making the servants lie in it first.

The end of geography

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

Dovetailing neatly with discussions of Wikileaks and Anonymous, here’s a piece at Prospect Magazine that reads the last rights rites for geography as the dominant shaper of human history [via BigThink]. The West won’t be the best forever, y’know:

The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.

Yet the west’s head start in agriculture some 12,000 years ago does not tell us everything we need to know. While geography does explain history’s shape, it does not do so in a straightforward way. Geography determines how societies develop; but, simultaneously, how societies develop determines what geography means.


As can see from the past, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means—and all the signs are that, in the 21st century, the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking, and the greatest challenges we face—nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water shortages—are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history, then, is that by the time the west is no longer the best, the question may have ceased to matter very much.

Amen. It’d be nice if we could get past our current stage of global socialisation, which might be best compared to a group of people sat in a leaking boat arguing over who should do the most bailing.

Wikileaks and Anonymous

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

There are a few things worth noting about the latest Wikileaks document-dump, the first and most obvious being how utterly unsurprising (though still deeply saddening) the contents were; for me at least (and I suspect for many others) it’s more of a confirmation of long-held suspicions than anything else.

The second is the reaction from the US and UK governments, which have focussed on the supposed risk to military personnel that the leaks will create; we heard that warning last time, too, and it turned out to be hollow. But it’s proving a very effective distraction to career journalists and their readers, most of whom have overlooked one very telling fact – namely that the aforementioned governments have made no attempt to claim the leaked documents are false. “OK, so we lied… but we were doing it to protect you!” Oh. That has worked out well, hasn’t it?

Thirdly is an observation from Mike Masnick of TechDirt, who compares Wikileaks with everyone’s favourite internet-prankster boogiepersons, Anonymous. The common themes are that they’re both products of our newly-networked era, and that they’re both being underestimated by the very powers that they most threaten.

I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

And yes, there’s a smattering of self-aggrandisement on my part here, because I made a similar suggestion back in July:

It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

Nowadays I flinch from making bold statements about profound change, but I find it very hard not to look at distributed post-geographical movements like Wikileaks and Anonymous and not see something without historical precedent. Whether it will last (let alone succeed in toppling the old hierarchies) is an open question that I’d not want to gamble on just yet, but what’s pretty much undeniable is that the nation-state is under attack by a virus for which its immune system has no prepared response.

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