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:
- The Israeli stream
- The Indo-US technology stream
- Eat-Pray-Love [“self-discovery”/early-mid-life-crisis tourism – PGR]
- Tibetian expats
- Americans camping out in Eastern Europe for several years
- Mainland Americans moving to Hawaii to set up what appears to be an economy based entirely on yoga studios
- 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. 🙂