Imaginary Islands, Cybernetic Cannibals, and NEO TRIBES

My latest thoughts on community building, republished from Medium

Founding Myths

I was born on the island of Taiwan, and I currently reside on the island of Manhattan. Both are terra firma, hard and fast granite bedrock.

But I also inhabit imaginary islands: online groups, forums, and other virtual places which bring to mind the dated term, “cyberspace.” Here I commune with like-minded souls with shared interests.

Other imaginary islands exist in the physical realm, but they are ethereal and fleeting in time. Festivals and conferences bring together communities of shared interest for a set period of time. Then we disperse. We may reconvene after an interval or fork forever into smaller cells distributed around the world.

My fellow humans on these imaginary islands are neotribalists. We equally reject the rigidity of traditional tribalism as well as the isolation of industrial individualism.

We form imaginary islands as safe spaces for our freak flags to fly free. Imaginary islands are unbounded by physical distance, as we unite with others of mutual interest and shared spirit across geographies. We form archipelagos of fellowship across expanses. Our imaginary islands can be open to everyone or hidden to all but insiders.

The Truku (also known as the Taroko) people of Taiwan have a saying, “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” The Hawaiians have a related saying, “He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.” The land is a chief; man is its servant. These sayings reflect the indigenous worldview where the land owns the people and not the other way around.

But what happens when the “land” that we inhabit is virtual? What happens when we inhabit imaginary islands, shifting cartographies made up of networks andrhizomes in perpetual flux? We craft our communities, our imaginary islands, with intention. How do we belong to these artificial lands. How do our imaginary islands shape us and own us?

Tupi, or Not Tupi

To answer these questions, we will need new stories, new myths, and new truths. We need new stars to guide our way and to connect the far-flung archipelagos of our imaginary islands. We will need to construct new chimera: new combinations and reconfigurations, new ways of doing and of being.

We the neotribers, the inhabitants of imaginary islands, are like cybernetic cannibals, in the spirit of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto (Manifesto antropofágico).

We adapt, appropriate, and remix from a variety of cultural sources. One of the iconic lines of Andrade’s manifesto is “Tupi, or not to Tupi,” a linguistic pun that brings together references Shakespeare and to the Tupi indigenous peoples of Brazil.

In a discussion of cybernetic cannibalism, Lawrence Lessig explains:

we could describe it using modern computer terminology as kind of read-write culture. It’s a culture where people participate in the creation and in the re-creation of their culture. In that sense is read-write.

In this sense, as we are reading and writing our culture, we are terraforming the imaginary islands that we inhabit.

Lessig’s idea of a read-write culture echoes Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture:

For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

May the neotribes that we form aspire to be participatory cultures.

Dreamers and Doers

As neotribers, let us dream big but also stay rooted in pragmatism.

Bruce Lee taught us: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

This teaching echoes the motto Wakon-yōsai (和魂洋才 “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”) from Meiji-era Japan. The island nation had just emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation. It found itself vulnerable to Western colonialist powers with superior technology. The motto was an invocation to adopt new methodologies and new technologies while preserving a spirit that was authentic and grounded in “Japaneseness.”

Of course, there are many ways to critique and deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity, but the point I am trying to make is, how do we adopt or create new technologies and new ways of organizing ourselves that reflect the spirit to which we aspire?

The recently-departed activist Grace Lee-Boggs reminds us: “We need to grow our souls.” Activism and philosophy must work together in tandem.

Warnings

Back in 1977, Marshall McLuhan warned of the violent tribalism of the global village. He derided this tribalism for being “collective and without any individual consciousness.” But we have also seen that individualism taken to an extreme can lead to loneliness and alienation. May neotribes find a middle way in between these extremes.

We can learn from the new nationalisms like the Scottish and Catalan sovereignty movements. While they reject the status quo of the nation states in which they are currently a part, they simultaneously embrace a united Europe and membership in a larger international community. These are nationalisms with more open access to identity and belonging. They eschew the old violent tribalism of blood and soil. Neotribes aspire to be both grounded in the local and connected to the global.

We acknowledge that our blood is mixed, are cultures are mixed. Our destinies are intertwined.

When talking about neotribes, we must be careful not to fall into the old traps of neo-colonial “primitivism.” None of that “noble savage” narrative here please. We must learn to incorporate without (mis)appropriating. We must decolonize and deconstruct ourselves first in order to build something new. We must first empty our cups.

By imaginary islands, I mean “of the imagination.” We are communities of shared interest who dare to dream, who dare to explore, who dare to imagine what might be possible. We must be careful not to allow our imaginary islands to become pure escapism. We must also engage with other communities and tribes outside of our own, to negotiate the global commons and the other shared spaces of our common humanity.

In the Polynesian legends of the Māori of New Zealand and the of native Hawaiians, the ancestral homeland is called Hawaiki. Some anthropologists think that Hawaiki refers to Taiwan. But the truth about Hawaiki is lost to history and immortalized in myth.

In other legends, Hawaiki is also the underworld or the world of the spirits. In other words, Hawaiki is an imaginary island, a utopia, a “no place,” an imagined place. A destination always a bit past the threshold and out of reach, but a perpetually in our hearts and minds.

Our imaginary islands, the homelands of our neotribes, are like Hawaiki. We belong to these islands, and we belong to each other.

Learn more about Neotribes here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. What do “community” and “neotribes” mean to you?

Building Networks for Good

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Earlier this month, I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on Building Networks for Good at the CAPS2015 Conference in Brussels, Belgium. The slide on the screen features the work of Sextant.Works, an Awesome Foundation grantee.

What happens when people come together to take collective action without needing traditional organisational and institutional structures? What tools and strategies do we need for these “Networks for Good” to thrive? In this workshop, designer, storyteller, and community-builder Lee-Sean Huang (Purpose) will explore these questions by drawing from his own experiences building international networks like UX for Good, The Awesome Foundation, and Wisdom Hackers.

How (Not) to Design Meaningful Civic Conversations

My latest post on Medium: How (Not) To Design Meaningful Civic Conversations – Lessons from Starbucks’ ‪#‎RaceTogether‬ campaign controversy; why it’s important to talk to strangers; and strategies for designing dialogue

How (Not) to Design Meaningful Civic Conversations

#WeWashing

TLDR;

WeWashing is a new term that refers to the abuse of words like “sharing” and “community.” Use #WeWashing to identify and critique this abuse.

Whitewash, Greenwash, WeWash

I am usually a satisfied user of services like AirBnb and Uber, even if I don’t 100% agree with all of their corporate policies and practices. But I cringe every time I hear these companies, and others like it, described as part of the “Sharing Economy.”

New technologies can extend the meaning of words, such as “friend” in a post-Facebook world. But for the sake of clarity, new social phenomena also require us to coin new terms for them. Given the expanding use and abuse of terms like “community” and “sharing,” I would like to propose a new term: WeWashing.

Based on terms like whitewashing and greenwashing, WeWashing is when corporations, brands, and other groups use the language of “sharing” and “community” to describe what are essentially capitalist commercial transactions.

Whitewash: when organizations cover up or gloss over their misdeeds, scandals, or negative facts about them.

Greenwash: when organizations use “green” marketing or public relations techniques to communicate an environmentally-friendly image that contrast with the reality of their products, policies, or practices.

WeWash: when organizations refer to renting and selling services as “sharing” and/or use terms like “community” in misleading ways.

We Are Greater Than Our Consumer Selves

In his recent speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama points out:

[T]he single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Words like “we,” “sharing” and “community” may be common, but they are also meaningful. These words are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers. We interact in ways that go beyond commercial transactions.

“We the people.”

Not “We the Monarch.”

Not “We the corporation.”

Not even “We the consumers.”

Our “we” is the “we” of true community, of collaboration, and the shared commons. It is not the “we” of royal or corporate decree.

Our shared language is itself a form of cultural commons that is owned by no one and belongs to everyone. As such, so-called “sharing economy” companies are free to use these words as they like, but we are also free to use them in ways that work for us. We can create our own forms of meaning. We can mold and adapt the language to coin terms like WeWashing.

Now that we have a word for this phenomenon that affects our reality, we can draw attention to it. We can engage in dialog about the pros and cons of “micro entrepreneurship” and the so-called “sharing economy. We can differentiate the “renting economy” from true sharing.

The Rectification of Names

The Rectification of Names (正名) is a doctrine in Confucian philosophy that argues that, for the good of society, we need to call things by their correct and proper names. We need to call a spade a spade. If we can name and identify a problematic phenomenon, we can call it out more easily and take actions to deconstruct it.

For example, by calling discrimination “discrimination,” we are able to take actions to combat it. By coining the term, “environmentalism,” we were able to unite different causes such as air pollution, water contamination, and animal habitat preservation under the umbrella of a single movement.

By calling out incidents of WeWashing, we can preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with buying, selling, and renting to and from one another, but we should rectify our language to separate these kinds of transactions and relationships with ones that are not tied to narrowly capitalist forms of exchange. There is nothing wrong with “friending” or “following” as social media conventions, but we also need ways to differentiate these relationships from deeper forms of friendship or fandom.

At best, the “sharing economy” label is a brand marketing strategy that attempts to take advantage of the “feel good” halo associated with words like “community” and “sharing.” At worst, it is a way of obfuscating commercial transactions as “sharing” as a way of evade the reach of regulation and oversight. This is why we need to rectify the names of explicitly commercial transactions that get labelled as “sharing.”

The idea behind coining the term WeWashing is not meant to create an exclusive binary between “real” sharing and “fake” sharing, “real” community and “fake” community, but to draw attention to the fact that a spectrum exists. My life has been enriched by my experiences in the so-called “sharing economy,” beyond what I paid for the services. I have met Uber drivers from places ranging from Tibet to Mauritania, and they have shared with me about their countries and cultures, enriching my understanding of the world. An AirBnB hostess invited me into her family dinner, making me feel instantly at home in a new place. The fact that these were in the context of commercial transactions and relationships did not diminish their meaning.

However, we need to recognize that there are different kinds of sharing and different kinds of community, just as with the concept of “green,” where we recognize that there is a spectrum of “sustainability.” Some products are greener than others, just as some communities are more selflessly “sharing” than others. We need to keep each other honest about where on the spectrum something falls.

Let’s Hack the Language and Take Action

WeWashingas a term enhances our vocabulary and enables us to identify, critique, and engage in dialogue about the misleading use and abuse of terms like “sharing” and “community.” Let’s drop it into our conversations and use it as a hashtag online to call out this phenomenon.

Writing this post and coining the term “WeWashing” is not just a language hack; it is also a cultural intervention and invitation to reflect. It is ultimately not about demonizing corporations who appropriate the language of community and sharing. As my colleague Garance Choko puts it:

The issue is not with corporations co-opting these terms, but more so for us to reclaim how we abide to our “ideal” notion of solidarity, sharing and community.

We must ask ourselves how we can expand the possibilities of the “we.”How should we treat each other? How can we collaborate and cooperate beyond the narrow confines of the marketplace?

Originally published on Medium

Some Things I Learned in Mexico

Last week I spent a few days in Mexico City to give a workshop on Transformative Storytelling and to mentor startup founders at the Smart Impact Accelerator. Here are some things that I learned from my visit:

  • Many of the startup concepts from the groups that I mentored were derivative ideas of things that already exist elsewhere, whether they relate to e-commerce, social enterprise, or education. But that’s ok. It’s all about the execution anyway, and how the startups can learn to leverage their specific local knowledge and expertise to make their ventures work here in Mexico.
  • There is a small but scrappy startup scene down here. The Mexican government is also putting money into supporting innovation.

Read the rest of my travel reflections and recommendations on Medium.

Some Things I Learned in Mexico