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?

Future of the Sharing Economy

Here is an audio recording of last night’s Future of the ‪Sharing Economy‬ panel organized by Be Social Change at What If Innovation with Airbnb NYC, Sailo, MILES, Meetup, and Foossa (that’s me):

Future of the Sharing Economy Panel – 22 September 2015
Organized by Be Social Change

Special thanks to our hosts ?What If! Innovation and to sponsors Airbnb, Runa, Kopali Chocolates, and Edward and Sons

From cars and music to accommodations and staffing, it’s never been easier for anyone with an excess capacity of goods and services to maximize their resources through collaborative consumption. Commonly referred to as The Sharing Economy, these transactions minimize waste and environmental impact, save costs, cut down barriers to entry, and increase productivity in a mutual give-and-receive exchange.

Expected to grow from $15 billion to $335 billion in revenue from 2013 to 2025, The Sharing Economy is positioned to disrupt traditional renting sectors like automotive and hotels. This potential for growth has attracted entrepreneurs and corporations alike, but how does it trickle down and increase opportunities and returns for individuals at every level of the exchange? And when are words like “community” and “sharing” disguising purely profit-driven transactions, a strategy coined as ‘WeWashing’?

With thought leaders from across the sector, this panel discussion will delve into the opportunities and challenges that come with collective collaboration. We’ll highlight the distinction between the Access Economy – where consumers are primarily interested in low costs and convenience – and an authentic Sharing Economy, rooted in trust and the strengthening of communities, and explore when, how, and if The Sharing Economy can be a source of empowerment.

Moderator:
Marcos Salazar, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Be Social Change

Panelists:
Melissa O’Young, Head of NY Community, Airbnb
Delphine Braas, Cofounder, Marketing & Business Development, Sailo
Odile Beniflah, Head of International, Meetup
Eric Ho, Founder, miLES
Lee-Sean Huang, Co-Founder / Creative Director, Foossa

Reference:
#WeWashing: When “Sharing” Is Renting and “Community” Is a Commodity
Monetizing Neighborliness
ShareStories.net: One Month in the Sharing Economy

Interview at CAPS 2015 Conference

Just released: My video interview at the CAPS 2015 conference in Brussels, July 2015. I was in Brussels working with our partners at Purpose and giving a workshop on “Building Networks for Good,” which included case studies of our work with Awesome Foundation​, Foossa, Wisdom Hackers​, UX for Good​, and more!

Transformative Storytelling

I regularly teach a Transformative Storytelling workshop organized by BeSocialChange at the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. I wrote this post as a resource for former and prospective students, as well as anybody else interested in the subject matter. You will find an outline of what we cover in the workshop as well as links to resources below.

Transformative Storytelling