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.


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.

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

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

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

A Bronx Tech Tale

Innovation in tech education and job creation from the birthplace of hip hop

Exit the subway. Walk by a check cashing service and under a freeway overpass, past some guys chatting on a stoop at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Across the street there is a hot dog factory and downstairs a methadone clinic. The business people and civil servants in crisp suits that I have been trailing to our destination look out of place here.

I’m in the South Bronx attending the grand opening celebration of the Urban Development Center, or UDC for short, a partnership between software consulting firm Doran Jones and workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Doran Jones provides software engineering and testing services to major financial and media companies. Per Scholas is a 24-year-old educational non-profit focused on providing tuition-free training to prepare its graduates for jobs in the tech industry. The UDC is part of a movement to “reshore” tech jobs that have been offshored to places like India back to the United States.

Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, kicks off the grand opening of the Urban Development Center.

Plinio Ayala

The UDC is in full-on party mode today, but on a previous visit, I could see the team in action on a typical work day. With an open floor plan, bright cheery colors, the flickering of computer screens and the tapping of keyboards, the vibe here feels a lot like many other tech companies. There are not yet any motivational posters on the walls nor a foosball table in the lounge, some of the typical trappings of a tech startup, but give it time, as they have just recently moved into the newly-renovated space.

Other elements are starkly different. Diversity is one of them. Almost all of the employees come from minority groups underrepresented in the tech industry. More than half of the employees are women. Most of them have come through Per Scholas’ workforce development training courses. These training courses attract a wide array of people, ranging from young people without college degrees looking for job opportunities beyond service and retail, to older career changers, to the long term unemployed.

We are also in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. It is a community lacking in opportunity, but certainly not lacking in creativity, determination, and grit. This is the birthplace of hip hop after all.

Tristan Delgado, software tester at the UDC

Tristan Delgado

I meet the upbeat and confident Tristan Delgado, a 26-year-old Per Scholas grad who is currently working at the UDC as a software tester for Doran Jones.

I’m thriving in a real career that I never before knew existed. I love being a software tester. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of technology and software. I even do games testing on the side as well. That’s been pretty sick….As soon as I got into this field, I was able to actually start affording – you know – living. These are livable wages. Before I came into software testing, I looked forward to a 25 cent raise in my check. That’s how gritty it was.

But Tristan is still plenty gritty, if by “gritty” we mean “driven.” He commutes by bicycle 17 miles each way from his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to the UDC in the South Bronx. Tristan had previously dropped out of community college but ended up completing two training courses with Per Scholas. He then worked with another tech company before coming back to take a job at the UDC.

Like Tristan, most of employees at the UDC are software testers. Software testing is a largely unknown and unseen part of the tech industry. This is the kind of tech work that is making sure that things like corporate intranets and our online banking apps work properly. It’s not sexy. It’s not disruptive. But it’s essential.

And it’s a tremendous market opportunity. At the UDC, Doran Jones is offering software testing talent to major corporations at rates that are competitive with the competition in India and with the added benefit of being just a 30-minute subway ride rather than 16-hour flight away. In addition to being in the same time zone, software testers at the UDC also bring the competitive advantage of native English proficiency and greater cultural proximity to their clients than the overseas competition. All of this matters for the precise and demanding problem-solving necessary for good software testing.

At full capacity, the UDC has space for 450 software testers and is rapidly building a client base to reach this capacity. As part of the partnership agreement, Doran Jones has agreed to fill at least 80% of these positions with Per Scholas graduates and will be sharing 25% of revenue with the non-profit. The innovation here is in the talent pipeline and the business model.

Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones

Matt Doran

At the opening ceremony, Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones, announces that an existing client wants to nearly double the number of testers that they want to hire at the UDC. The mood is jubilant and optimistic, but there is still much work to be done to convince more corporations to hire US-based talent for software testing.

Matt recently told Wired Magazine about a potential hedge fund client that turned down a proposal from Doran Jones because “our guys don’t look like the traditional consulting firm.” There is a lot of work to be done to convince potential clients and to shift cultural perceptions, but you can feel that change is happening, and Doran Jones and Per Scholas are driving it forward.

Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones

Keith Klain

“Cheers to all the determined people out there… No more excuses,” exclaims Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, as he gives the final toast to celebrate the opening of the UDC. This is the Bronx after all, known for its grit and determination. Just as when hip hop emerged here decades ago and changed the sound of music in the United States and worldwide, the movement that is emerging here has the potential to change the face of tech. No more excuses.

Olivia is a 14-year-old high school student collaborating with Doran Jones to build an app for her school


This story has also been published in the Huffington Post.



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

An Awkward Cyborg: The State of Healthcare User Experience

Check out my latest post on Medium about my take on the state of UX in the American healthcare system:

While sitting in the the waiting room this morning for a routine medical lab test, I applied my designer’s eye to what I was experiencing and started thinking about the state of user experience in American healthcare.

From my perspective as a designer and a patient, I characterize the state of the industry today as “an awkward cyborg.” On one hand, we have the shiny veneer of technological innovation, but on the other, we still have a lot of work to do to address the human emotional elements of the healthcare experience.

Read more on Medium.

An Awkward Cyborg