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?

Art & Activism Lessons with André Cymone

0003777389_10Last week, I had a chance to talk about the intersections of music and activism with André Cymone. André is Prince’s childhood friend and original bass player. He later went on to build a musical career as a songwriter and producer. In his recent work, André is working to revive a rich American tradition of socially conscious music. We discussed ways we could all could use our creativity and talents to improve our communities and country.

Start with your own story

When I asked André why he does what he does as an artist and activist, he turned to his life history and that of his family. Talking about “art and activism” in the context of civil rights and social justice can be a big and abstract topic, but André grounded things in his own lived experience. He grew up in Minneapolis in a family of six children at a time when the black community was mobilizing for equal civil rights. His brother fought in Vietnam. His mother was a housekeeper who put herself through school, became a social worker, and was able to move the family to a better neighborhood. For André, music became a way of finding a voice and strengthening social connection.

I learned from our conversation that biographical details matter. As artists or activists trying inspire action and incite action, our own personal stories explains the “why” behind what we do. It helps to situate the abstractly political into the concretely personal. It helps us relate with others in our communities, and others that we are trying to reach. A movement starts with a personal story.

Be an ‘Artist’ that challenges people (rather than just an ‘Entertainer’)

“Maybe it started with Elvis. He started out as being Elvis the artist and being kind of daring and risky, but when he put on that rhinestone suit, he became Elvis entertainer. That changed the way people looked at music, artist, and all of that. People started just going after the entertainment factor. People don’t want to hear songs about trouble and strife, they just want to drive to work and be happy.”

But some people want to be challenged. They want to hear the truth. They want to hear ‘art’ as opposed to ‘entertainment.’

We also talked about artists like John Lennon, who started out an entertainer (a good one at that) in the original boyband, the Beatles, and later transformed himself into an “artist” and an activist to speak out for peace and against the Vietnam War. The world still needs artists to step up to the plate, now more than ever.

Use your gift and be a conduit

“The hope is in people like you. We all have a role in making the world we want to pass on to the next generation. My gift is storytelling and songwriting. It’s up to people like me to step up and do what you were put here for. Music is a healing thing. Music is a spiritual thing.”

Sometimes, realizing one’s role in the world means being a conduit for something greater than ourselves. It means surrendering to some higher force and inspiration, reinterpreting somebody else’s story and struggle, and just letting go of the ego.

“If you are an artist and you have a gift, you will write songs that you didn’t really write, because you are just the conduit. This happens to me and to other artists that I know all the time. You will write a song and then say, ‘I never meant to write that song, but before I noticed it was done, music, words, everything. Take the pain and suffering from the world and turn it into music or art. Take other people’s stories and struggles and elevate those stories.”

We all have an individual gift that we can put forth. What is yours?


“Vote. Make a difference. If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Cymone has been devoting his time to encouraging eligible voters to register and vote. I got to preview his upbeat new track called “Vote,” which sounds like a cross between early Prince and School House Rock.

While art and technology has opened up many new channels to organize, to participate, and to make change, there are still some old-school forms of political power that we must not forget about. So if you are eligible, register to vote, and show up on election day.

Here are some online resources to help you register and vote:

Also check out André Cymone’s interview with Mike Ragogna on HuffPost Entertainment (just after Barry Manilow)

Originally published at the Huffington Post

David Miliband/ Chatham House Speech (Highlights)

David Miliband/ Chatham House Speech (Highlights) from lee-sean on Vimeo.

My Question for David Miliband

Learn more about the Avaaz/Miliband event at Chatham House in London in my previous post.

Hi, my name is Lee-Sean and I am from Taiwan, one of the most robust democracies in Asia, and a major trade partner with the European Union and the United States. However, due to diplomatic bullying and intimidation on the part of the People’s Republic of China, only a handful of countries have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and the more than 22 million people in Taiwan no longer have a voice in international organizations like the UN or the World Health Organization.

Why doesn’t the UK have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan and treat Taiwan as an independent country? And why not urge the Chinese government in Beijing to plan peace talks with Taiwan, just as the London government has done on the issue of Northern Ireland and in other conflict zones in the world?

Ask David Miliband (the new UK Foreign Secretary) your questions

David Miliband, the new UK Foreign Secretary, will be giving his first major speech this Thursday (19 July 2007) at an event co-hosted by Avaaz. YouTubers around the world have the opportunity to ask Miliband a question at the event. Upload your question in the form of a video response to this video before 19 July 2007 and make your voice heard!
Intro and Outro music courtesy of Hepnova

After 10 years under Tony Blair, Britain has a new government — and its new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, promises to “listen as well as lead”. This could be a new beginning for British foreign policy — and the UK has a huge effect on the global issues we care about, climate change, global poverty, Iraq, Israel-Palestine and more.

Remarkably, impressed by our momentum, Miliband has asked Avaaz to co-host his first major speech this Thursday — and agreed to take questions and comments from all of us as Avaaz members. He promises “A New Diplomacy”, and wants to get off on the right foot by making our community – and global public opinion – his first audience. Do you have a question for the new British foreign affairs chief? A statement, piece of advice, warning or encouragement? We’ll put Avaaz members’ questions to him after his speech, and compile your words of advice into a book that he will keep in his office and consult when looking for the views of people around the world. Click below now to contribute a question or comment:

Miliband is asking himself some questions too: what Britain’s foreign priorities should be, how to be more multilateral. It’s fine to be challenging (you might want to ask what he’ll do about one of our campaigns!) but please keep it appropriate and respectful. We’re also hoping that some Avaaz members will submit their questions via video – it would be particularly powerful for our members from the Middle East, Asia or Africa to ask questions by video. (Just email for help if you need it.) And a webcast of the whole event will be on the site after Thursday.

The best time to influence a government is in its first few days in power. We’ll judge David Miliband by his actions — and take nothing for granted. But if we are to make the views and values of the world’s people shape global decisions, we need to engage openly and honestly with the people who decide. This is a great opportunity for our community to do just that.

So let’s test the waters — and give this Foreign Secretary some food for thought

In hope,

Paul, Iain, Ricken, Graziela, Galit, Ben, Lee-Sean and the whole Avaaz team

For more information on Miliband, check out the links below:

PS YouTube is the best place to post a video response – email if you have a webcam but don’t know how to upload video!

And to watch the webcast of the event at any time, just visit the same link after Thursday: