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 communal nomadism, 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.
Stream citizens are not global citizens (a vacuous high-modernist concept that is as culturally anemic as the UN). Their social identities are far narrower and richer. They are (undeclared) stream citizens, whose identities derive from their slow journey across the world.
But the individualist, existential notion of nomadism that I wrote about in On Being an Illegible Person does not apply. In particular, stream citizens are not necessarily nomadic in literal ways (such as living out of cars, boats or mobile homes). They may buy or rent property, accumulate material possessions, and so forth.
Streams are highly sociable collectives, not individuals. The stream itself may be illegible on a map of nation-states, but individuals within it are fairly legible at least to fellow citizens within the same stream. In this sense, streams are like David Hackett Fischer’s folkways. Unlike folkways, streams use geographic movement to structure themselves internally. You could also apply the John Hagel model in The Power of Pull and think of traditional folkways as “stock” folkways and streams as “flow” folkways. The running example in the book (global surfer culture) is not quite a stream, however.
The argument for a distinct new construct, the stream, is not based on a single clear criterion that separates it from other kinds of population movements. Instead, we have a distinctive pattern of deviations from other kinds of population movements.
I have a few examples in mind (such as the Israeli one), but to avoid the dangers of over-fitting, I’ll characterize the idea of the stream via a dozen abstract features, and follow it up with a very primitive and sketchy “world stream map,” without trying to describe specific streams in these abstract terms.
- Distinct social identity: Streams possess a unique and distinct social identity, unlike more inchoate movements that may share some of the features of streams. Unlike rite-of-passage travel patterns though (such as “karma-trekkers”), they tend not to have named, brand-like identities. Instead, they have unmistakeable, but implicit identities.
- 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.
- Voluntary slowness: a stream is a pattern of movement where individual movements take place over years or decades, spanning entire development life stages. Unlike a decade-long limbo state imposed by (say) waiting for an American green card, which has individuals impatient to get the process over with and “settle down” in either a new home, or return to an old one, stream citizens don’t experience their state as a limbo state. They are always “home.” Being a relatively new phenomenon, there are no streams that are life-encompassing as yet. But I believe those will emerge — distinctive cradle-t0-grave geographic journeys.
- 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. I am really tempted to illustrate this particular point with examples, but I’ll leave it as an abstraction.
- Distinct economic identity: unlike commercial travel that is part of broader economic activity (such as sea-faring), or non-commercial travel (such as tourism), streams tend to be at least partially self-sustaining within every host culture that they pass through. This partial self-sustainability often involves patterns of global commercial activity that lends money a different meaning within the stream. So even though streams don’t issue currencies, and merely borrow the economic apparatus of their host cultures, the money behaves in very different ways while it is circulating within the stream.
- Non-tribal: Streams are not completely self-sufficient though, in the sense of segmentary tribes. This is a crucial distinction from nomads or barbarians in the classical sense. They do not seek to form bonds of mechanical solidarity with other streams. Instead they seek to form fairly strong bonds of organic solidarity (mutual interdependence) with host cultures.
- Vorticity: Streams contain higher-tempo patterns of travel among the waypoints, especially to old “home” bases, due to obligations and attachments inherited from pre-stream home cultures.
- Partial self-absorption: stream citizens are not very interested in the host cultures they pass through except to the extent of maintaining economic and practical relationships. There is no sense of being on the periphery, looking on with longing at the action at the center. There is no oppressive sense of being trapped in a diaspora-ghetto.
- Relative poverty: unlike the global jet-setting (think Davos) elite, streams are generally impoverished. In fact a great deal of the motivation for living in a stream is to leverage limited means. But this does not mean we are only talking about lifestyle-designing Internet marketers in Bali. We are also talking about migrant labor from Asia to the Middle East that starts with a “let me save money working in construction in Dubai for a few years” motivation, but ends up extending to a whole lifetime.
- High adaptability: Unlike nomads who carry their lives around with them, creating tiny shells of reassuring familiarity around themselves, stream citizens behave more like hermit crabs. They cobble together the necessities of life — shelter, income, patterns of diet and exercise — from whatever is around them. Stream citizens eat Chinese food in China and Thai food in Thailand, not because they are particularly curious about local cuisines, but because the sustainability of the stream lifestyle is based in part on such adaptation. Nostalgia is weak for stream citizens, as is the faraway-home/near-exotic sense of alienation from surrounding. Stream citizens are both home and abroad at the same time.
- 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.
- Lack of an arrival dynamic: this is perhaps the most important feature. There is no sense of anticipation of an “arrival” event such as getting an American green card, after which “real” life can begin. There is a wherever you go, there you are indifference to rootedness. This psychological shift is the central individual act. By abandoning arrival-based frames, stream citizens free themselves from yearning for geographically rooted forms of social identity.
The Scale and Impact of Streams
In terms of sheer numbers, global migration does not seem to be a very powerful force. In World 3.0, Pankaj Ghemawat notes that only about 3% of the world’s population comprises first-generation immigrants. Over 90% of the world’s population will never leave their home country.
As a small subset of global migration and travel, the total population of stream citizenry is unlikely to exceed about 0.3% of the world population by my estimate (about 20-25 million perhaps). In terms of populations of individual streams, given the level of cultural complexity I am talking about, you would need between about ten thousand to a million people to create a stream.
This suggests that there are less than a few hundred streams, with perhaps a few lower levels of differentiation into sub-streams and sub-sub-streams. This means a project to catalog and map the streams of the world should not be too hard.
In terms of impact however, I suspect streams are hugely important. Viewed as a process of increasing global integration on multiple fronts (commodities, money, products, services and people), most fronts of integration are developing painfully slowly. Measured with an appropriate set of metrics, according to Ghemawat, globalization is generally somewhere between 10-30% of its theoretical potential for maximal integration along most fronts.
Human movement is actually one of the least-developed fronts. However, since moving humans is the most efficient way to move ideas, and since ideas are very high-leverage things to move across borders, this slow front is also the highest-impact front. Two African students returning to Eritrea infected with the Y-combinator virus can do more than several container loads of iPads.
Another way to think about the increasing impact of streams is to compare them to their ancestors. Consider the populations that staffed the diffusion of previous waves of technology-driven globalization, such as sailing ships (which created among other archeo-streams, a population of lascars who formed a stream stretching from South Asia to the Caribbean, for several centuries).
Compared to such populations, the modern stream citizenry of the world is much larger. Perhaps an order of magnitude larger. Thanks to the more mature and stable substrate (container shipping is not going away anytime soon for instance), the cultures that take root along patterns of movement are much more robust and fully-formed.
They may lack the romantic transience of older archeo-streams (such as a putative “Silk Road” culture, which may or may not have ever had a distinct identity), but they are a lot more substantial internally.
I didn’t try to illustrate the idea of a stream with reference to specific examples because they interact among themselves and with host cultures in such complicated ways. The only meaningful way to understand streams is to start with a more global situation awareness of a sort of “stream map of the world.”
I have no idea how to make one (other than to follow the contours of globalization), so I’ll illustrate the geography to the extent that I’ve traversed it.
The Israeli stream, in its path across India, collides with the Tibetian exile community in Dharamshala, itself a lake created by an older stream of migration that flowed for a few brief years during the 1950s, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and landed in India.
Along this route, the Israelis get into fights with the locals, run an underground drug culture and in general recover from their PTSD in the messy ways you might expect. The modern Israeli stream runs along roughly the same course that, decades ago, played host to the hippies on journeys of self-discovery from Goa to Kathmandu. Ecstasy has replaced LSD, and the culture is a darker, cyberpunk echo of the naive spirituality that marked the questing of the swami-seeking hippies.
Today, the stream is shifting course towards Thailand, as I noted earlier. The Indian branch may dry up, or slow to a trickle. I suspect a branch of the stream continues, post an Israel-return, to America, via high-tech startups founded by friends who perhaps were blooded in combat together, or met in India or Thailand.
Curiously, even though the Israeli stream runs right through Bombay, where I lived for years, I had no idea it existed while I was there.
I learned the story partly from an Israeli anthropologist (from whom I borrowed the term “liminal passage” which I used in Tempo) and partly from a Romanian-born Australian, herself an expat in Bali, married to a Dutch expat (Indonesia was once a Dutch colony). The two of them run canoeing tours on Lake Batur for tourists. We’d gotten started on the subject of nomadic expat cultures after I’d asked, rather innocently, if the success of Eat, Pray, Love had had an impact on Bali tourism. “Oh My God!” my guide exploded, “All these annoying American women in their 30s landing here and expecting to find their Argentinian Man!”
Eat, Pray, Love might well be the motif of a new emerging stream, involving older single Western women. It is probably a gyre rather than a one-way stream, originating in, and returning to, an American home base.
I personally am a product of a one-way migration pattern that matured into a full-blown stream-and-gyre just around the time I joined it. Post 9/11 and Y2K, as the US economy began slowing down, and the Indian economy began to heat up, increasing numbers of Indians began choosing to inhabit a vague loop between the two countries instead of settling down in one, trying to have their cake and eat it too — the economic opportunities of India and the lifestyle of the US. The first observers of this loop tended to classify them as “global citizens” but I find the term to be pretty non-descriptive of what is actually happening.
The Tibetan community and the India-US stream-gyre are well-known. The Israeli PTSD Stream is less well-known. The Eat-Love-Pray gyre is just starting to mature.
Around the globe, streams slosh about, run into each other, branch, loop, and in general carve out new cultural landscapes within a hydrologically active layer that exists above earlier landscapes.
This is a complicated view of cultural geography. But I bet it could be properly represented on a map. As I said, the number of important streams cannot be more than a few hundred, about comparable to the number of nation states or significant multinational corporations.
Globalization as Liquefaction
This post is really about my dissatisfaction with the static units of analysis for globalization. We are reluctant to embrace more fluid units like streams because they seem so small in terms of population sizes. It seems wrong to basically ignore the 90% of the world who are never going to venture beyond the borders they were born within.
Yet, I find that it is far easier to understand globalization as a system of such human flows, than it is to understand it in terms of nations, states and multi-national corporations. It is the actions of the 0.3% that will ultimately drive the fates of the 90%. The cultures that play host to streams are starting to see their evolution being driven by the very act of hosting streams. There are entire regions in the Indian state of Kerala for instance, whose culture can only be explained with reference to the gyre that transports Keralites back and forth from the Middle East.
The word globalization itself is a clue.
Globalization signifies an incomplete process, not a state. For a long time I was convinced that there was a bit of semantic confusion somewhere. Why is there a becoming without discernible being states before and after? The reason is that the word globalization works like the word liquefaction. Liquids aren’t a transition from one solid state to another. They are a transition from a fundamentally static state to a fundamentally dynamic one.
The world is not getting flatter, rounder or spikier. It is liquefying. There you go, Thomas Friedman, that’s my modest little challenge to your metaphor.
More seriously, I’d like to get started building a stream map of the World. If you have candidate streams to propose, or some cartographic insights to offer, please do so in the comments.
So far my list includes:
- The Israeli stream
- The Indo-US technology stream
- 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