Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribes, podcasted


“It’s like this,” I said. “It used to be that the way you chose your friends was by finding the most like-minded people you could out of the pool of people who lived near to you. If you were lucky, you lived near a bunch of people you could get along with. This was a lot more likely in the olden days, back before, you know, printing and radio and such. Chances were that you’d grow up so immersed in the local doctrine that you’d never even think to question it. If you were a genius or a psycho, you might come up with a whole new way of thinking, and if you could pull it off, you’d either gather up a bunch of people who liked your new idea or you’d go somewhere else, like America, where you could set up a little colony of people who agreed with you. Most of the time, though, people who didn’t get along with their neighbors just moped around until they died.” “Very interesting,” the doctor said, interrupting smoothly, “but you were going to tell us how you ended up here.” “Yeah,” Lucy said, “this isn’t a history lesson, it’s Group. Get to the point.” “I’m getting there,” I said. “It just takes some background if you’re going to understand it. Now, once ideas could travel more freely, the chances of you finding out about a group of people somewhere else that you might get along with increased. Like when my dad was growing up, if you were gay and from a big city, chances were that you could figure out where other gay people hung out and go and—” I waved my hands, “be gay, right? But if you were from a small town, you might not even know that there was such a thing as being gay—you might think it was just a perversion. But as time went by, the gay people in the big cities started making a bigger and bigger deal out of being gay, and since all the information that the small towns consumed came from big cities, that information leaked into the small towns and more gay people moved to the big cities, built little gay zones where gay was normal. “So back when the New World was forming and sorting out its borders and territories, information was flowing pretty well. You had telegraphs, you had the Pony Express, you had thousands of little newspapers that got carried around on railroads and streetcars and steamers, and it wasn’t long before everyone knew what kind of person went where, even back in Europe and Asia. People immigrated here and picked where they wanted to live based on what sort of people they wanted to be with, which ideas they liked best. A lot of it was religious, but that was just on the surface—underneath it all was aesthetics. You wanted to go somewhere where the girls were pretty in the way you understood prettiness, where the food smelled like food and not garbage, where shops sold goods you could recognize. Lots of other factors were at play, too, of course—jobs and Jim Crow laws and whatnot, but the tug of finding people like you is like gravity. Lots of things work against gravity, but gravity always wins in the end—in the end, everything collapses. In the end, everyone ends up with the people that are most like them that they can find.” I was warming to my subject now, in that flow state that great athletes get into when they just know where to swing their bat, where to plant their foot. I knew that I was working up a great rant. “Fast-forward to the age of email. Slowly but surely, we begin to mediate almost all of our communication over networks. Why walk down the hallway to ask a coworker a question, when you can just send email? You don’t need to interrupt them, and you can keep going on your own projects, and if you forget the answer, you can just open the message again and look at the response. There’re all kinds of ways to interact with our friends over the network: we can play hallucinogenic games, chat, send pictures, code, music, funny articles, metric fuckloads of porn… The interaction is high-quality! Sure, you gain three pounds every year you spend behind the desk instead of walking down the hall to ask your buddy where he wants to go for lunch, but that’s a small price to pay. “So you’re a fish out of water. You live in Arizona, but you’re sixteen years old and all your neighbors are eighty-five, and you get ten billion channels of media on your desktop. All the good stuff—everything that tickles you—comes out of some clique of hyperurban club-kids in South Philly. They’re making cool art, music, clothes. You read their mailing lists and you can tell that they’re exactly the kind of people who’d really appreciate you for who you are. In the old days, you’d pack your bags and hitchhike across the country and move to your community. But you’re sixteen, and that’s a pretty scary step. “Why move? These kids live online. At lunch, before school, and all night, they’re coming in, talking trash, sending around photos, chatting. Online, you can be a peer. You can hop into these discussions, play the games, chord with one hand while chatting up some hottie a couple thousand miles away. “Only you can’t. You can’t, because they chat at seven AM while they’re getting ready for school. They chat at five PM, while they’re working on their homework. Their late nights end at three AM. But those are their local times, not yours. If you get up at seven, they’re already at school, ’cause it’s ten there. “So you start to eff with your sleep schedule. You get up at four AM so you can chat with your friends. You go to bed at nine, ’cause that’s when they go to bed. Used to be that it was stock brokers and journos and factory workers who did that kind of thing, but now it’s anyone who doesn’t fit in. The geniuses and lunatics to whom the local doctrine tastes wrong. They choose their peers based on similarity, not geography, and they keep themselves awake at the same time as them. But you need to make some nod to localness, too—gotta be at work with everyone else, gotta get to the bank when it’s open, gotta buy your groceries. You end up hardly sleeping at all, you end up sneaking naps in the middle of the day, or after dinner, trying to reconcile biological imperatives with cultural ones. Needless to say, that alienates you even further from the folks at home, and drives you more and more into the arms of your online peers of choice.

The other day I was listening to Cory Doctorow’s podcast, where he’s reading his novel Eastern Standard Tribes. (As all the others, the novel is published under a Creative Commons license.)

I had read it before (and loved it), but listening to the above rant on tribalism by character Art (usability consultant and tribalist for the New York-centered EST tribe) really made me listen up again.

As a good rant goes, it’s aggressive and pushy and somewhat radical, but there’s more to it. It gives you a very clear idea of how online communities work, and how they interact with our offline lives, both good and bad. That via the net you can find those like-minded people you’re looking for (or even need), but at the risk of alienating your folks back home. That (sub-)cultural identities are more important for bonding than time zones, but you can’t mess with your circadian endlessly. That if you live in some remote hinterland, you’re screwed without access to some urban culture.

(Also, it reminded me of some time when I got up about 4am for trans-Atlantic phone calls on a regular basis.)

Hidden agenda or no, the idea of tribes – both based on time and subculture – is pretty appealing. And let’s face it: It’s more part of our lives than we’d usually think.


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