Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The moving circus, the post-national, the Global Soul and the xenophile

My friends Loïc LeMeur and Thomas Crampton, and their partners, posted a fascinating video on Loïc’s blog about an emerging group of people they call “the moving circus”. Yossi Vardi coined the term, referring to the gang of relentless conferencegoers that I find myself hanging out with. Loïc summarizes the characteristics, beliefs and values of this group:

-no office
-no boss (self employed)
-no Country (world citizen)
-no race (does not matter)
-no diploma (who cares)
-no smoking (has been)
-no hierarchy (OK, not much hierarchy)
-no political party (!!!, we care more about people than parties)
-no tie, no suit: casual all the time
-no monopoly, no center, everything decentralized
-no religion (not has important as it was before)
-no mariage (not needed to live together)
-in sync: no email, no phone, just IM, twitter, social software…
-no off-line: everything online, Gmail Google apps rather than MS Office
-no distance: it does not matter where you are
-no mass media: they are here but do not matter as much as before
-no fear of embarrassment or of failure: the “always beta” culture
-icons: Hans Rosling, Sergey Brin, Lary Page
-book: The World if Flat from Thomas Friedman
-entrepreneurial or self employed
-ideas over systems
-sharing ideas instead of keeping them secret (authority and power change from people protecting information to people sharing it)
-ethics: environment, …
-global citizen

Lots of these values are ones that define my life pretty accurately. That’s hardly a surprise – Thomas and Loïc are both good friends, and folks I hang out with on the moving circus. Like them, I spent an enormous amount of time on the road, and I take pride in my ability to feel at home in any aribtrary place on the globe. My current business card has no physical address on it, only email and web addresses, a PGP key fingerprint and a mobile phone number. This wasn’t a conscious political statement – I only noticed that I’d forgotten to add an address when people started searching my card uncomfortably for evidence of where I actually live and work.

While I find these traits very familiar, I’m very conscious of the fact that they describe a group that’s quite economically and socially elite – I know both Loïc and Thomas through the World Economic Forum, which is about as elite a social club as you’re going to find. And it strikes me that it’s much easier to have no office, no boss, no dress code, no one nation, no distance if you’re a wealthy, successful, accomplished and privleged individual than if you’re a hard-working, up-and-coming software developer in Ghana.

In that sense, I think of the moving circus folks as a subset of a larger group, the Global Souls that Pico Iyer wrote about in his 2000 book. The book is a skeptical, dark look at a group that Iyer, himself, is a member of: postnational people who for economic, romantic or xenophilic reasons break our stereotypes of what it means to be “at home”. But the Global Souls I meet are generally an optimistic bunch, proud of where they’re from, but at home in places far from their home nations, building friendships and relationships with people from different nations, races and religions.

Doha was a good place to think about post-national people, global souls, or whatever we choose to call this group of people. (I’d been weighing the term “the fourth world”, thinking of Jon Hassel’s wonderful jazz/electronica/world music experiments that blurred boundaries between worlds of music. But there’s instances of “fourth-world” being used to refer to indigeous communities within the first world, or to the poorest corners of the third world, meanings very far away from the post-national meaning I’m looking for.) I got to meet my blog friend Abdurahman Warsame for the first time in person – his story is a classic post-national one: he’s a Somali, living in Qatar, who grew up (I believe) in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Australia. (Correct me, please, Abdurahman…) He told me of a recent gathering of Somali friends where they discovered that all six were carrying different passports – one was a football player in Finland, another a writer and TV presenter in the UK, another a computer expert in Doha – and none carried a Somali passport. It’s not that nationality or national identity isn’t important – it’s that the identity has been separated from where someone lives, what passport one carries, where one feels comfortable and at home.

If the distinction between the “moving circus” and the rest of the global souls is one of economics, class or opportunity, it raises questions about how inclusive any of these classes are. Is the Filipino construction worker I met in Doha a Global Soul? Does he think of himself as post-national, or as a Filipino who, because of the vagaries of global economics, finds himself living thousands of miles from home, surrounded by other workers with similar backstories?

I am – very, very slowly – starting to outline a book I’d like to write about xenophilia. It’s my argument that parochial, isolationist nationalism is an economically suicidal stance in an increasingly globalized world. The future, in a very literal sense, belongs to the post-national, the Global Souls, the economic migrants. They’re the best placed to create solutions to global problems, to invent new products for global markets, to build bridges and understanding between different nations. It’s not possible for everyone to uproot themselves and try becoming literally post-national, but the only obstacle to xenophilia in the age of the internet is lack of interest, desire to know what people in other parts of the world think, feel and believe. (This is deeply different from cyberutopianism, by the way, which believes in a single, unified, computer-mediated world largely shaped by 1960’s American hippie principles by way of Stewart Brand. Xenophilia believes that the world is made of diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces, and that the ability to encounter these different spaces without getting on an airplane is one of the most exciting aspects of the 21st century.)

Xenophilia is why I’m involved with Global Voices. What I want to know about other parts of the world goes well beyond who’s shooting whom and who’s selling what. It includes what people think, feel, hope, dream and believe. And the opportunity to work with xenophiles from around the globe, to have coffee with a Tunisian and an Iraqi in Qatar, to receive birthday greetings via email in thirty languages isn’t just a privilege – it’s also great training for the future.

4 Responses to “The moving circus, the post-national, the Global Soul and the xenophile”

  1. A short reading list for global souls or xenophiliacs:

    Cosmopolitanism by Appiah

    The Modern Traveller by Belloc

    The main worry is that you will be branded as Bright Young Things, as filmed by Stephen Fry, or rather as Vile Bodies per the original, the prescient Evelyn Waugh.

    Lingering however is the fear of branding as rootless cosmopolitans (although some e embrace it) or, worse, as useful idiots ;-)

    I’ve been using modern travellers myself.

    I like the bit about the perspective of the Filipino construction worker. It suggests that there are far more players in the Great Game. And it begs the question: who are today’s modern travellers?

  2. [...] I had a chance to chat with Ethan during AJ Forum about global souls or what he termed – for the time-being – “the forth world” [...]

  3. Rob Freeman says:

    Should be called the zero’th world. Has a kind of terminal, recalibrating, negation of the whole concept worlds should be separate.

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