Looking back upon the birth of the Internet, the more hyperbolic of encomia that proclaimed it a powerful tool to end division and promote harmony remain about as woefully erroneous in hindsight as Kurzweil’s continued predictions of the Singularity’s date. The Internet only aids and abets harmony as much as a given user wants to aid and abet harmony. You can’t really get away from the perpetuity of human nature, no matter how much historical cycles actually vary, it seems.
But this view does omit the actions of many whom, even intermittently, do employ the Internet to contribute, share, empathize, or otherwise perform positive actions that help increase community. Ostracized or lonely individuals can find communities anywhere, no matter how niche the topic. This is still tribalism, but it is the more positive kind of tribalism, as opposed to the darkest recesses of 4chan or the peculiar, puerile idiocy of racist outcroppings of the alt-right. More wide-ranging and relatively neutral in effect tribalism, such as those organized around common historical, linguistic and social bonds, as well as perhaps ideological, are much more powerful in general, given their wider common denominators. The best current examples that come to mind are secession movements in Europe.
One thing I often ponder is how strong such positive outpourings of tribalism may end up truly being. Viewed as purely an informational flow mechanism, the Internet can enable any number of niche communities. Of those many, some few that perhaps could not have been able to achieve any critical mass that could lead to sparking change now have been able to. This is often called the tyranny of the minority, as most notoriously exemplified by the extent to which splinter factions of white nationalism in the US are now enjoying media coverage beyond their wildest dreams.
So where does this trend go from here? There is a sweet spot between communities that mainly exist by the enabling information flows of the Internet and extant communities that are now empowered more than ever before in terms of effectively delivering their message. For example, Catalan nationalists and Scots currently enjoy greater abilities to effectively organize and promulgate their messages than ever before, as opposed to, say, Occupy Wall Street, as both the former had much stronger actual ties. (It’s worth noting that Occupy Wall Street did enjoy a rich historical heritage in America of fairly left-leaning anarchic factions popping up every once in a while.)
Few communities can clear that hurdle of effective real-life ties (aka skin in the game, however much Nassim Nicholas Taleb irks me he did popularize that highly effective phrase) merged with the power of modern communication infrastructure. Yet will more end up doing so if the first few are successful? Should Catalonia successfully secede, will Scotland be next, emboldened by not only that example but the parent-state’s own Brexit?
It is tempting to think so, mainly because the neoliberal global political order that endured since the end of World War II has rarely looked so strained. Key nation-states were the primary component of said order, with the indispensable nation of the US, which challenges so many political theories, seemingly the most troubled. But at the same time that separatist parties or, essentially, those that can be classified as status quo challengers, are empowered by the Internet, the multinational corporations that not only provide consumers with the very means of access but also grow increasingly monopolistic in major sectors grow in power too. And whether they admit it or not, businesses such as Facebook or Amazon or Shell or BP have a vested interest in catering to diverse groups but still unifying them under one massive umbrella: their customer base. Hence to court customers, corporations will enable formation of communities because, after all, connection is what humans crave so avidly, as long as they can achieve buy-in to that most basic yet essential community – that of the corporation’s customer.
This is neither wrong nor right – it is simply the natural evolution of the corporation’s strategies as it currently exists. But since they have such powerful incentives to keep the peace, as it were, or at least maintain the ability to keep growing and tapping into newer markets, hyperconnection is a definite end goal. Facebook and Google are the most obvious exemplars that come to mind, seeing as their businesses are so uniquely dependent on eyeballs. But every multinational isn’t that far behind.
Meanwhile, we have the supposedly beleaguered nation-state, that now has to contend with not only empowered internal tribalist factions but multinationals’ suite of incentives. But the nation-state can’t be counted out just yet – apart from empires, it is the most successful form of its kind thus far, after all. And the oldest nation-states that most successfully integrated its various tribes do seem to be robust. France has had its splinter separatist movements for a while, but few look able to attain critical mass thanks to how successfully monarchs and then draconian republican governments stamped out or absorbed local dialects and identities. The United Kingdom was less successful, and faces the consequences. China is an exemplar of absorption of tribal factions, often at immense human cost, although they are hardly alone when it comes to that, when looking at the US. (That unique nation was essentially founded in part on the ideal of tribal factions burying the hatchet just long enough to compromise endlessly in favor of common interests.) Germany is more in line with France in terms of how well it stitched together duchies, kingdoms, etc. Thus far, in fact, only a few nations that, due to their particular histories, never assimilated all their citizens to a sufficient degree look to be in danger of secession actually occurring.
But will that really matter? How small does a nation-state have to be to not count as a nation-state? Presuming that a nation-state is a group of people or peoples with sufficient weight of history, customs, languages and such in common to assemble under one banner, does size truly matter once it grows to a scale dwarfing that of tribes?
Hence we now arrive at an interesting crux where the current global order appears balanced between growing hyperconnection fostered by pure economic/financial interests (multinationals and partially certain nation-states with globe-spanning economies), tribalism enabled by said connections that can undermine certain nation-states, and the former status quo largely based upon a handful of nation-states (the G20, to be generously inclusive) mostly reliant on both trade and information flows continuing yet also suffering their consequences.
Where this ends up is truly anyone’s guess. But separation in and of itself is not truly a bad thing. Sometimes the consequences simply aren’t worth it – if the issue of slavery hadn’t even existed in the US, I contend that secession still wouldn’t have been worth it as it would have increased longer-term probability of warfare, which should be avoided at all costs. (Hence why I am still against secession, for what it’s worth.) The same COULD be true of, say, Catalonia and Spain, or Scotland and England. There are lesser odds in both instances of conflict arising in the future, but that is more due to the degree of mutual benefits from refraining.
Actually, that is the real question: What degree of mutual benefits and, for that matter, shared potential costs can help assess whether tribalist instincts could triumph or not? For example, I don’t really believe secession will happen in the US despite unfortunately perceptive Steve Bannon’s prognostications about California, mainly because the mutual benefits are too obviously great. The same could be said of Scotland, although Catalonia is a tossup. So wherever it is possible to ascertain that disparity, it should be easier to assess where tribalism will triumph. And, in a fairly cynical move on my part, I am also willing to bet multinational corporations will do their best to subtly undermine said processes when absolutely necessary and when they can to ensure the bottom line remains intact – since the status quo was so beneficial to many such enterprises, they do have a pretty sizable incentive to preserve much of the current balance of power.
Granted, that is all contingent on humans’ ability to not shoot themselves in the foot when acting in concert. I have been very wrong about that before, and frankly, on a personal level, continually go against my own best interests. But thanks to modern information flows, even as swiftly as lies and other fanning of tribalist flames occur, so can the benefits of communicating with other, similar members of an online tribe with potentially varying motives accrue. Time will tell which bonds necessarily are the most crucial.