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70. The importance of tribes in the Invisible City

I want to share some thoughts about opportunities, belonging and living together. But let’s start with some background. At the Knutepunkt 2017 conference, I heard Eleanor Saitta use the term “the Invisible City” during her keynote address. And I was intrigued.

Using that as my jumping-off point, I put together some thoughts on tribes (or neo-tribes if you will) and how they relate to this concept. There’s a good chance that somebody else has already said something like this – probably in smarter words – but I haven’t come across it yet. So if you find that you’ve read all this with different words, I wouldn’t be surprised.

But for now – a time jump.

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Now, this isn’t Cultural History Of Humanity 101, so bear with me if I play a bit fast and loose with accuracy for the next couple of paragraphs. I’m trying to make some broad points here, not collapse entire nuanced fields. ;-)

With that said, we’ll start during the hunter-gatherer period. Here, at the beginning of human history, we lived in tribes.

The tribes were small, and everyone was involved in everything. Strictly speaking, that’s not true, of course, but it’s not too much of an overstatement. In the tribe, people were close, connected and communal. Specialisation was almost non-existent and there weren’t enough calories to go around to make “non-productive” occupations like artist, philosopher or even leader sustainable.

Enter the agricultural revolution.

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The hunter-gatherer turned into the farmer, and the nomadic tribe turned into the stationary village. The size of comunities grew, and with that the opportunities afforded. Food surplus meant that specialisation was possible, and even in early villages, it was possible to carve out a living without being a farmer.

Families (bigger than what many of us are used to) became mini-tribes in the village, and while people still lived close together, they were nowhere AS close. While the tribe offers little chance for loneliness, in the village it’s more of a risk, but on the other hand, there’s also less chance of feeling out of place. More pople means more chances of finding someone who shares your passion, whether it’s for Bronies, Egyptian architecture or Mozart.

And finding those people is vital.

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Sailing forward on the river of time, cities started appearing. Compared to the tribe, a city requires an extreme food surplus, and specialisation is now not only possible, but a must. Very little of what’s needed to sustain a city is actually produced WITHIN the city itself, but that doesn’t mean that city dwellers just idle about.

Factories, industries and production beyond the dreams of ancient villagers are products of the city. But it’s not just about goods. City life brings other change with it as well. In the city, you need to be able to not pay attention to everything.

“Civic inattention”, I’ve heard this called. The ability to walk past an argument without interfering. The ability to say “This has nothing to do with me” is vital, when living in a city, or you’d never survive.

On the plus side, diversity and multitudes bring people together, and those people create small tribes within the city. The Mozart lovers mentioned before in the village? Well, here they’re not five, but a hundred, and they have a club house and regular meetings. They even have their own internal schisms, and their own factions-within-the-tribe.

And the risk of loneliness? It’s a lot higher. You might know your neighbours, but maybe you don’t, and chances are good that you live quite far from family and friends.

If they even live in the city with you.

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Around the turn of the first millenium (Jesus time!), around one million people lived in the city of Rome. While that number may not be super precise, there’s no doubt that Ancient Rome was something else. It wasn’t just a city. It was a Metropolis, and today there are many of these.

I live in Copenhagen, which has roughly the number of inhabitants that Rome had at the time of Caesar. Everything that was true of the city is even more true of the metropolis. Loneliness is rampant, possibilities are vast and specialisation is unheard of. My wife and I sometimes joke that it’s possible to run a vegan bike shop in Copenhagen, and while I don’t know if that’s actually true (how do you make vegan bikes?) it proves the point well.

Our friends, the Mozart fans from earlier, are here in hordes. They have concert halls, amateur music organisations and put on grand shows. No longer just a handful drawn together by a common liking of classical music, they have guilds, clubs, influence and power.

And they’re not alone. The metropolis is brimming with creativity, diversity and opportunity, but it’s also easy to be dropped on the floor. You can walk for hours on end without leaving the metropolis, and even if you spend a day drifting around there’s no guarantee that anyone will care. Beggars, crazies and weirdos are a fact of life, and speaking to strangers is frowned upon.

But the iceberg is bigger still.

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New York. Beijing. Mumbai. Insane density. Insane complexity. The megacity has arrived, and it seems to be here to say. In New York, there are entire Jewish neighbourhoods, with their own tribal structures and cities-within-cities life. In London’s Soho district, artists used to be a dime-a-dozen. Hollywood in Los Angeles is its own microscopic eco system with a complete subset of social norms.

In the huge cities of today, you’re just one among many millions. It’s incredibly easy to get lost, and to feel like you don’t matter, because – frankly – you don’t. Anything seems possible, but it can also turn out to be a mirage. The number of stories about the smalltown kid that went to the big city “to make it” is big enough that it’s its own brand of literature.

Many of them don’t make it, but are eaten raw by the megacity. The land of the possible can also be the land of the impossible. Anyone who has moved from a village to a megacity knows that these are not just empty words. And any one who has moved the other way knows that life here follows patterns that are very different.

And our megacities are still growing.

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Are megacities better than villages? Is the city the optimal compromise? If only it was that simple. It isn’t. People are different, and their tastes even more so. And what might have been true for you ten years ago doesn’t need to be so now. What’s definitely true, though, is that transitions between one way of living and another are real.

And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the life of a hermit (forsaking even family and tribe), and it’s also ok wanting to live in Mexico City. But failing to grasp the differences can cause no end of trouble.

Enter the Invisible City.

Enter the Internet.

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Population: Billions

Location: Everywhere

Opportunities: Unlimited

Complexity: Unimagineable

Loneliness Factor: Extreme

We’re still learning to live in megacities, but the invisible city is something else. In one respect, it’s the biggest megacity we can imagine. In another, it’s a tiny village, where everyone lives side by side and gossips with a vengeance.

If I go home and complain to Marie that those idiots at work are annoying me with their complaining, they won’t necessarily hear about it. If I post on my facebook wall, not only will they hear, but so will thousands of other people. Public and private become muddled, and even the most innocent discussion can turn sour online. Fast.

In the physical world, I can curse and grumble all I want about people in Tokyo, because not only will they never hear me – odds are also good that they’ll never even hear OF me. Online, it takes only a few connections to bring my Tokyo rant to people who actually live there and who don’t take kindly to it.

It works the other way as well. A funny cat video can become an online sensation in hours. The humorous “Westeros Second” video Iulian and I did now has 42.000 views on youtube. I’ve once been in the middle of an actual viral media storm, due to College of Wizardry getting global fame. It’s wild. And it was only a small one.

But even though it feels far away, it’s also up close and personal. I don’t mind that there are literally billions of people on Earth that view my open marriage as immoral and wrong. But I do care when confronted with these views online, though I meet only the merest sliver of a figment of a fraction of the total of those who feel that way.

The invisible city defies our understanding due to its duality. It’s both megacity and village. Vast and tiny. Distant and close. And we’re not (yet) trained in how to live in it. We behave in ways we’d never accept offline, and we joke about “someone being wrong in the internet”.

We haven’t yet educated each other, and that makes living together hard.

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But let’s step back for a moment, and look back. Back to the tribe and the feeling of belonging.

It has never been easier to find your tribe. It has never been easier to create it, if it doesn’t yet exist. But it has also never been more important to belong to tribes that matter.

Families. Organisations. Fandoms. Religions. Nations. World of Warcraft guilds. We crave belonging, community and connection. One of the reasons that live action role play (which I do) is so powerful, is that it provides this. People enter our events as strangers and leave as a community. Again, it’s an oversimplification, but good enough for jazz.

And jazz lovers?

A vast tribe, with many sub-tribes.

Where we once lived with one tribe and stayed in the same geographical location (until moving on), our tribes are now scattered, complex and varied. They consist of families, train enthusiasts and Beyonce fans. They are professional, personal and private.

But they still matter tremendously.

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The internet is an amazing place, but it’s ways are tricky, and we have by no means gotten used to living there yet. We haven’t mastered its inherent duality and we constanty get ourselves and others in trouble because we bumble along in our quest to learn.

We need to understand that it has characteristics of both an enormous city and a tiny village. We need to realise that words on the world wide web can be both an unheard whisper and a world-shattering shout. We need to come to terms with our need to take the fights that matter and ignore those we must. And most of all, we have to figure out how to live both digitally and physically, and how we alternate between those states.

Tribes are at the core of the human experience. Though few people live in isolated tribes anymore, we are still tribal. We still crave the community, belonging and connection that tribes offer.

Tribes are everywhere, even if they look different from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. If you are a member of one or more of them, cherish that and help keep the tribe(s) alive. Let in newcomers who find you and feel at home. Keep out those who seek to poison and destroy.

Creating, expanding and maintaining tribes is hard work, but it’s not only worthwhile – it’s human.

If you’re currently tribeless – or need to find a new tribe while remaining in your current ones – don’t despair. You’ve never had so many to choose from as today. Even if you’ve also never had to do so much work in finding them yourself, it’s also never been as easy to create a tribe of your own.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that tribes don’t matter. They’ve never mattered more.

If you like my writing, and want to throw money at me to write more, you can do exactly that, using Patreon.

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=3351676a

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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