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Venkatesh Rao (one of my favorite provocative thinkers) noodles around with the idea of "streams" -- demographics of people who follow a particular international course, in long, stable, weird, nearly invisible arcs. Rao calls this "Globalization as liquefaction" and says, "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."
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.
Today, the New York Times has an excellent introduction to the concept, by Ethan Watters, author of Therapy's Delusions. It's a good overview of his upcoming book. Quoth Ethan:
In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill -- doctors or shamans or priests -- inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another. That is until recently.The Americanization of Mental Illness (article)