First World problems:

'Tom picked me up at the tiny airport in a taxi and brought me up to date. “I was living in Saigon,” he said, “and after a year I had to leave be­cause my life was spinning out of control. Then I was living in Rome, and I had to leave after six months because my life was spinning out of con­trol. Then I moved to Las Vegas, and I had to leave there, too, very quickly, because my life was definitely once again spinning out of control.”

"You were having trouble keeping yourself together in Rome, so you moved to Vegas?"’

— Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimmage for the Restless and the Hopeful

Being Together, Alone Together

I live about 4,100 miles from my mother. She’s in snowy Canada, I’m in (temporarily) snowy England. We talk regularly, email daily, and are “friends” on Facebook. I “see” her all the time. It’s not the same as in person, but still.

I wouldn’t notice if Twitter’s servers self-combusted, and I could live without Facebook, though it might be harder to find apartments or make contacts in [insert travel destination here], or to live vicariously through my acquaintances. (But then I might spend less time “liking” things and more time finding things I like.) If Skype irrevocably crashed, however, I would lose face-to-face contact (blurry and sometimes warped but still) with my family and closest friends, not to mention am affordable way to work across the Atlantic Ocean. More about that absurdity another time.

The Atlantic Monthly posted shots from photographer John Clang’s series Being Together. Clang, who immigrated from Singapore to New York more than a decade ago, superimposed photographs of people in their houses with photos of the relatives they Skype with projected on the walls. It brings them into view, if not in person. The story went online last September, but somehow it passed me in the slipstream of the internet.

I’m gearing up to write about communities the operate online and what lurks in the shadows of anonymity. I’ll also look at the perils of the modern, digital nomad. For a social science primer I’ll check out Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, a book that is at the top of my reading queue. Then I’ll probably Skype with someone far away. Then I’ll turn off my computer and go outside, dreary as a January day in London is.

More Reading
+ Go to The Atlantic for more images and quotes from Clang. And visit his website.

+ If you just so happen to be in Singapore, see Clang’s exhibit at the National Museum and take one of his masterclasses. The masterclasses end February 2 and the exhibit runs from January 23 to May 26, 2013.

+ Listen to an interview with Sherry Turkle on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Living Among the Sámi

American photographer Erika Larsen spent four years among the Sámi, an indigenous tribe who live in Scandinavia. Her photos show a people whose lives straddle tradition and modern life in a landscape that is beautiful, raw, and beyond stunning.

When they’re travelling, the Sámi stay in lávuts (shown above), their temporary homes on the tundra.

To see more of Larsen’s work, visit National Geographic’s online photo gallery.

Modern Nomad book excerpt on Occupy London

Boulderpavement, a literary magazine published by The Banff Centre, in Canada, has just published an excerpt from the modern nomad book that looks at Occupy London and the life of a temporary community.

Read it here:

The Virtual Reality of Google Maps

[Aram Bartholl's clever art intervention, in Taipei]

The London Underground was quick to the mark when Apple recently brought out its new operating system for iPhones, iOS6. Seen on a noticeboard at Highbury & Islington Station: “For the benefit of passengers using Apple iOS 6, local area maps are available from the booking office.” Dropping Google Maps from iOS6 left many iPhone users lost and confused. In a city like London, where people are happy to give you directions if only they knew where they were, Google Maps was indispensible.

Which makes you wonder: How does Google build its maps? Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, asks this very question in a recent story. Madrigal, who met with numerous Google mappers, including a former engineer for NASA, writes that, “How the two operating systems incorporate geo data and present it to users could become a key battleground in the phone wars.”

Part of that data is collected from Google’s Street View cars. Setting aside the creepy issue of seeing people and your own home online, without your permission, Google Maps is an example of the blurring and blending real worlds and digital worlds. “Humans are coding every bit of the logic of the road onto a representation of the world,” Madrigal writes, “so that computers can simply duplicate (infinitely, instantly) the judgments that a person already made.”

Think about this as more than just humans using data and creating real-world maps. This is about how our mental images of the physical world will change as we create more sophisticated programs to represent it. Manik Gupta, a product manager, told Madrigal, “If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online. Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part.”

Madrigal continues: “As we slip and slide into a world where our augmented reality is increasingly visible to us off and online, Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.”

But Google Maps is about more than just accurate information or, with the case of Street View, privacy issues, or even about how data is king. It’s about how our perception of real and virtual have already changed so much. The same way our children will not remember the era of cassette tapes and the world pre-smartphone, they will likely have different mental reconstructions of the world around them.

Unless they’re using iOS6. Then they might just get lost.

Reading List
+ Shout-out to long-form journalism. I first read this on Longreads.

+ Worried about being caught walking through your living naked when one of Google’s Street View vehicles rolls by? Read The Guardian's story about Google’s latest privacy controversy.

The Art of Packing


More fun with travel: artist Adolf Konrad’s 1963 “packing list!” Via

What Happens When a Nomad Can Wander No More?

Having just returned from France, where I travelled the Canal du Nivernais by barge—arriving home heavier than when I left, thanks to the nightly four-course meals—the waterways and sea are on my mind.

[A young seafaring nomad. Photograph by Bangkok-based freelance photographer Giorgio Taraschi, via The Guardian]

I arrived home to find a note from a friend about the Moken nomads, a tribe of seafarers from Burma and Thailand. These are not modern nomads—their migrant roots go back up to 4,000 years, according to a story in The Guardian. As borders shut for many people, they open up for others, such as those of us with the privilege of money and dual citizenship and multiple passports (in Jay-Z’s words, “Got five passports / I ain’t never going to jail.”) If the modern nomad is the individual with the luxury to work across borders, to move three, four, five times in as many years, to form communities across continents, the traditional nomad is seeing their world get smaller. The Moken, for instance, are being forced ashore by falling fish stocks (thanks to overfishing by international companies and the 2004 tsunami).

[A Moken nomad works the aisles at a 7-Eleven in Thailand. Photograph by Bangkok-based freelance photographer Giorgio Taraschi, via The Guardian

The challenges they face illustrate the complexity of nomadism. In 2012, you must be from somewhere, you must claim (and prove) citizenship.

A recent push by various charities and the Thai government to issue Thai identity cards has granted some access to state-run schools and health care, but claiming full-blown citizenship – by proving that they, or a parent, were born in Thailand – is a complex issue for a nomadic people who hardly use numbers and mark the date according to the tide, not the Gregorian calendar.

The result is a dislocation that eerily matches that of modern nomads, but with different results. Social problems, such as substance abuse, are spreading; luxury resorts squeeze Moken into housing situations that sound very much like the reserve structure of Canada’s First Nations (with similar problems); and cultural amnesia seems inevitable. What happens when a nomadic group can no longer migrate? “Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least,” a community leader named Hong told The Guardian. “Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We’ve abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely.”

+ See “Living With the Moken,” The Guardian's photo gallery with Taraschi's pictures of Moken nomads.

+ As some nomads are being forced out of the sea, others are flocking there. Is “seasteading”–ocean-based cities–the final frontier in urban design? See this piece in The Economist for more.

The Hobo Code

1. The Hobo Code circ 1889. See Web Urbanist for more about hobo culture in America.

2. The Hobo Code circa 2012, in Good magazine’s Migration issue. Also, apparently, the name of an episode of Mad Men.

The Young and the Restless

Warning: geek alert! More esoteric scribblings about Bruce Chatwin!

[“In Search of Bigfoot (Ode to Thoreau),” by Tricia McKellar, for sale at Society 6.]

Are we born nomads? Are we meant to be restless? How does one tackle a chapter on that ocean called “community”? These are the sorts of questions I wrestle as I research for my book about modern nomads, drifters and next-gen communities.

What does this mean? Well, I’m wading, like a child who is only learning to swim, into a deep philosophical pool of citizenship, community and home–those esoteric things of which there are many definitions and no fixed answers. And with uncertainty comes restlessness.

But I’ve leave aside these intellectual insecurities for a moment to share a thought by Benjamin Phelan about another restless soul, the late author Bruce Chatwin. In the following quote, Phelan is thinking about the transition from nomadism to agriculture and about Chatwin’s theory that humankind was built to be nomadic. (I’m quite broadly synthesizing this, so if you like Chatwin, follow the link above to read Phelan’s book review in the New York Observer.)

It’s a long quote, tangentially linked to the meaning of home and notions of community, so bear with me:

Since Chatwin died, it has been shown by molecular genomics that humanity teetered on the verge of extinction in the distant, prehistoric past, and that our genomes are still reeling from the violent transition from nomadism to agriculture. The humans who survived weren’t the strongest or the smartest, necessarily, but the most restless—the ones who upped sticks and left the trouble behind. We are their descendants. We carry that DNA that saved them.

This hyperbolic assertion of our innate nomadism is one I only partly share. But I find something comforting in it, as if it affirms the inevitability of restlessness.

Tangential, eh? Geeky, certainly.

Well, you were warned.

Citizens Without Frontiers

As I get ready to tackle a chapter for The Modern Nomad book that questions what that worn-out word “community” really means, I am draw to Engin Isin's ideas about what migration does to one's notion of citizenship. Isin is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at The Open University. “In a way, boundedness is the very condition of citizenship,” he said in “Citizens Without Frontiers,” a speech he gave last February. “By using ‘citizens with-out frontiers’ are we not creating an empty concept?” He continues:

Yet, as many scholars observe, it is this boundedness of citizenship to the nation-state that has become problematic in the age of migration and globalisation. Many scholars have noted that with the increasing movements of people across boundaries there have been transnational, cosmopolitan, global forms of citizenship where dual and multiple nationalities are being negotiated. Some have attempted to develop concepts of cosmopolitan or global citizenship. Others have called for open borders. Yet, all these pre-suppose, I submit, a moving subject rather than an acting subject.

These are some of the ideas I’ll explore in my otherwise un-academic exploration of community and migration, of what makes a place a home and what fosters community. I suspect I will come across stories about ambiguity and confusion, migrants who can’t quite say where is home or what citizenship they feel in their hearts–never mind the one on their passports.

I’ve thought about citizenship and belonging for a long time. My mother was born in Northern Ireland and emigrated for Canada in the mid 1960s. Time wore away one accent and replaced it with another. Decades passed before she took Canadian citizenship. So is she Canadian or British? Is she both? For some people, it becomes a quest, a question, a riddle: Where is home? This is central to the question of citizenship.

Another question: Is it time to come up with new notions of citizenship and new definitions of community?