Liberating ourselves by segregating ourselves

Back in junior high school when I was unknowingly suffocating from living a double-layered monolithic life in a Japanese (layer 1) suburban (layer 2) area, I was thunderstruck during the sociology class by reading in the textbook about the mythical diverse culture that existed somewhere in the land of Far West called the U.S. According to the short blurb, a dream-like society was starting to emerge where people with different skin colors, cultures, and beliefs could co-exist without trying to assimilate each other. It was the 80s, you know.

I thought: How wonderful it would be to live in a world without peer pressure, where you don’t have to live according to unwritten rules? Of course back then I couldn’t articulate my desire this clearly (if I could have, I wouldn’t have stayed in Japan for long), but the idea that I might be able to find a place where I would not feel constrained stuck with me, eventually leading me to settle into Taiwan at the beginning of the new millennium.

I have associated myself with nomads: people who do not belong to where they should belong. It was a great feeling to find a perfect niche in the world, almost free from the constraints of group-mentality tribes (Yes my view is skewed and unfair. Let’s move on.) But lately, I have started to have a deja vü sensation: I have been surrounding myself with the same type of people all the time. The difference between the past and present is that this time, I am one of them.

I listed twenty most-frequently contacted friends online and offline, and none of them belong to the “majority” in the traditional sense. Or in other words, I cannot describe any of my friends in a stereotypical way, such as “American-born Chinese doctor,” “expatriate housewife,” or “marketing manager in an international firm.” My friends are (mix any three from the following list): Actor/designer/dancer/engineer/Buddhist/Chinese medicine doctor/photographer/martial arts instructor/yoga teacher/poet/painter/English teacher. As for me, I am a Japanese guy working in a Taiwanese company writing English manuals and practicing Tibetan Buddhism.

It looks like I am in a community with diverse backgrounds and philosophies. But maybe it is not. Members of my “tribe” do have a huge common ground: We do not belong to the majority and we are proud of it. And that unspoken pact both unites us and repels people who live according to the unimaginative “accepted standards.” I fear that instead of mingling with various types of people, we have been isolating ourselves from folks who do not share core identities. And I think the same attitude applies to other “tribes” too.

I think this is happening because thanks to the Net, we can effectively blind ourselves from the existence of people who do not share ideas with us. In this paper titled Internet Islands: The rise of digital fortresses and the end of the Digital Republic, the Internet is helping us getting disconnected as well as connected. We will soon be living in isolated digital fortresses feuding with each other, instead of enjoying a unified world society that was once promised. Here is a quote from the paper.

The Internet of 2010, a care-free childhood where you could go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything is no more. The unitary Internet is a memory, replaced by Internet Islands protected by government-run agencies and closely-allied corporate empires.

The technology is always neutral—it can be used both ways. And sadly, grouping with like-minded people is easier than reaching out to strangers. I can already see the influence of the Internet as a tool for isolation. On-demand streaming videos saves (prevents) us from receiving information that are irrelevant to our current interests. Google news feeds us customized views of the world as we want. Facebook accelerates the pace of uniting like-minded people.

These conditions might apply only to residents of a large city (Taipei in my case). But the fact is, half of the world’s population is living in the city as of now and the number of urban tribes is only growing, making digital isolation a global movement.

When I was in Japan I used to think I would choke myself because that society was so homogeneous. Am I (or are we) getting back to square one?