After the family unit proper, which is a special kind of group, based on the desire for sexual reproduction and the raising of a “new crop” of humans, tribes are the smallest natural groups in which we humans find safety and comfort.
Tribes were, for a long time, the predominant form of human social organization. They lost importance when, after the advent of agriculture and commerce, larger units of organization such as villages, cities and states gained ascendance.
Today, after a long phase of development of forming ever larger groups – nations, groups of nations – we are arriving at a point where globalization, or the forming of a single group that embraces all of mankind, is becoming a real possibility. But there is a backlash, because in such large groups, the voice of individuals and their desires are completely lost. The difference between the group and the individual composing it just becomes unmanageably large.
Democracy, which may have worked well in its infancy in Greece, where assemblies of the people in city squares could discuss issues and come to a conclusion, is now showing its limitations. Even the intermediation of representatives that has led to the formation of parliaments is no longer providing any real way for an individual to be truly represented or to form an important part of the whole with a voice that counts.
The new tribes
So after all, tribes are back in vogue. Seth Godin makes the point that the phenomenon has come back with a vengeance in his book Tribes – We Need You to Lead Us and in this talk at TED:
We are forming groups again, but this time with a difference.
In the age of the internet, we are forming tribes across all boundaries imposed by distance. Those groups we form no longer have location as a determining characteristic. Interest and culture perhaps, the ties of an extended family sometimes, whatever the uniting element, it is no longer a certain location.
And those tribes we form today are different in another respect. They are no longer exclusive. We aren’t limited to membership in one particular tribe. As a matter of fact, we routinely take part in more than just one tribe in our social interactions through the net.
Some of the members of those tribes we form have a special knack for bridging differences. They link the different tribes they belong to by translating terminology and providing an initial link of affinity that subsequently allows other members of those different tribes to directly interact. Connectors is what they have been called by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, in recognition of their special role.
Will connected tribes become the drivers for a radical renewal of democracy? Perhaps the proponents of Direct Democracy would do well to leverage the phenomenon of tribes in a wide sense, as potential participants in what the co-intelligence institute calls informed deliberation. Tom Atlee hints at this possibility in his Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgement when he says:
Local groups could even set up citizen deliberative programs, pilot projects or even official institutions in their own communities, and network with other community groups who are doing the same thing, to share experiences. They could lobby together for official citizen deliberative functions at local, state and national levels — and even do global experiments in cross-cultural citizen deliberation…
Above all, at this stage, we need to help issue-oriented activists and advocacy groups understand the need to build a more intelligent, wise democracy that is capable of addressing ALL issues more effectively. Otherwise, if everyone remains narrowly focused on their own issues, they’ll remain frustrated by the obstacles and reversals that are built into our dysfunctional political system.
Certainly the connections across tribes allow us to construct what has been called collective intelligence. Tribes are the neurons, the brain cells of that new intelligence that humanity is forming. It is possible now for anyone who would like to know about something to find the tribe where that knowledge resides and to ask. Bits of information knowledge and wisdom thus become available to the different parts of humanity, forming – in time – one co-intelligent entity that will transcend anything we have known so far.
It’s a p2p world!