We’ve all had that special moment of talking to or listening to the ones we love. Such an exchange spans time, cultures and generations. For most of history we’ve been talking to our kin. The people we trust, rely on for mutual aid and protection in a dangerous and uncertain world. Our kin were the ones we loved, who loved us in return and gave substance to life and made it worth living. The idea of family is simple on its face but complex in practice. Family, kin, and relatives have an enduring quality that has changed over time.
In 1992, I was introduced to General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh at Sanam Luang. I watched as he addressed a crowd estimated to be 80,000 people who had come together to protest against the unelected prime minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon at a time of political strife in Thailand. I will never forget his opening words that rang through the vast audience assembled at Sanam Luang.
“Poh, Mae, Pee, Nong…”
The crowd roared their approval upon hearing the words (which translate to “Father, Mothers, Brothers and Sisters” in English. General Chavalit (who later became prime minister in 1996) addressed the assembled audience as members of the same family. This emotional moment struck a chord in 1992 but play the tape forward to 2019, a new generation of Thais no longer accept this trope as the organizing principle used in the political sphere. In Thailand and many other countries, the family model hasn’t only lost traction with the young. The resistance of the young people has not stopped the family to continue as a powerful platform for populist and autocrats. Time is on the side of the young. The message is clear. We are shifting gears and pulling out of the kinship model of the world. The challenge is to shift our idea of the family so that it belongs to the scientific realm of DNA. We need to be on the alert to political systems that disconnect it from biology and insert it in politics. We are in an age of politicized kinship that is in transition.
In 2017 I wrote an essay titled The Kinship Headlock.
Over the last two years, the implications of our new digital connectivity have transformed the social and economic ecology for millions of people leaving the political realm in the position of catchup.
“Thailand’s culture largely revolves around a modified kinship model. This is not unique. China is an example of the kind of ancestor worship, paternal hierarchy, father/son set of values that underlies the political system. Given the success of China economically, and the ongoing decline of the United States in its international leadership role, it is time to assess the conflict between kinship-based and individual-based political systems.”
In my last book Rooms: On Human Domestication and Submission (2019) I explored the historical world of limited connectivity among people and the broad connectivity people shared with nature. There is a fair amount of evidence that we have technologically reversed this polarity giving us massive connectivity among genetically unrelated people and reduced our connectivity with nature to the level of Discovery or National Geographic channels. This is a challenge on many levels. We evolved over a couple of hundred thousand years in social relations which were based on kinship. Connectivity was an extension of our DNA to others with whom we traced a common ancestor. Our psychological wiring put in place by our relationship between kin and non-kin as the defining element to distinguish friend and foe, strangers and family, good people and bad people.
The revolution in technology has been to rewire our psychology, norms and values, creating a new way of seeing the world. Thirty years ago, when I first came to live in Thailand, I entered a world of landline phones. Answering machines. Word of mouth. A variety of physical meeting places such as offices, FCCT, embassy receptions, restaurants, clubs and bars. We got our news from newspapers. Magazines. Letters. Books. We watched local Thai TV and occasional foreign films in theaters. There were no cable TV, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
When I arrived in Bangkok in 1988, I was equal distance in time from Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Fast forward to 2019, the world is the same distance from my first arrival in Southeast Asia. The similarly ends when you consider how dramatic the changes have been in connectivity when compared to any earlier period of time. We are connected to vast networks of non-kin. This degree of connectivity is far beyond our biological, psychological, and cognitive heritage. In this new culture of connectivity, we start our day by scrolling through social media timelines. We notice headlines. We notice who left comments. Who liked or disliked our posts, many personalities, stories, or ideological inspired positions. Our morning information diet ranges anywhere from funny pet videos or hot political topics of the day to Trump’s tweets, to the ethics of AI, Russian oligarchs, climate breakdown, BREXIT, robots, genetic engineering, to celebrity news. That’s only before breakfast.
We and our cognitive biases are connected to multiple information nodes. Algorithms continuously update on what we like and approve, and feed us more of the same kind of content.
In this high probability algorithms, information of what we like and approve has high commercial and political value. Communities nest around the series of global information oasis. You are likely drinking information from one as you travel the digital silk road.
Our old model of social and economic connectivity no longer accurately reflects how we define ourselves and others in terms of friend and foe. Kinship hasn’t conceded its importance to the digital territorial advances on its domain. One finds the ideas based on kinship still an important factor in politics in many countries. The idea of greater political connectivity to match what is happening on the social and economic fronts has faced substantial resistance. Ethno-nationalists carry the torch for the old kinship to recapture the social and economic domains. Not surprisingly, there has been a clash between the two perspectives about connectivity. We have politicians and activists ringing the kinship bell, but their activities must now compete with the larger and expanded connectivity options.
Kinship-based connectivity has a difficult time. Excluding strangers was never an easy task even in the pre-digital age. There were always exceptions for exceptional, talented, extraordinary people. Ordinary people stuck together to face down ‘other’ ordinary people not like them. The Internet has given ordinary people who are more educated than in the past a voice, a platform, and the possibility of influencing others. Connectivity is an enterprise. We’ve all become vendors and consumers, budding thought and idea entrepreneurs. We recycle the thoughts and ideas of others. We create memes that go viral. That’s a digital homerun. The new connectivity appeals because it does more to meet our basic needs for recognition, status, rank and winning.
A sea of ink has been used to write about the dopamine hit experienced on social media. It’s not been only proverbial ink that has scrawled the message of our connectivity. Black Mirror in the episode titled Nosedive captured the impact of social ranking in a digital universe with a chilling brilliance. Chinese social credit ranking brought Black Mirror to reality for 1.3 billion Chinese. We find ourselves at this crossroad. Shedding the old styled kinship connectivity for the digital communities that share our feelings, likes, dislikes, with ability to form a mob at the drop of a few keystrokes.
There is more at work that the digital revolution. In 1800, an estimated 1 billion people were scattered around the globe. A century and a half later, in 1950 the number had swelled to 2.5 billion. By 2019, the population inflated to 7.7 billion people and we have predictions of 9 to 11 billion crowding the earth by 2050. With such large numbers of people arriving in a relative short period of time, it is no surprise that the role of kinship has changed over the last 200 years. Without the global “room culture” that began 6,000 years ago, we would still be a population of a few million divided into kinship bands and clans. Instead, as I discussed my book Rooms, with the advent of agriculture, rooms and modern industries, billions of people are now living in cities. Inside rooms. Connected to people in other rooms, other cities half way around the world. Our connectivity will continue to accelerate until in the not-too-distant future we will all be connected 24-hours a day through one or more devices. Inside those rooms and cities, the connectivity served as an incubator for the rapid innovation of new technology that further accelerates our mutual connections.
During the first 5800 years of the room culture, the kinship structure was the backbone of our personal relationship and could be found playing a central role in social, political and economic life. Rooms proved to be the perfect artificial construct to rewire the reality of social interaction. We view our lives in this artificial setting as normal. Building permanent rooms was the first step in a long transition to introducing greater degrees of artificiality—from a society closely knit based on kinship to organized networks of complex, multi-layered social relations involving far beyond kinship and borders. Many people now feel stronger affiliation with people whom they have never met in real life than with their own kin. We have become accustomed over the centuries to view the artificial (as in mad-made) and non-kin as norm. Once that happened, there was no return to nature or kin. What is the next step? That’s difficult to predict. One possibility is as sexual reproduction is replaced by technical advances in biology, genetics, and chemistry, those born in the distant future may not share our view of kinship.
We are at the beginning of a major transition of how our species connects and maintains connections. Connectivity has arrived faster than anyone would have thought. Ask yourself, who is another human being you spend more time with than your smartphone. We are gradually being weaned from human connection that isn’t delivered by a device. Connectivity in the future is Homo sapiens connected to machine intelligence.
Our massive population share a device connectivity that is a broader, wider and deeper than ever before. So far, the enhanced connectivity has led to not only a wider network of acquaintances and intense information overload, but also conflict, fear and anger. Many people have become highly emotional over kinship in the form of extreme nationalism or nativism. After 200,000 years, it is difficult to let go. But here we are, a transitional generation as will be the next couple of generations before the foundations of a new connectivity order reveal themselves. The Transhumanism movement embraces this transition of connectivity between human beings and machines. But others are horrified of where that road may lead. Meanwhile, hold on tight as the amusement ride of life has some sharp curves to navigate.
How will we recognize the new foundation which replaces kinship in politics? When we start talking to the ones we don’t like or approve. It’s much easier talking to the ones you love. That’s why the transition is difficult. Our emotional framework needs retooling. I’m looking around, and I see the first signs of the new tool makers.
In 2021, I’ll be back with another report on kin, digital devices and connectivity to see how far we have come.