I have met the enemy and it is tribalism

In 2001 I went to an O’Reilly conference with the unwieldy name Peer-to-Peer and Web Services. It was, in retrospect, the forerunner of the more succintly named Web 2.0 conference. The 2001 conference, which had originally been scheduled for late September, was pushed into November by the 9/11 disaster. But it wound up being one of the most eclectic I’ve ever attended, and for that reason one of the best. I rubbed elbows with hackers, musicians, lawyers, journalists, venture capitalists, and most unusually for me, soldiers.

It was a soldier who made the most lasting impression. Earl Wardell, who worked for the Joint Chiefs, said things I would never have thought a soldier could say to a crowd like us. Conventional command-and-control wasn’t working. The enemy had mastered the art of network agility. It was now imperative for our military services to understand and apply the ways of the web, and we in the vanguard were invited to help guide that historic transformation.

It was a stunning moment. Since then, I’ve wondered from time to time whether that invitation had remained open, whether it had been accepted, and if so what were the outcomes.

This month that invitation was extended to me, and by a strange coincidence not once but twice. Last week I spoke to an intelligence advisory board at an undisclosed location near Washington, on a panel where I was flanked by a Google executive and a Nashville music promoter. This week I spoke at the Highlands Forum in Carmel, California, where members of the Web 2.0 tribe met with our military counterparts.

Both gatherings were extraordinary events for me. The rules of engagement between “my” tribe and “their” tribe are loosely defined, so I’m not sure how much I can or should say here, but I will report the following observations.

First, the invitation I heard in 2001 was real, and remains open. Some of the best and brightest minds in the US military are keenly aware that the emerging web will be a fundamental enabler of the transformation they urgently wish to effect.

Second, the future is as unevenly distributed inside the DoD as it is everywhere else. I have met folks who are discouraged, cynical, and who see no signs of the needed transformation. And I’ve met other folks who are energized, hopeful, and deeply engaged in making that transformation happen.

Third, I have met the enemy and it is tribalism. I recently heard an interview with E.O. Wilson in which he was asked to react to the critiques of religion that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have famously been making. The problem isn’t religion, Wilson said, it’s tribalism. The two often coincide but they are not the same thing. Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.

I said when I joined Microsoft that my goal was to build bridges. We need to build bridges within the technical world, between the Microsoft tribe and the open source tribe. We also need to build bridges between the geek tribe as a whole and the rest of the world, because when you strip away the Linux and Vista T-Shirts we geeks share much more DNA with one another than with the vast majority born without the hacking chromosome.

We also need to build bridges between the civilian tribe and the military tribe. I’ve now had the rare opportunity to see that those bridges are in the process of being built, and I’ll do whatever I can to keep that momentum going.

Meanwhile, here’s my takeway. Tribalism is an aspect of human nature, so it must once have served a purpose, but it no longer does. It’s a piece of evolutionary baggage that we can no longer afford to carry around. I don’t know if we can let go of it, but we had better at least try.

42 Comments

  1. said things I would never have thought a soldier could say to a crowd like us.

    We saw this way back in 1991 – when the Marines deployed a Banyan VINES network to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield. We just didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it. And we didn’t have the internet of course.

    But just giving email to the guys at the pointy end was pretty nifty – they could send information to .. anyone .. as fast as the bits would fly using laptops and backback FM radios. This seems like a given now but it was a clear signal – then – that Things Had Changed.

  2. Haven’t you just joined a bigger, more violent, tribe?

    Oh, and when you next get together, could you ask the military to stop torturing suspects and obey the constitution?

  3. Tribalism is an aspect of human nature, so it must once have served a purpose, but it no longer does.

    It would be useful to be a bit more careful in distinguishing “tribalism” as a way of organising whole societies from the modern usage meaning “blinkered allegiance to a certain cultural group”. The latter definition, when seen as emerging from the former, seems to have as much to do with such Victorian notions as “the savage” – used to legitimise genocide and slavery – as it has to do with any accurate extrapolation of meaning from the nature of “primitive” societies. We all know tribal societies aren’t blueprints for peace and perfection, but neither are they well represented by this use of the word “tribalism”.

    OK, I know language has its own life, riding on tides of ignorance and prejudice as much as analysis and evidence; but it seems worth pointing out. In shifting the blame from “religion” to “tribalism”, we might be just pushing our negative judgement further back along the “ladder of progress”. Religions still thrive and have a lot of clout with which to defend the concept; but tribalism has almost been annihilated by industrialism, and there’s not many voices to stand up for that concept being abused and denigrated.

    Terminology aside, and ceedee’s excellent point notwithstanding… agreed, we need more communication between social factions.

  4. Excellent point that needs to be made. Contextual understanding of the circumstances can only help. Keep it comin’!

    I understand that trade is a great way to cement those bridges. “They” clearly want what “You” have. What can they trade in return? Maybe they can shed some light on dealing with unevenly distributed futures. Or how C&C failed them and why they think that “transformation” is necessary. What else does the military have to trade?

  5. Hi Jon…why don’t you go ahead and stir the pot! *grin* You managed to swirl the Iraq War, the “New Atheism”, and Microsoft vs. Linux all into one post, AND tie it together. LOL. Again, I salute you.

    Your point is…valid, on the whole. And useful. But there’s a bit of a mismash there, IMO. The cognitive dissonance I see is interesting, because I flip the bits on it, pretty much. You’re taking a great stand in the middle in the MS vs. F/OSS debate, and encouraging people to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. It’s worth saying. (I struggle back and forth with this…I even agree to a certain extent, but the fact remains that there are issues with using some MS tools in some situations that I am not willing to compromise on.) OTOH, it sounds like you aren’t even willing to go into the pool and discuss Sam Harris and Richard Dawkin’s thesis…you neatly duck around it with the “Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.” comment. (that may still be quoting Wilson, but even if that’s the case, you’re quoting to agree). Making an end run around the argument by changing it isn’t exactly pragmatic middle ground meeting, you know. *grin*

    You may very well have, but I have to ask…have you READ either Harris (The End of Faith) or Dawkins (The God Delusion). The arguments are more nuanced than you might think if you haven’t…Harris argues against DOGMA, not purely religion (note the name of the book isn’t “The End of Religion”), and actually has good things to say about some manfestations of spirituality. Both are recommended if you haven’t read them.

    And with a (further…no reason for me not to do the same thing! *grin*) substitution of “dogma” for “tribalism”, I’m pretty much on board with you. In all 3 circumstances you discuss, dogma (“institionalized, blind belief”) is indeed a cause of problems. And I’m perfectly willing to stand in the middle and discuss things with anyone when both they and I are required to define and defend our statements…my issues with both religion, proprietary software, and war are (I hope!) grounded in reality as well as passion.

    Great posting regardless, Jon. You always make me think.

  6. Hi Jon –

    Above you say,

    “The problem isn’t religion, Wilson said, it’s tribalism. The two often coincide but they are not the same thing. Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.”

    I’d like to see you tease out what those differences are, starting with a definition of terms. Tribalism is a buzz word. Exactly what is “tribalism” and how do you define it?

    Underlying attitudes may be formed without the pressure of a “tribe.” Like-minded people then come together in social networks. I think you’re implying the opposite. The “tribe” forms and a common, biased viewpoint is enforced and accepted by all members. In politics this might be called a platform.

    Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

  7. I would add nationalism to this. Just look at the lack of real debate before we went to war in Iraq. The response was if you question going to war – you are unpatriotic.

  8. Please drop the talking points, people. This isn’t a political forum.

    I don’t think you’ll be able to keep people from locking into tribes. People will always feel good when they feel like they ‘belong’ someplace, or think they understand something that resonates with their gifts & personality.

    I think the key is that people be invited into, and try out, multiple tribes. Then the negative effects of having only finite allegiances are softened.

    Alternatively, create mechanisms that allow people to find their own limitations. Once people realize what blinders they put on by falling into a certain way, they’ll be less likely to.

  9. Ken K., excellent comments.

    The bigger picture around religion, tribalism, etc. Is that it is all based on a difference of opinion, even if that difference of opinion is as to what is fact and what is not. Until Microsoft and the Evangelical Church join forces to successfully turn humans into the Borg humans will always have a difference of *opinion*. Sometimes that opinion will fall into the category of religion and other times it may fall into the category of tribalism. (I am working very hard to not go off on a long tangent about how the human brain is wired to look for (similarities or) differences in patterns and how this creates our desire to categorize everything in the first place. And differentiation often leads to conflict.)

    Putting aside the age old philosophical discussions like necessary good vs unnecessary evil, and man is inherently good vs man is inherently evil, you always have the inevitable problem of limited resources. In the physical realm, once infinite population growth is no longer supported by finite resources , it is inevitable that conflict will arise (we must all work towards getting off this rock!). In the realm of the mind, until all of mankind is omniscient, there will inevitably be conflict based on differences of opinion.

    I believe that Dawkins and Harris, and the other people mentioned in this thread, would all agree that all we can hope to achieve, at least for the foreseeable future, is to mitigate the ill effects of these conflicts, regardless of their origin. (bad pun intended – sue me).

  10. I love this post and your theme.

    I can’t quite figure out how the RSS feed also delivered a Dawkins interview podcast (I would have liked the Wilson one, but I see how to find it.)

  11. “The problem isn’t religion, Wilson said, it’s tribalism. The two often coincide but they are not the same thing. Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.”

    When you say “tribalism”, what do you mean?

    (I thought I could guess, but then you referred to you and others at a conference as being from different tribes, so I wasn’t sure what you were intending with that label.)

  12. “we need more communication between social factions”

    “I think the key is that people be invited into, and try out, multiple tribes”

    Yes. That’s the practical takeway for me.

  13. “Have you READ either Harris (The End of Faith) or Dawkins (The God Delusion)”

    I’ve heard podcasts in which both lay out these arguments at length, but that’s admittedly not the same as having read the books. (I have read almost everything else by Dawkins though.)

    I agree with Wilson that Dawkins comes across as rather shrill on this topic. Harris not so much, I actually like his perspective a lot, and the point about dogma is well taken.

    I /really/ like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which explores religion as a biological phenomenon and imagines in great detail how it could have evolved.

  14. “you referred to you and others at a conference as being from different tribes”

    That’s not a label I imposed, it’s a label that was self-assigned by members of the groups represented there.

    “Not sure I disagree, but what makes you so sure?”

    Because I can’t see any upside to tribalism.

    “tribalism has almost been annihilated by industrialism, and there’s not many voices to stand up for that concept being abused and denigrated”

    As I said I’m sure it served it purpose, or we wouldn’t be hardwired for it. But what good is it in the modern world? Seems like one of those vestiges, like our ability to store fat efficiently, that just causes problems.

  15. By the way, Sam Harris is very right to point out that religion gets a free pass and shouldn’t. I agree with that. Like Dennett, I also think it’s /possible/ that religion itself is the pernicious force that Harris and Dawkins say that it is. Dennett opens his book by suggesting that religion might literally be a parasite working only for its own benefit, not ours. But he doesn’t assert that, he allows there /may/ be an upside to religion, and he urgently wants us to subject religion to real scientific scrutiny. I violently agree with that.

    Now, I’m not a religious person and I don’t know enough about the subject to even discuss it usefully, though I find all of these perspectives fascinating. But for what it’s worth, I was struck by Wilson’s point that the instincts and behaviors and beliefs associated with religion are not necessarily pernicious, but that those associated with tribalism (of the kinds we see today) probably are.

  16. I saw this post and said, “better check the comments”.

    Gyrus: “language has its own life, riding on tides of ignorance and prejudice as much as analysis and evidence”; that’s wonderful.

    Christopher Galtenberg, Ken Kennedy, many others, thanks for your thoughts.

    Congratulations to you Jon on the quality of your readership [commentership?].

  17. “Congratulations to you Jon on the quality of your readership [commentership?].”

    I am indeed fortunate. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

    – Jon

  18. Jon:

    The enemy is us; the American people.

    Because of blind fear we have a willingness to support a foreign policy of “With us or against us.” A foreign policy akin to putting a cat on a leash that invites animosity among those countries not considered out allies and designed to provoke a response just like any 2nd grade kid called names by the school bully. A foreign policy exquisitely designed to grow the revenue of the military industrial complex by half a trillion of our tax dollars or more, and to gain widespread support for what amounts to imperial conquest.

    The problem with “us” is that we empower our country’s leaders to alienate the moderates in other countries, people who never were our enemies, but our conquests so rightly anger them that they do become our enemies. And the well-crafted vicious cycle continues, unabated.

    America’s governance model is still the best, and if we as the American people were to approach this from a rational perspective, we wouldn’t collectively empower such egregious behavior. But we have “thought” with our emotions, our response having been skillfully orchestrated by our government, and the results benefit a few and are a detriment for the many.

    Make no mistake, the enemy is us.

  19. I feel a certain amount of alarm at the statement that “tribalism” is inherently “bad”. That statement is a very broad brush to apply, especially without a clear definition of the term by the author. Check out any Sociology 101 textbook and you’ll find individuals, families, tribes, communities, cities, counties, states, countries and finally the world, as places where people interact and live within. Any of these, if not serving the needs of it’s members, would be dysfunctional. The old saw that says that it takes a tribe to raise a child is not a negative comment, so how would tribalism be “bad” if it met the needs of it’s members, especially with regards to successful child rearing? So, I disagree with the entire premise. I’d much rather have a functional “tribe” to protect me from a dysfunctional family. Let’s try a different tact here, just for ducks. “Power and Authority has an equal and attendant amount of Responsibility. Any difference between the two is the degree of dysfunction.” That’s mine, feel free to use it as “Wayward4now’s Maxim”. Apply it towards any type of social interactions, either by individuals or groups. Cock your head to one side, squint at the situation and decide for yourself if it is functional, with responsible power and authority, or non-functional serving only the raw need for power with no responsibility. Therein lies the crux of all relations, nurturing or abusive. Period. Extend that to Religion, President Bush, your mom and dad, your police, your potential mate, your boss, your friends. See who has the Power and are they Responsible using it? Again, any difference between the two is the degree of dysfunction. Next time you watch MSNBC, assign degrees of dysfunction values to the stories you hear. It’ll not only change the way you perceive people and issues, you’ll study yourself as well. Say you want a promotion. Great! Now step back and honestly observe yourself for a moment and ask yourself, “Can I handle the Responsibility for others successfully with equal amount that comes with my new level of Power and Authority?” If you don’t have it, step carefully away. If not equal to the task, people can be hurt. We have 2.7 million abusive people locked up in the U.S. 70% will hurt someone within 3 years of release. That’s about 2 million potential victims within 3 years. As citizens, we wield the Power and Authority and clamor loudly to “lock ’em up”. Yet, we don’t take the Responsibility to rehabilitate them. See? We are now the abusers, not them, if we don’t take Responsibility towards each other and insist to our politicians that something workable be done. It’s not as much about inmates as it is the people that will become victims. And, it’s about the inmates as well. Everyone wins, or everyone loses. Where’s the significance in tribalism in this? Practically zilch compared to the issue of abuse of Power and Authority within any social setting. That’s my two-cents worth. Good luck on reconciling MicroSoft to the Linux users and developers. It’s not about tribes as much as it is about ideologies and altruism. Ric

  20. Jon said: But what good is it [tribalism] in the modern world? Seems like one of those vestiges, like our ability to store fat efficiently, that just causes problems.

    I think my main point was that there are remnants of tribal societies left on the planet – and not all of them want to be folded into the “global village”. We have a long-term memory problem and forget that many (not all) tribal societies were perfectly happy until agricultural-industrial peoples came along to “civilize” them (or just kill them). It’s a valid way of life, warts and all.

    These days we like to promote diversity and choice – after, of course, we have destroyed umpteen other ways of life, whole cultures and languages. And even now, diversity is hemmed in by bounds imposed by globalisation. I wouldn’t for a minute stand in the way of a pre-industrial culture choosing through self-determination to join the path we have chosen. But whether such a move is truly self-determined or not – that’s another question.

    With such thin slivers of such ways of life left in the world, it seems more important than ever to defend its validity – not to say, “Ah, there’s not many left anyway” and perpetuate distorted ideas about them and allow them to vanish.

    If the right of each society to be self-determined doesn’t move you, I think there’s a selfish reason here, too. These diminished cultures are humanity’s last repository of a wealth of knowledge about living without advanced technology. That’s a resource worth keeping, “just in case”. (Though I must stress I think seeing them as a “resource” is dubious…)

    I don’t believe evolution is a ladder; Darwin envisioned it more as a radiating bush. The idea of linear progress in culture has fuelled simplistic dreams and given us some neat toys, but it’s justified much anti-evolutionary destruction of diversity, too.

    The whole “don’t bad-mouth genuine tribal societies” bit is a little off-topic, sure, but something with a title like “the enemy is tribalism” needed a little balance!

    As to tribalism’s usefulness to our society… The issue of scale means it just can’t be taken on as a blanket structure by us, but there’s certainly a lot to learn. Depends what you mean by tribalism. If you take the more negative aspects, such as inherited taboos, frequent skirmishing and conflict (in some tribal cultures), etc., obviously these things can be poison in a diverse, large-scale, global culture armed with nukes.

    But as we’re going to have to restructure much of our ways over the next few decades (due largely to climate change and energy issues) to at least incorporate more localisation and physically community-based living, there’s a lot to learn from tribalism (in the anthropological sense): decentralisation, the democratisation of spirituality, pragmatic social and religious structures based on local ecological necessities rather than abstracted gods and power hierarchies, networks of friendly trade/gift economies with neighbouring tribes, etc.

    As soon as “tribalism” is denigrated in the modern sense of “blinkered allegiance to a social group”, or polarized into “the Palaeolithic Golden Age” vs. a “nasty, brutish, and short” way of life, the relevance of tribalism is lost in meaningless debate. If we look at what it is, as a genuine way of life, there’s probably some vital lessons for us in it.

  21. I wonder if parochialism does not fit the context better than tribalism – parochialism as an antonym for cosmopolitanism. These words seem almost archaic, but I think they are accurate.

  22. Jon, you’re blushing; having been flattered by a man in uniform ;-)

    Of course the military wants to build bridges; they want your knowledge, and to find ways to gain your co-operation so they can be more effective. Where is the surprise in that?

    Part of the reason that they want you is that they do not relate to others and organise themselves in the same way that you do. You’ve grown up in, attached to, and developed various social structures and relationships that have given you knowledge and confidence and protection to become a smart guy. You are differentiated from others because of that social context. That’s your tribe.

    Kill off tribes, and you get conformity and uniformity. Innovation collapses, your gaze becomes blinkered, and you become incapable of seeing, yet alone dealing with, the diversity outside of your boundaries.

    Build bridges between tribes, for sure. But value diversity. We all have so much to learn from each other

  23. Valid points, but what is the military but the ultimate expression of tribalism?
    We divide the world into “us” and “them”, where “they” are portrayed as inherently depraved and irrational, deserving of death and destruction.
    And then come the wars…and what is war but the legitimisation of everything that is banned in normal human relations (violence, murder, theft and destruction of property…so no cause for surprise that rape always goes with it)?

    Flags and uniforms are the paraphernalia of tribalism. Isn’t it time we all grew up?

  24. “some of the direct quotes at the session”

    Thanks Neil! That’s a great writeup that nicely captures the event. It was astonishing, wasn’t it?

  25. I am shocked to discover such a huge pool of smart people none of whom seems to have even read Korzybski, let alone allowed such ideas as “the map is not the territory” to invade their musings.

    Love.

  26. What is the Korzybskian analysis of the flaw in this discussion? That we’re elevating ‘tribe’ to an inappropriate level of abstraction, that we’re inflating/conflating the term to cover everything about humanity?

    (Every term under discussion should be placed in quotes, at least mentally)

    If so, I’d agree. For instance, I’m certainly not part of a so-called Korzybski-tribe just because I read a book by him or can employ aspects of his paradigm. I wouldn’t die or kill or smear someone just to defend a particular thesis. I can argue a certain side, but not identify myself with it. That’s the dividing line, I think. Not identifying = true individuality.

    My secularism, amateurism, and ADD has destroyed my sense of tribe :)

  27. “The two often coincide but they are not the same thing. Religion is not a pernicious force in the world. Tribalism is.”

    Religion _is_ a pernicious force in the world because in many (not all) cases it provides a crucial framework in which tribalism can thrive. Tribalism and religion support one another.

    Religion discourages critical thought and creates a climate in which dogmatic faith is considered a virtue.
    Religion provides convenient ways to demonise the out-group, and moral justification for acts of aggression towards them.
    Religion demands the systematic indoctrination of children.

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  29. I’m 8 years late in reading Jon Udell’s blog, and I have a lot of archival reading ahead. I just watched a PBS documentary about E.O. Wilson, and was moved by his insight. When he discussed Tribalism, I immediately thought of ISIL. A tribe! I wonder how such a tribe could be disrupted and made impotent (other than just by warfare). Surely, generic counter-measures exist. I’m not aware of our government using the internet (of ideas), or propaganda using leaflets dropped on ISIL groups. In the Wilson documentary, the culture of Alabama football was described as tribal. My friends, who are football fans, quickly lose interest in a team that fails to consistently win. Just a thought: why not use the news media to repeatedly highlight ISIL defeats and weaknesses? Presently, all we hear are successes. It isn’t surprising that young Muslims leave their respective countries to join the tribe.

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