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Mastermundo, and the challenge of breaking rules

If you’ve been to a tech conference in the past five years, there’s a good chance you’ve also been to an “unconference“. Unconferences work to break down the barrier between speakers and audience, inviting all attendees to participate in shaping the program, offering sessions or contributing to the discussion that’s taking place. Done well – Foo Camp, the various Bar Camps, blog unconferences – they’re a great way to tap the expertise of everyone in the room, to ensure that discussions focus on topics people care about. Done badly, they’re chaotic and frustrating, dominated by the loud and self-confident (I’m both, and I’m well-aware that I need to be moderated.)

So I approached Mastermundo, a day-long conference following on the end of PICNIC with some trepidation. The conference organizers were emphatic in making the point that this was an unconventional conference, designed to break the rules of conferences as we knew them. Instead of having a stage, podium and audience, we’d meet in the modern art museum, on a train, in public spaces, moving from Amsterdam to the Hague during the day, with speakers delivering talks to an audience listening on headphones. Not an unconference as I’ve attended them before, but certainly not a conference like PICNIC, with a stage, an audience, the performative act of making your case with your words and a few sides.

What the hell. As it turned out, I was planning on spending my Saturday in Amsterdam visiting the modern art museum and taking a train to the Hague to meet a friend for dinner. Why not attend a conference while I was at it?

Two surprises about Mastermundo. First, I had a great time… and I wasn’t sure I would. Second, it’s really hard for people to break from their scripts, even if you beg them to.

Mastermundo Conference at Stedlijk Museum

At the (temporary location of) the Stedelijk Museum, we were given headsets and told that we could wander anywhere in the gallery while listening to the speakers. The first speaker, a Dutch designer, immediately broke script, asked people to sit near him, so that we could see the images on his laptop screen. When subsequent speakers encouraged attendees to wander through the galleries – showing a fantastic show of contemporary African photography – they were rapidly defeated by the short range of the headphones and the tendency of people to want to see who’s speaking to them. Try as you’d like to break this rule – when someone tells a story, people will sit and listen to her.

And despite promises of breaking all the rules, we eventually found ourselves in a conference room in the Hague, looking at the speaker in the front of the room and watching a slideshow on a giant screen. You may be creative, rebellious Dutch artists, but you are no match for the power of Powerpoint.

I’d chosen to give my talk on the train from Amsterdam to the Hague, figuring this was the only way I’d be guaranteed the opportunity to read my notes. As it turned out, I probably had the most unusual experience of all the speakers. I sat in the front seat of a train car, wedged in next to the equipment necessary to broadcast my voice via FM, looking at the end of the car or out the window. As I delivered my talk, the only person I could see was the technician, who was trying so hard to keep the transmitter attached to its battery that I couldn’t get any emotional feedback from her at all. It felt more like one of the recording sessions I’ve done for reading for the blind than like giving a lecture.

I found the whole experience so strange that when my friend Rafi took my place as the next speaker, I perched myself within his field of vision so that he’d have a face to look at and the reassurance that someone was hearing what he was saying. I don’t know whether this was helpful or simply made him more self-conscious. I simply hope he doesn’t think I’m stalking him.

A few folks seemed to connect well with the talk so I thought I’d share it here, more or less as I delivered it. Envision yourself sitting on a train looking out the window as I read this to you. Or while you’re wandering through a gallery of contemporary African photography. Or don’t. That will work too.

When I was twenty years old, I’d just finished university, and I’d won a scholarship to study in Ghana, West Africa for a year to study Ghanaian music.

I knew more about Ghana than the average American. For four years, I’d studied Ghanaian drumming in university and had worked with some of the best musicians in that country. I’d read books, magazine articles, newspapers, talked to lots of Ghanaians in the US, people who’d travelled there before.

Which basically meant that I knew nothing. As the plane from London descended, I looked out the window expecting to see the bright lights of the city of Accra, one of the largest and most populated cities in West Africa. It took me a moment or two to notice that there weren’t that many lights and that very, very few of them were on top of one another.

In that single moment, I realized that my vision for how I’d be spending this year was entirely wrong. I’d been planning on finding a part of Accra where young urban professionals lived in apartments. I’d get an apartment, make friends with the neighbors and live basically the same way that I would had I left college and moved to Boston or New York.

This, of course, turns out not to be possible. In 1993, it was pretty uncommon to rent an apartment in Ghana with less than 10 years rent in advance. And besides, people didn’t really rent apartments – they lived with their families until they were able to build their own houses. The young, up and coming Ghanaians I wanted to meet were either making their fortunes in the UK or the US, or living with their parents.

I ended up renting an apartment from a guy named Patrick Fiachie. He’d left Ghana for the Soviet Union as a youth, studied at Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow, and eventually sought political asylum in the US, in Minnesota. For twenty years, he worked as a counselor to undergraduate students at a small college in Minnesota… which meant kids like me were very familiar to him, and he was very familiar to me.

Patrick Fiachie, Osu, Accra, Ghana. 1993

Patrick had come home to Accra, and found himself in the business of translating between the realities of Americans who’d come to study in Ghana and Ghanaian realities. He was a bridge figure – he was able to explain to the owner of the building he lived in why it made sense to make foreign visitors pay rent one month at a time… and as a result, the building she’d built as an investment filled up with international scholars who were paying far more rent than Ghanaians would have… despite the fact that I was paying $100 a month for two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom, which had power most of the time, though no running water.

Patrick acted as a bridge in different directions. I mentioned to him one night, as we were playing chess together, that I felt like a stranger in the neighborhood. The kids kept calling me “brofunyo” – white man – even though I stopped in the streets and introduced myself in Ga. A couple days later, I noticed that everything had changed – people were greeting me by name and being much friendlier. I overheard a conversation at a local market stall – a woman said to another market woman, “Oh that white man – he’s uncle Pat’s nephew.”

I didn’t make any sense in the neighborhood until someone had claimed a relationship with me. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t Patrick’s nephew – I’m white, he’s black, we don’t look very much alike. But in introducing me to the neighborhood as his nephew, I became his respobnsibility. If I did something wrong, they could contact Uncle Pat about my behavior. And once I was connected like this, it made sense to treat me differently.

The view from my apartment window, Accra, 1994

It would have been pretty hard to figure all this out without getting on an airplane. I can tell you what it’s like to go from being a stranger, an outsider, to being part of the neighborhood. I can even tell you what it smells like when you get off the airplane, wet earth and burning plastic, but I can’t explain why it’s one of the most wonderful smells in the world, why it brings tears to my eye when I catch a whiff of it.

A few years later, I had the chance to go back to Ghana in some very different circumstances. I’d gotten very lucky in the dotcom boom in the US, and I had some money in the bank. And I wanted to do something to help this nation, which I’d fallen in love with. My bright idea was that Ghana might be able to participate in the same sort of Internet revolution that the US and Europe had been living through. I realized that one of the gaps Ghanaian businesses were dealing with was a skills gap – there were very few people who knew how to design a webpage, set up a database or manage an internet service provider. So I started raising money to bring American and European volunteers to come live and work in Ghana for a few months at a time. We called it Geekcorps because it was a little like the American Peace Corps, except it was staffed with geeks.

This worked out pretty well, actually. There are lots and lots of burnt-out geeks in the world who are excited about the chance to work in Africa. And African businesses are often pretty receptive to the idea of low-cost consulting on technical issues. It worked well enough that we ended up running projects in more than a dozen nations, mostly in Africa. Some succeeded, some failed, but I noticed something in the long run: whether or not a project was successful, it almost always had some sort of transformative effect on the volunteer’s life.

Several of the people we worked with decided to stay in Africa for good. A handful got married to people they met while they were volunteering. A large number changed the direction of their careers and a few are now leading people involved with the world of technology transfer in the developing world. Having the chance not just to visit as a tourist, but to work in countries like Ghana, Rwanda or Mongolia gave them a chance to make connections that ended up changing their lives.

Me. Dzolo-Gbogame, Volta Region, Ghana, 1994.

I don’t run that nonprofit anymore for a very simple reason – it’s really, really expensive to buy airline tickets. Not just the tickets – it’s expensive to get visas, to house people, to make sure they’ve got health insurance and enough money so they eat. But if I could find a way to do it that wouldn’t bankrupt me and destroy the environment, I’d be looking for as many opportunities as possible to take people out of their everyday context and bring them into different parts of the world where they can be helpful. This doesn’t need to cross international borders, by the way – the US is big enough and diverse enough that I’ve seen people get a full dose of cross-cultural contact by going urban to rural or vice versa. But it needs to be for a long time, and it needs to be in the course of doing a project, otherwise you’re a tourist, and it’s hard to connect in that circumstance.

What I’m looking for are the sorts of experiences that forces someone to confront the reality that the way they, personally live, isn’t the only way to live… and that it may not be the best way to live. That’s something easy to understand consciously, but it’s harder to feel. Personally, that feeling wears off for me fairly often – I need to spend a lot of time with people I admire, people who are living very different lives from my own to be reminded that my way of seeing things isn’t the only way.

Basically, what was so great about Geekcorps was that it put me in a position where I could help create xenophiles. Xenophiles are people who are fascinated by the whole world, by things other than their ordinary experience. They’re people who want to connect with people who see the world very differently. Some of these people are born this way, lots more are made – a good recipe for xenophilia is to raise a child in a culture deeply different from that of her parents – people call these kids “third culture kids”. Third culture kids have one foot in each of two cultures – the culture of the country they grew up and the culture of their parents, and as a result they don’t really live in either, but a little bit in both. Some kids hate this – many love it, and they end up bridge figures, natural xenophiles who can help translate cultures for other people. Barack Obama’s one of them.

It’s my theory that xenophiles are going to be very powerful in the future. We’re living in a world that the pro-globalization folks refer to as “flat”. That’s bullshit, obviously. The world is flat as far as stuff is concerned. In my hometown of 3000 people, I can get water from Fiji and fish from Chile, but I’m not going to encounter any Fijians or Chileans. I’m not even likely to encounter information from those countries, news, opinion or cultural influences like films or TV… not unless I very actively go looking for it. So the world’s flat in terms of stuff, but not in terms of human interaction. It’s flat, but in the least important ways – in the ways that matter, in the ways that would allow us to connect with people from other cultures, allow us to share ideas and solve problems together, the world is disconnected. It’s lumpy.

Xenophiles are good at making connections in this lumpy world. It’s a good idea to have them if you’re trying to do business in another country – some of the people who are making lots of money in this economy are people from developing nations who study in Europe or America and then return home. They can bridge between cultures in a way that helps them make smart economic decisions. They’re even more important if you’re concerned with security or with diplomacy, because their ability to cross cultures makes it far more likely that they can collaborate and create solutions with people from other cultures.

So here’s the question I’m interested now: how do we build real, productive connections with people across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries… without putting people on airplanes? Or trains? How do we efficiently manufacture xenophiles?

And since you guys can’t answer, I’ll go ahead and offer one solution that works really well – intermarriage. If you fall in love with someone from a very different culture, you’ve got a strong incentive to connect with that person’s family, learn their culture, change your perspectives. And while I’ve thought about this, it’s even harder to figure out a scheme to make intermarriage mandatory on a massive scale than it is to figure out how to put a substantial fraction of the world’s population on airplanes.

I’d been hoping the internet could be a solution to these problems. After all, it’s now possible to read the newspapers in another country, to read the blogs of people who live in these countries and hear what they’re thinking about. We can go to flickr and see the photos that people take, we can surf youtube and watch the videos that are making people laugh in other countries. Shouldn’t this help us connect with people around the world?

That’s what I thought a few years ago. I helped start a website called Global Voices, which is basically a site designed to help you find citizen media from other countries, especially the developing world. Want to know what people in China are talking about online? We filter through thousands of Chinese blogs, try to find the conversations that are interesting, translate them into English… and then into over a dozen other languages. If you read the site, you’ll end up getting a much better sense for what the hot topics are in other parts of the world… and you may find yourself emotionaly invested in someone else’s blog, and by extension in their life and ideas.

But you probably won’t. That’s one of the biggest things we’ve discovered with the project – it’s hard to care, even if you want to. I can point you to a lively conversation taking place in another corner of the blogosphere and even if you can read the language, you’re probably not going to connect with the conversation. You don’t have the context. And beyond that, you don’t have any connection to the people or events involved.

It’s not your fault. Human beings are tribal by nature. There’s a sociological phenomenon called “homophily” – it’s the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Let people organize themselves and people will form into groups, usually by race, nationality, religion, level of education. In the US, there’s a lot of mobility – people move all the time – and we’re starting to see this happen politically – Bill Bishop calls it “The Big Sort”. It ends up meaning that left-leaning people live with other leftists, conservatives with other conservatives and we’ll each understand less about each other. We do this with information as well. If information affects people like us, we pay attention to it – if not, we’re almost hard-wired not to care.

It turns out that there’s an art to getting people to care. It’s about telling stories, stories that introduce us to people we care about, whose pasts we speculate about, whose future we worry about. Most of the world’s problems can’t be summed up by a single story about a single person… but unless you can attach a story to a problem, it’s likely that you won’t get anyone to pay attention to the larger problem. The problem with this art is that it can turn into a trick. The trick works by oversimplifying, turning stories into good versus evil, black and white. If we tell the story and lose the subtlety, at a certain point we’re lying.

We’ve got the infrastructure that makes it possible to connect to one another, to tell stories to one another, to share films and family photos and things that make us laugh or cry with people anywhere in the world. And so far, we’re pretty bad at using it. At the worst, we use it to hurt each other – think of the guy in Lagos who wants to rip you off while promising you millions of dollars… or the guy in London who makes sport out of humiliating and punishing him.

So here’s where I’m asking for help – we need bridge figures, people who can help build connections between cultures. We need xenophiles, people who are interested in the whole world and in building conversations that break out of the homophily trap. We need tools that let us use this infrastructure to connect. Help me figure out how to bridge people and how to build these tools.

27 thoughts on “Mastermundo, and the challenge of breaking rules”

  1. Great talk, I agree with your idea that xenophiles are the future of the world and will be those that are more succesful in an interconnected world. I’ve just moved to Lagos, Nigeria after spending 2 years shuttling backwards and forwards, I know people here and know the environment pretty well, and reading your description of being a stranger in the place matches so well with what my wife is now experiencing. The challenge is to build relationships and in an environment like “Africa” this tends to mean having an introducer, I had mine, and now our challenge is to find hers.

    I also wanted to add that although many people who are schooled in Europe or the US do return to Africa and do great things there are also many others who can’t adapt to their “new” environment. In particular I don’t think UK schooling prepares you very well to be adaptive. I think the challenge for producing xenophiles is how do you produce an education system that doesn’t teach one way is the right way.

  2. I read this long post with so much interest. Not that you give you opinion on the matter, but you put together your amazing experience many years back.

    As I’m sitting in a cafe reading your post (not on a train looking out the window), I can pay my concentration in a similar way to your audience in the Netherlands.

  3. Great talk, and nice to hear something more about your time in Ghana. I’m doing fieldwork in the Volta Region as a xenophylic PhD student right now, so I can connect with some of the experiences you’re sharing.

    I’m in doubt, though, about intermarriage as a way of ‘manufacturing’ xenophiles. In my experience, a disproportionate number of such marriages ends in failure — and the reason is probably that only real xenophiles can build a good and stable relationship with someone from a radically different culture. The point being that xenophiles make good intermarriages, not the other way around.

    What made me a xenophile? Someone very close to me, who paradoxically is from much the same background as I am — but she’s someone who excells in pushing people out of their comfort zone to try new things. In my opinion, that is what we need more of.

    Anyway, thanks for providing food for thought.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Mark, the intermarriage bit is meant more or less as a laugh line, a way of promoting social engineering in a way that’s bound not to be realistic. I may need to sharpen that point up to make sure that everyone gets that I’m not actually advocating forced global intermarriage. And I’m cognizant of the fact that the power dynamics in these marriages aren’t comfortable ones. I think your analysis – that these work well for people who are likely to become xenophiles – is right on…

  5. Interesting article Ethan. I think you are right to highlight the importance of such people who can bridge cultures — they often are viewed suspiciously by both cultures and are rarely celebrated, such is the case widely in regards to Obama, who by American definition is Black, while elsewhere he is Milato, or of mixed ethnicity. I digress…

    Regarding the internet as a medium for cultivating xenophilia: I find it difficult to create bridges across cultures over the internet, but it is a great way to maintain them. I have been able to continue to connect with those who I was friends with and worked with in Mali — our relationships have grown over IM/Skype, we also have been able to continue to work together on new projects, develop new ideas and coordinate important remittances from time to time (or the odd dried banana or shea order this way). In the past I suspect that these relationships would have been too costly (in terms of time) to maintain, but now they can persist despite my laziness.

    Also, I think that there is a general need or interest that must drive the connection from either side of the connector — if that greater interest does not exist than the connector can only serve themself. After the big sort will we be more insular, or more interested in those who are different? …or, will there always be a perpetual sorting?

  6. I think the challenge for producing xenophiles is how do you produce an education system that doesn’t teach one way is the right way.

    Well, I left California for Buenos Aires a couple of years ago, largely with the objective of becoming more of a bridge and more xenophilic, and this is a big part of what I’ve been trying to learn: that there is more than one right way to do things.

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  8. I can tell you what it’s like to go from being a stranger, an outsider, to being part of the neighborhood. I can even tell you what it smells like when you get off the airplane, wet earth and burning plastic, but I can’t explain why it’s one of the most wonderful smells in the world.

    I think you can explain it. I think you just have. You’re a gifted storyteller, you know. When I read those words, I thought I knew that smell, and you’re exactly right: not because I’ve smelled pavement on a hot day, but because you told me how it felt to get off the airplane and why the place matters and how it reached you. You’re very good at this.

    It may have been odd giving a speech looking out a train window — but that one voice in the dark, as the frame for your story of light and people meeting people, becomes a powerful contrast.

  9. I had the pleasure of listening to a great many stories during my stay in a village over several months. Some thoughts that crossed my mind were:

    – these stories are marvelous – in that they entertain, they amuse, they educate, they mostly made me laugh, and sometimes cry

    – they are mostly personal stories and it is easy to plunge in, traversing the familiar contours of human emotions, even though, the stories were set in a context that was until recently not all that familiar

    – these stories are helping me discover and understand this context intimately and see the world through their eyes (more than anything else?)

    – what if people elsewhere could eavesdrop on this? Could I share these stories somewhere? Could I be the bridge?

    Then the thought occurred to me: I am not important in this process. Meaning, what I think, feel, my opinions, my thoughts are not all that relevant. I could be a bridge – but an invisible one. One that simply allows for a story to be heard, if the storyteller and the listener so wishes (by recording, translating, editing, carrying them over to the platform that allows for their discovery and sharing).

    Sure, I might think that these stories, and personal stories of people in all the contexts of this world, are what could help people connect better. But, even that thought has to be silent.

    An “ego-less” bridge, dare I say? If such a thing were possible…

    By the way Ethan, great photo. I think we know which one :)

  10. Great article Ethan. I agree with and the writers above a lot. Eventhough it’s a little bit as “preaching for the converted”, but xenophiles can fulfill that bridge function… but ofcourse there’s a lot more to that. A lot depends on how convincing a xenophile can bring the message across… someone like Obama is excellent in that, eventhough he has to deal with other political forces aswell. But a lot still has to happen… programming the stories of xenophiles on tv, on conferences on the net. Generating convincing coverage. And in that message, I think, in general ‘openess’ and ‘equality’ are the keywords here.

    Ps. Forces intermarriages! Great idea :)

  11. There is an important prelude to this post and that is, what got you into Ghanaian music in the first place? Did you have a natural predisposition (how you were raised, genetics, a particular experience) toward xenophilia or was it more a matter of circumstance (finding a good CD in a parking lot)?

    I think that inspiring curiosity is a pre-requisite for inspiring xenophilia.

  12. Great post Ethan, as usual.

    Interesting your idea of marriage as an enabler of a better and enduring understanding of different cultures. I do think that, in general, so called xenofiles tend to drift towards each other and since that part of the world readily attracts itself, you need not worry!

    The concern is with other parts of society, where such interest is more reluctant or irrelevant. Some people don’t care for meeting people from different cultures. This is something that I’m not sure you can remedy with inter-marriage ;)

    I hear you in that last paragraph! I agree with you that the Internet clusters people according to their interests, just like it does so “off-line”, and equally disengages people who have no interest in, say, youruba culture or the boom in mobile money transfers in Nigeria. Whilst the internet can be a great tentacle, it only really makes sense to people when there is a reality attached to it (i.e. a physical impact).

    The most effective advocacy & interest for social/cultural diversity will stem from local community using the internet to impact the local virtual community. Don’t misinterpret me, I think there is an obviously role for the internet to act as a global loudspeaker. But it seems the more local you try to create your bridge, the more likely it can have an impact there because people can see the imminent change right in front of their eyes. Homophily, as you explain.

    I think there is far more room for government, businesses, volunteers and other entities to get involved in setting these types of bridges – linking the internet to local realities and try to solve them. The main thing to grow as a person, I think, is to experience how unfair society is. Unfair comes in different shapes and forms and the kind of drive required to learn about the world comes from feeling that there must be something out there that can resolve situations of injustice. That is what, in the long run, will give you a conscience to want to understand and experience the world, maybe even travel it. And the earlier in age we engage everyone in this the better!

    My proposal to you is to get all the young social networkers active in caring for their community, then opening it up to a world-wide sharing forum and then, maybe, finally, we’ll get a real UN ;)

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  19. Via a Ned.com discussion group, John Powers introduced me to this excelent article by Ethan Zuckerman.

    It interests me because I have also been trying to harness the power of xenophiles by means of a Worldwide Connectory that ensures that every single community in the richest 20% of countries is given a moral responsibility to take an interest in a specific, similar-sized community in the most impoverished 20% of countries. The idea is that as much of the world as possible becomes the prime focus of attention – if only for the one community with which it is partnered.

    Always looking out for fellow xenophiles to participate in this potentially huge social experiment, I invite you all to visit the recently started World Connectory Project website at http://www.connectory.org and the discussion threads at http://www.ned.com

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