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There really might be ‘an app for that’ tribalism problem


Somewhere around 15 years ago, when I was first starting to explore the idea of being a writer, I was working on a novel that had, as one of its central themes, the idea that there are only a handful of events in the history of the world that actually change the world. Japan bombing Pearl Harbor was one such event. I started working with the idea that 9/11 was a similar event. For a variety of reasons, I set that story aside, and then had the chance to come back to it a couple years ago. Through the lens of history, it turns out that 9/11 didn’t really change much. That horrible event had the potential to force broad, systemic change, to galvanize the friends of freedom and civilization into a multi-pronged battle to not only beat back a particularly dangerous tribe, but to encourage us to swallow our own tribal instincts to re-form a better civic fabric. Instead, after a relatively brief period of change, we retreated to our comfortable, tribal home turfs and started fighting the same ideological battles all over again.

If something as significant as 9/11 can’t get us to come to the table together, I am skeptical that there is much that can be done to stop the contagion of tribalism.

When I said that to a civic group a couple weeks ago, someone in the audience asked me what role millennials would play in this, and if there was any way to engage them in doing our civic life better than it is right now.

My immediate, snarky response was “build an app.” I’m not sure what the app would do, but, if you’re gonna reach a millennial, you gotta get to them through their phones.

I kid. I love millennials — I am raising two of them. They are the source of some of my greatest amusement. It’s not just that they have a hard time finding their way down the hall without GPS…

OK, enough jokes and on to the point.

Weirdly enough, those ubiquitous devices are, possibly, the key to curing tribalism. You see, millennials, because they don’t actually see people as much as they see screenshots and avatars of people, don’t see community in quite the same way we do. The young tend to get to know their peers through their devices, so they don’t fall prey to the same sort of identity politics that older generations see. To my 16-year old daughter, the world is not confined to the neighborhood — she has friends on InstaSnapTwitter from all over the world, so her perspective is broader than mine could have ever been. If Facebook killed the high school reunion, then I suspect InstaSnapTwitter is on its way to killing the student exchange program.

Of course, those devices also play a devastating role in isolating some kids, and it’s hard not to blanch at the incredible power that mean kids and evil adults have over unsuspecting kids via their phones. Broad connectivity is both a blessing and a curse, I suppose, especially when it discourages tight interpersonal connectivity.

But, insofar as these devices allow people to form community from the ground up, separate from institutional underpinnings, they may be the key to the future. And, I would argue, it would greatly behoove civic groups to get involved in forming those small communities around simple things like basic services and common experiences.

My hope is that if we start to fix the patchwork of American life, in small communities, then we can start to bind the patches together again. We may never again have a beautiful tapestry, founded on common ideals and trust in common institutions; but we may be able to weave a fascinating quilt that encompasses all the different shapes and forms of American life into a useful and comfortable article under which we can all stay warm.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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