The Migration of the Future (and Present) Is Temporary, Telephonic, and Tweeted

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Airfare (and long-disance calling) is cheap, so emigrants plan on coming back home.

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Flickr/Mark Harkin

Part of what makes Ellis Island, and the century-ago history it represents, so distant is the apparent permanence of an act like emigration. Great-grandmothers or great-great-grandfathers put what they owned in bags, boarded ships, and simply never came back. The more-than-a-million people who passed through Ellis Island in 1907 kept in touch with their homes through letters, maybe, but the vast, vast majority of them stayed in America. They didn't pass on their language, and they became us.

Migrations still happen -- "We all live in a century of migration," says human rights lawyer Susan Benesch -- but that permanence is no longer assured. In Nairobi, Kenya, yesterday, a panel of academics and bloggers -- captured in two quickly-typed live-blogs by Matt Stempeck and Filip Stojanovski -- summarized in three points how technology has made 21st-century migration more fluid and temporary:

  1. Cheaper airfare, so people could physically return
  2. Cheaper telephone communications, so could people could talk [to each other...]
  3. [S]ocial media, which radically changed how people who have moved can communicate with those in the country of origin

What becomes clear is how seemingly-theoretical debates about what online life means for politics and community stop being theoretical when the airplane wheels hit the tarmac. Blogospheres, and social media especially, blur across borders, conceal the location of correspondents, and invite readers to become writers, complicating what constitutes national discourse. Instant connection with home -- and with the language of home -- preserves identity longer than it might have in the past. And the expectation one can always flee either country makes concepts like national duty hard to ensure. 

At yesterday's panel, Elaine Diaz, a professor at the University of Havana, discussed how Cuban expats represented themselves as Cuban even when they had long left the island. You can't speak for a nation unless you are there, she said; physical presence is key. "You can really only know what's going on in Cuba when you're there, when you get a feel for what's really going on on the ground," said Diaz.

But others groups plan along the opposite. Zambia is now in the process of rewriting its constitution, in which it almost included a clause allowing dual citizenship. Last year, its parliament voted that clause down, but diasporic Zambians -- who boast a lively discourse with their home country -- are still seeking the right to vote.

And in Kenya, the blogosphere at home strives to converse with -- or counter -- its emigrants abroad. "People in the diaspora write op-eds for foreign newspapers," writes Stempeck, "but these individuals rarely engage online. Kenyans still in the country try to get in touch with them, but they never hear back." 

"My country, right or wrong," said Carl Schurz, but the tech-augmented culture discussed accords a sort of looseness to migration. It's almost like a video game: sure, flying's expensive, but it's not like putting all your stuff on a boat to go across the ocean. Migration's not for keeps, and you can always renege.

We've long since moved away from the stoutly physical nation -- if you're the child of a Canadian, even if you're born in the US, you, too, are a Canadian -- but these online expat communities suggest we will only keep moving away from it faster still. It's a vision of a nation as a planet and moons, as a planetary system: the nation's land held at the center, but with countless tendrils in continual motion around it, each deeply involved, each forever anticipating a return.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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