What homelessness offline reveals about the future of being online
Lately, as visible homelessness has grown on the streets of Los Angeles, I’ve been thinking about what it actually means to be homeless, and whether there are aspects of the lives of the apparently housed that resemble homelessness, especially online. The web has had “home pages” for 30 years, but only now are we beginning to understand what it means to be at home online, and perhaps more importantly, what it means to be homeless online. Not merely more offline than online, which makes you a sort of frequent visitor, but Very Online and homeless.
This unfortunately describes more people than you might think, and is associated with patterns of endemic misery online that are non-trivially comparable to the miseries of homelessness offline.
To explore the question though, you have to take a serious look at the phenomenology of regular homelessness, something worthy of attention in its own right.
Homelessness is about more than lacking a base that offers protection from the elements and material security. It’s about lacking an integrated identity, a “home” persona that is contained and shaped by, and active within, the home as a psychological boundary. To be housed is to have access to an identity that exists as an extension of the self, embodied by the home. A person with a home makes a sharp transition when crossing the threshold of “home,” dropping the private persona, and putting on some sort of non-private face (whether on Zoom or on the sidewalk). But even when away from home, the well-housed person presents as someone who has a home.
There are the obvious physical aspects of such presentation that are the result of reliable access to the affordances of a home, like being respectably groomed and able to maintain minimum standards of personal hygiene to participate in society (“no shirt, no shoes, no service” sorts of standards). But there is also the ineffable air of someone who has an integrated, foundational home persona that allows other personas, like work, or public personas, to maintain complementary sorts of sustainable integrity. Those higher-energy persona states are made possible by the existence of the lower-energy home state.
There is a whole shadow class of quasi-homeless people who strive mightily to keep non-home personas from disintegrating, living out of cars, showering at gyms, and so on. Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled their lives in Nickel and Dimed in 2001. The enormous strain of hanging on to such higher-energy-state personas while lacking a base-energy-state home persona breaks people. Once the foundation is gone, it’s only a matter of time before the rest goes too, unless luck intervenes.
True homelessness begins where people are past that break point, and are no longer able to sustain any of the higher-level personas that rest on a stable home persona.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ribbonfarm Studio to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.