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.
If you live in a major city with a significant homeless population, and don’t live in one of the extremely wealthy neighborhoods with enough political power to keep visible homelessness at bay over the horizon in neighboring communities, encounters with the homeless are inevitable. Whether you want to or not, you will bear witness to homelessness, and have a visceral, emotional response of some sort to it.
If you pay attention to the homeless, and occasionally make eye contact or speak to them briefly, you’ll realize they exist on a clear downhill path of progressive identity disintegration that ends in complete dehumanization and full invisibility. Unless you make an effort to look, your gaze will learn to just slide off them.
On one end of the downhill path you have people who are merely homeless in a practical sense; possibly recently evicted or otherwise unhoused, but otherwise in possession of the familiar psyche of someone with a home. You will notice clear markers of serious depression, and the sense of someone acutely missing a private zone where they can “be home” with themselves to reintegrate their selves. In some cases, you will notice visible shame at being in a degraded condition where they must do private things in public spaces. For a person with normal levels of empathy, it is impossible not to feel empathetic pain when you encounter a homeless person on this end of the road. There but for the grace of neoliberalism go you.
At the other end of the path, you have people who have entirely disintegrated in some sense, even if they aren’t actually mentally ill in any clear way. They have lost whatever sense they might have once had, of a world divided by the threshold of a “home,” into private/public zones, with access to distinct inhabitable personas appropriate for each. It is disconcertingly easy to look them in the eye because you encounter the vacant look of someone who is not quite there. There is nobody “at home” looking back at you. The at-home identity has disintegrated entirely.
Beyond a point of degradation, when there has been no physical home for long enough, there is nobody home behind vacant eyes.
For a person with normal levels of empathy, it is significantly harder to feel empathetic pain past this point, and see the once and (possibly) future human within what is often no more than a fully dehumanized heap on the sidewalk. At this extreme, sometimes you have to do a double take to even realize there is a human being within a pile of soiled clothes. Even bodily postures and limb angles begin drifting into visually unfamiliar zones. If you feel compassion in the abstract, you can only act out of sympathy, not empathy. Feeling what, if anything, it is like to be them slips beyond your reach.
Between the two extremes, there is a grim visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory story of steady degradation in the integrity of the body envelope, and the personal space it claims and organizes for itself when healthy.
These are bodies and personal spaces inhabited by slowly disintegrating minds. Reality itself is progressively hacking into their psyches, collapsing their OODA loops from within. No particular identified malevolent actor is responsible — the rest of us are all complicit to varying degrees in the system that allows this process of disintegration to unfold.
Once the person has accepted their condition as a chronic one, the familiar elements of homelessness begin to appear — tents and plastic-sheet constructions, shopping carts full of items of dubious utility, dirty mattresses, presence in queues in front of local social organization offices, and dumpster-diving. Panhandling, strangely enough, is not as common as you might expect. To engage pedestrians and ask for money or food, let alone copywriting sympathy-evoking signs that work, requires a self that is held together and inhabited at a certain minimum viable level of personhood. A significant proportion of the visible homeless are well past that point. Some will mumble thanks if you do give them something. Others are often too far gone to even notice and react. Some seem to be in the kind of chronic dissociated state that leads them to react with alarm and fright to even the kindest, most careful, overtures. They have gone too long being invisible. They are not used to being seen at all.
Along this path of psyche devastation there is a more disturbing marginal zone of mental illness — the psychotic rants, the drugged stupors, and the occasional genuinely dangerous-seeming individual you’d be wise to cross the street to avoid. And of course, there is the equally disturbing outer zone of city workers acting on behalf of housed-residents to contain, shape, aestheticize, and move the homeless around to conform to their own priorities.
There is a grammar and vocabulary to how this phenomenology arranges itself and evolves, on every other sidewalk in certain parts of cities like Los Angeles; a visual language to American homelessness that you acquire a certain literacy in if you are around it long enough.
The raw material of homelessness — the living, barely living, and non-living parts — tends to coalesce into degraded home-like patches on sidewalks, under bridges and overpasses, and alongside highway ramps. The sidewalk patches are of course the ones you’re most likely to encounter on foot. Other patches are usually only seen for fleeting instants through car windows.
These emergent patches on the sidewalk tend not to have clear personal boundaries. They run into each other. It becomes difficult to tell where one degraded home-like patch ends and another begins. There are no hedges or picket fences in the territories claimed by the homeless. The patches also exist in various stages of dereliction and disintegration, from somewhat carefully maintained tents inhabited by people who are still “there” in some sense, to what can only be described as piles of borderline garbage around individuals with collapsed psyches that even other, more held-together homeless people avoid.
Once you acquire the literacy to parse it, every sidewalk tells a story. To the sidewalk-literate but politically motivated spectator, every sidewalk tells the same story — that of the moral corruption of political opponents who are to be blamed for it.
But if you’re willing to bear witness without rushing to judgment or conclusion; to stay with the story the sidewalks are actually trying to tell rather than the one you feel an urge to project onto them, there are things to learn.
Once you acquire enough sidewalk literacy to read patterns in homelessness, the impulse is to either avoid encounters with homelessness entirely, or to engage in ways that aestheticize the condition for your own benefit (in the South Park episode, Night of the Living Homeless, the latter impulse is satirized in a literal way — a participant in a town meeting suggests providing makeovers to the homeless).
Seeking to address the situation for those suffering from the condition itself is not an easy priority to hold, and most — including me, I must admit — don’t even try. But even if you do nothing, there are more and less compassionate ways to bear witness.
Disgust is, of course, the most important emotion to learn to manage and regulate, in learning to bear witness compassionately. Denying that you feel a degree of disgust at all is perhaps worse than letting it uncritically shape your entire response.
I don’t have a strong disgust response myself, but I do have one. Fortunately it is weak enough that I can stay with the feeling evoked by encounters with the homeless, and observe it. Whether that’s indifference by nature, or desensitization through nurture, I am not sure I want to know. But my disgust response is also strong enough that I don’t think I’d be able to work with the homeless as a social worker for example. My prosocial, altruistic instincts aren’t strong enough, my selfish instincts are too strong, and my options for doing almost anything else with my life have always been too attractive.
I do notice one thing though. The nature of my disgust response changes somewhere along the path to complete degradation.
Up to that critical point on the path, the instinctive disgust reaction is still a reaction to a person. You still see the homeless as humans, just miserable ones with poor personal hygiene that makes them awkward and unpleasant to interact with physically. They serve as stark, but human, reminders of a larger societal condition, full of iniquities and failures. A condition that you, as a better-off, not-homeless person, are likely complicit in, and must form adequate political responses to. For liberals and progressives, that results in your standard-issue conflict between guilt, a physical cringe response, and an empathic response. Social conservatives, I think, have an easier time of this, since they tend to navigate encounters with homelessness through the moralizing lens of sinful or weak personal choices, consequences for decisions, and perhaps inscrutable divine plans at work.
But whatever the political tenor of your natural response, at some point along the path of degradation, the quality of the disgust response changes. Beyond the critical point, it is no longer possible to see the person as entirely human.
The emotional response begins to resemble the kind of disgust you might feel at seeing an overturned trash can, with the contents spilled out all over.
At this point along the spectrum of degradation, the disgust response stops being what Martin Buber calls an I-you response (seeing the other as human) and transforms into an I-it response (seeing the other as a thing). Perhaps we should call this point the Buber point, where you stop seeing a person, and start seeing a thing. The location of the point may vary, but if you’re being honest, there’s a point where you too make the switch. Even for the most compassionate, a person to be healed turns into a broken object to be repaired at some point.
It is not a coincidence that garbage cans, and humans past the Buber point who have unfortunately come to physically resemble them, often go together.
In the part of Los Angeles I live in, a transitional area between an extremely wealthy, clean neighborhood and a decaying, impoverished one, you occasionally encounter a short stretch of sidewalk that is a continuous, uninterrupted trail of refuse, stretching from a carelessly emptied-out garbage can to an adjacent collapsed (physically and psychologically) homeless person, well past the Buber point of you-to-it degradation.
The strewn contents typically are some mix of fast-food container waste, used personal hygiene items, decaying organic matter, items of soiled clothing, and so on. Even fecal matter and puddles of urine may be in close proximity to half-eaten scraps of food and sleeping bodies.
The human condition past the Buber point are not easy to aestheticize or rationalize even if you want to.
City services cannot keep up — there are too many people scrounging in garbage for sustenance, and they are too far gone to care about the immediate environment. If you’re scrounging in the garbage for a half-eaten sandwich, tossing out other things, you’re not exactly motivated to put it all back in neatly for the sensory comfort and convenience of the next well-housed middle-class passerby. If a person is not present enough to maintain perhaps the most basic condition of livability — don’t shit where you eat — it is unreasonable to expect them to do anything else at all, either for themselves, or for others.
If a home-like patch has coalesced around them at all (in the form of say a tent or other temporary shelter), it tends to be in a state of collapse. It no longer has even the fragile integrity of a home-like patch. It cannot share the sidewalk with pedestrians, not because it has consciously taken over entirely, but because it cannot contain itself with enough integrity to even participate in the tacit detente between pedestrians and the homeless that prevails in less degraded stretches. Elsewhere, this detente results in patterns of coherent colonization of sidewalks, rather than incoherent stretches of garbage commingled with crumpled instances of humanity.
As a housed person walking on the sidewalk to get from point A to point B (walking for pleasure in such areas is not exactly an option), you want to step around such zones as quickly as possible, preferably by crossing over to the other side of the street.
The United States is uniquely bad at allowing the homeless to coalesce physically into anything resembling a livable human condition.
Through some mix of genuinely inhumane social policies, and genuine loss of the kinds of community capacity that are appropriate for the presence of non-trivial amounts of extreme poverty, the United States simply lets the homeless down entirely, despite having, overall, a far smaller-scale and manageable version of the problem than developing countries.
Like a balding man choosing a combover to a decent haircut, the American response to homelessness is rooted in denial of the very possibility of true slums in this greatest of nations. So it is perhaps no wonder that actual slumlords with combovers can rise to the Presidency, and self-congratulatory, self-righteous “progressives” in cities like San Francisco can allow de facto slums to grow in their own backyards.
The across-the-board denialism results in a perverse search for pathologizing diagnoses and interventions that are framed in terms of blight and disease that must be aggressively stamped out, regardless of the human cost. For a country with the self-image of a prosperous first-world nation, the easiest thing to do is try and fail at one misguided “cure” after another when even ignoring it might lead to better outcomes.
The idea of a true slum economy, for example, is a contradiction in terms in the US. Here, a human-habitable zone can be a slum, or an economy, but not both. Even where entertaining the idea seriously would result in more agency, dignity, and a way out for those trapped on sidewalks. In America, it is politically easier to let humans suffer dehumanizing degradation, than to let them reach for economic and social agency in ways that don’t conform to the aesthetics and optics of middle-class respectability. Outside of a few isolated patches, the idea of a thriving sidewalk society and economy is entirely missing in America. At best you get carefully curated LARPs of what is a full-blown layer of the economy in the developing world.
Growing up in India, strangely enough, I was used to seeing more homelessness in less degraded conditions. Both the state and public adopt a sort of awkward posture of benign, guilty neglect that includes allowing slum economics to thrive, sustaining a livable stratum of society that hovers precariously but sustainably above the sort of disintegrated homelessness that shapes American sidewalks. Not much is done by anybody to help, but there is also not much by way of perverse interventionism that prevents the homeless from helping themselves.
Yes, it is an admission of failure on the part of the more prosperous classes of society, but it is also a kind of humility that recognizes the true nature of what it is grappling with.
All that said, I don’t have strong opinions on, or deep knowledge of, homelessness and the right policy responses to it. I have no illusions about either the strength of my desire to do something about it, or my ability to do so. Both are quite low. I limit myself, like I said, to trying to bear witness as compassionately as I can, while cultivating a wariness of self-serving politicized responses that aim to “solve” homelessness as a problem suffered by the middle class rather than the actual homeless.
Any attempt to draw broader lessons from the existence of homelessness in our world is inevitably going to seem utterly crass and heartless.
When I find my mind wandering from processing my responses to homelessness to adjacent ideas reachable through free association, I feel a bit like Mugatu, the cynical, sociopathic fashion designer character played by Will Ferrell in Zoolander, who puts out a fashion line called “Derelicte,” with an aesthetic inspired by homelessness.
But crass or not, here is a Mugatu question — in what ways are we apparently well-housed people homeless? Perhaps seeing the condition in aspects of our own lives will allow us to generate more humane responses to it.
And here is another Mugatu question — what could we learn from homelessness even if we do nothing to address it.
In what ways are we, perhaps, “not there,” despite being physically present within a trail of garbage leading from some equivalent of an overturned trash can to a mess of stuff that pass for “possessions? Along what dimensions are you past your own Buber points, existing in a disintegrated form as an it rather than a you?
This sort of collapsed, derelict condition can appear around any disintegrating dimension of being. A simple example is me in relation to my computer desktop. It is quite literally a homeless sort of mess, stretching from the trash can in the lower right to a disorganized mess of half-filed documents and folders sprawling across the desktop, and spilling over into the cloud via Dropbox.
With apologies to Andy Grove — I periodically rein in the chaos, but mostly I let chaos reign out of sheer lack of energy to make it cohere.
Occasionally this causes me moments of acute anxiety, as I fail to find some misnamed, misfiled, important document, but on the whole I do nothing about it. My laptop-user persona is kinda homeless.
As a more complex example, to be jobless in a milieu that expects you to be employed is like being homeless in some ways. People interact awkwardly with you, and tiptoe around your sensitivities in particular conversations. Your day might be a disintegrated mess of attempted economic existence that fails to cohere into a workable persona of “working.”
But remain in that condition long enough, and you eventually end up entirely absent from the economy, invisible in both the numbers (because you are no longer looking for employment), and in the social situations where you’d normally be expected to be visible and engaged-with. People’s gazes mysteriously seem to slide unseeing off you or penetrate right through you. Everybody gets very good at not meeting your gaze when employment comes up in the conversation. Only when the conversation shifts back to matters safely unrelated to jobs can you be “seen” by others again.
On the other hand, in milieus where having a job is not a necessity for everybody, such as traditional ones where housewife is a coherent, complete, and fully human role for women, it is possible to be “unemployed” but not have to suffer any associated metaphoric homelessness. There is a way for you to be present, visible, and seen, even when the conversation turns to jobs.
Work, social, civic, consumer, and public lives all require personas that can experience the sorts of disintegration into non-existence characteristic of literal homelessness.
In every case, there is the same downhill path: an uphill end where the individual is aware of having failed to cohere some sort of integrated persona expected of them, and a downhill end where there is disintegration to the point that the failed persona has transformed into an absent one, and a coherent you has turned into an incoherent it, a corpse of a once-viable identity, rendering them invisible and unseen in certain social situations.
But in every case, the condition of disintegration, the unraveling, is less severe than homelessness, because it is less fundamental. Joblessness, being a social outcaste, being a customer without consumer rights, or an immigrant without citizenship rights, are all cousins of homelessness. But none is as severe and debilitating as actual homelessness.
There is, however, one phenomenon that is at least as psychologically debilitating as literal homelessness — online homelessness.
Even a quick glance at any notoriously sad place online, such as the YouTube comments section, will reveal the existence of an entire invisible online world that is comparable to homelessness.
These are online zones where, for whatever reasons, psychologically plausible and inhabitable personas have failed to cohere for a significant subset of people.
For those of us who spend a significant amount of our time and attention online, juggling dozens of fluid, shifting personas is second nature. Unlike meatspace, with its restricted range of identity performance theaters on offer — intimate, private, public, work, consumer — the online world offers an effectively limitless set of fluidly overlapping theaters. Every social medium is at least one theater of identity, and many of the more evolved media offer multiple co-extensive theaters.
It is a familiar experience. A new platform or medium comes along. You make a first-pass judgment about whether to even join it, based largely on whether you think you can cohere an inhabitable persona on it, and whether you have the time to participate on it. If you decide to give it a shot, you go on, you try a few experimental personas on for size, and as one starts to gel, you become present on the platform. There is now something it is like to be you on Platform X.
The outer rituals of this sort of disposable identity formation are now as routine as clicking “Agree” on unread terms of service. You register, you claim your preferred handle or make up a less preferred one, you make up a display name reflecting whatever nymity you’ve decided to adopt, among those the platform supports. Then you begin your participation, and start to develop an identifiable style that is partly an extension of the pantheon of personas you’ve already developed, and partly unique and creatively adapted to the new medium. The term avatar is uniquely appropriate. The process is much like incarnating into another, lesser reality.
These are complex acts we’ve now become unconsciously and unreasonably good at. Beneath the overt rituals, there is a genuinely deep process of real identity construction that we get through in hours to days with barely a thought. We may present with cartoon profile images, but we are no longer cartoons online. We take our fully expressible selves there.
The richer the medium, the more completely human it allows your constructed personae to be. And the more it allows you to be completely human, the more there is something it is like to be at home in that particular medium.
Two of the most evolved media, in terms of affordances for construction and expressive performance of integrated personas, in particular home personas, are Twitter and Instagram.
I don’t know much about Instagram, but I’ve learned a few things about Twitter, and especially about how not to be homeless there.
There is something it is like to be “home” on Twitter that goes well beyond what your profile (or “home”) page looks like or how many followers you have. There are some really small accounts that present as really well-integrated and at-home personas, and some really big accounts that appear awkward, disintegrated, and yes, homeless. Accounts that arouse varying degrees of disgust reactions and cause you to metaphorically cross the street rather than engage.
To be “at home” on Twitter is an ineffable aspect of being on the platform. The gestalt of your presence, the overall effect of your tweet stream in the context of everything from profile picture and banner image, to pinned tweets and biography, reveals the extent to which you are at home, versus present as a visitor, or as a homeless person.
Once you get attuned to the stream (there is a stream literacy to being online, just as there is a sidewalk literacy to being a pedestrian) you can spot more subtle things. For instance, “Weird Sun twitter,” “Econ twitter,” and “Climate twitter” are particular neighborhoods with particular patterns of stream traffic, styles of “home” construction, and backyard (replies) landscaping. There are ways to throw good block parties, and ways to annoy, or avoid annoying, your neighbors.
The visitors are easy to spot. They have twitter accounts that they “use” from the locus of other personas that are not on Twitter, such as “CEO” or “marketer” or the infamous “bluecheck,” but they are not on Twitter really. They are neither at home, nor homeless, but instrumentally present at a distance from somewhere else, like an old-media newsroom. The seem unable to get past such instrumental presence — perhaps they are too famous offline — and okay with it.
But it is the homeless on Twitter who are the most remarkable new sorts of digital humans.
They are Very Online, liking, retweeting, beefing, trolling, and reply-guying. But their profiles are incoherent. Their tweet streams reveal a sort of frustrated search for an “at home” presence that seems to forever elude them. If you accidentally engage them, you get the feeling of there being nobody home. Nobody who knows how to be home. Their reply conversations have a quality of tentative, inept, entryist behavior being managed from a wrong sort of adjacent identity to the one they are trying to cohere. There are clear patterns of avoidance around them. Often, they appear to be talking to themselves.
Yet they persist, trying to come alive.
Some are so borderline not-human, at-home people have to do a double take or even run tests to check whether they are talking to Russian bot accounts or real people.
This feeling is remarkably similar to the feeling of having to do a double take to figure out whether a patch of sidewalk is a person or a pile of soiled clothes.The presentation rhymes with that of homelessness past the Buber point.
Twitter is arguably the most evolved social medium, though Instagram is a close second. In terms of the urbanist metaphor I’ve been gesturing at here, there are many neighborhoods, supporting a vast array of styles of being “at home,” with various degrees of opulence to the manner of presence.
A significant follower/following count is necessary but not sufficient for the more complex ways of being at home, and the threshold for being housed rather than homeless on Twitter is surprisingly low — if you follow/are followed by a sufficiently coherent set of people, you can be “at home” without even breaking into triple digits.
But if you don’t know what you are doing, and fail to see and be seen in coherent ways, you can fail to cohere despite industriously running “formulas” that allow you accumulate lots of followers. These large accounts are the equivalent of being homeless with a block’s worth of stuff of dubious utility piled around you, but no home. There is a difference between hoarding follows, and furnishing an at-home presence. If you ever see someone with tens of thousands of “followers” but many tweets with no likes or RTs, chances are you are looking at one of these blindly pumped-up homeless zombie accounts.
What Twitter reveals is that being at home is largely about seeing and being seen in ways that allow an inhabitable identity gestalt to emerge for you. There should be something it is like to “be on Twitter,” a consciousness you can inhabit. Something that requires you to craft and inhabit a persona that resembles that which emerges from being housed.
We’ve come a long way from “home pages” on Geocities.
Most other digital social media are much less evolved than Twitter.
YouTube for example, allows something close to a fully human presence if you are a creator of videos, but it falls well short of what Twitter allows.
This is because the baseline mode of presence on YouTube for the audience is much too primitive to count as fully human. Being at home in a medium is largely a function of seeing and being seen by others as human, and while video creators can and do network with each other elsewhere, the platform itself does not allow for enough mutuality that viewers can be at home on it.
That doesn’t seem to stop people from trying though.
As YouTube comments section reveal, it is far too fragmented a space for healthy people to meaningfully inhabit in any persistent way. If you literally try to make an online home on YouTube, there is something wrong with you. If you want to actually talk about a YouTube video, Twitter or Facebook is a better place to seek people to talk to.
On YouTube, there are no clear ways to form communities, develop neighborly relationships and friendships, and so on. Sociologically, it is like a business district in a bad part of town. There are fully human people who “go to work” at YouTube, much as there are fully human people in San Francisco who “go to work” in and around the Tenderloin. And all of us certainly visit to watch videos. But nobody with sense and other options attempts to make a “home” there.
Because most of the people you’d be relying on for seeing/being seen are dehumanized commenters with incoherent, derelict identities.
As a result, the YouTube audience is largely a digitally homeless one. Lonely, disconnected, and vulnerable to being drawn into ridiculously psychotic bunny trails that can swallow susceptible psyches whole, and spit them out utterly distorted at the other end. Serious creators on YouTube do not grow their communities there. Instead, they develop communities elsewhere, relying on YouTube primarily for a narrow set of functions relating to video hosting and distribution. Google seems uniquely bad at dealing with digital homelessness, just as America seems uniquely bad at dealing with the meatspace version.
Yelp is similar. The South Park episode You’re Not Yelping trains an unsparing spotlight on what I think of as the large digital homeless population on there. Most social sites that have a commercial activity at their core feature a significant online-homeless population. Whether it is the behaviors around shopping and consumption that cause this, or whether it is merely a correlation, is unclear. What is clear is that even if you get to know fellow buyers, sellers, and consumers on such platforms, there is none of the mutuality of fully seeing, or fully being seen, that allows you to be “at home” there.
If you try, you will end up as one of the homeless in the agora, striving in vain to cohere a fully human identity in an inhospitable space that is not really built for it.
I don’t have a particular point I’m trying to make via this extended meditation on homelessness online and offline. There are certain patterns of identity formation and disintegration involved in both spaces that seem striking and important to me, and important to understand, as part of any attempt to understand the world we live in.
Personally, the result of following this train of thought over the last few months is that I have sensitized myself to ways in which I myself am homeless.
For instance, I think I am financially homeless. I’m not poor, but I don’t have an integrated “financial personality.” The unintegrated pile of paperwork, investment and money management behaviors, and half-assed systems and processes that kinda just rolls along is not a habitable identity. There is nothing it is like to be me, financially speaking. There are numbers you can attach to it, like a net worth and a cash flow, and a rate of return on my retirement portfolio, but it doesn’t come together as a persona with a recognizable style and presence in the financial world (by which I mean the union of all our financial lives, not Wall Street).
Instead it is a failed proto-identity that sprawls out on some sort of sidewalk. There’s no there there.
I am “homeless” in this sense in several other ways. As a renter at 46, having lived in 23 apartments in as many years, I lack an integrated physical-community identity. I’ve very rarely lived anywhere long enough to get a sense of how I’d inhabit the role of “neighbor” or “long-time resident.” I did that as a kid of course, but those habits of being are long forgotten, and don’t apply to being an adult anyway, since kids constitute their own layer of community life. I exist in physical communities the way I do in airports — I have no real identity in either. I seem to pass unseen and invisible, like a ghost, through the communities I live in. At best, both are pass-through identities that actually manifest in visible ways elsewhere, in the form of something like referred pain for identities. Maybe my lack of a community self manifests as dad jokes on Twitter.
Looking around, I see several dozen areas of activity and behavior in my life that could potentially cohere into personas at various levels of integration. I don’t hit 100% at home along any dimension, but am sufficiently together to meaningfully exist in most of the important ones. But then, how would I know whether a dimension is important if I don’t exist on it?
More importantly, most of these sub-persona areas are areas that have failed to integrate at all. They are not areas that once existed for me in integrated form and then disintegrated under some sort of stress comparable to homelessness. So I guess I am lucky. I am genuinely homeless along only a few dimensions.
Taken together, the union of all your ways of potentially or actually being at home in various areas of your life, online and offline, constitute how you are at home in the universe itself, and on the planet in particular. Along each dimension, you might exist anywhere from nascent, to viable, to disintegrated conditions of identity.
None of us is all there, all the time. A post-digital at-home consciousness is one that is yet to truly emerge. In some way, it feels like we’ve all always been homeless on this planet we call home, because we don’t really know what it truly means to be at home — or homeless — anywhere.
But thanks to the internet, we are finally starting to figure it out.
Being “at home” is slowly turning into a broad, deep, planet-scale online-offline mode of being in mutual entanglement with everybody else on the planet. A mode of consciousness that we can glimpse over the horizon, but haven’t yet learned to inhabit. But it is also a mode of consciousness that must emerge if we are to make sense of the increasingly puzzling human condition that is the Permaweird.
Because if we don’t figure it out, things could easily disintegrate to the point where we cross our collective Buber points, and there is nothing it is like to be us.
Blog comments section feature a similar phenomenon. If you’ve been blogging long enough, you learn to tell apart people with their own home web presences (blogs or such), incoherent and lonely homeless people wandering across comments sections, and spam comments being industriously pumped out by script-aided marketers of Viagra. But blogs resemble manors or homesteads more than homes in cities and towns, so the metaphor of homelessness proper does not really apply. What you have instead is behaviors more akin to trespassing.