Third Place

“The third place is a concept which identifies places which are not home (first place) or work (second place).

As ‘informal public gathering places’, they are places of refuge, where people can eat, drink, relax, and commune in order to develop a sense of belonging to a place. They are gathering places where community is most alive and people are most themselves.

Third places are important because they act as ‘meditation between individuals and the larger society’ and increase a sense of belonging and community.

-Patricia Mou, “what is the third place (pt.1)” patriciamou.com.

She then talks about characteristics of a third place.

  • Neutral ground or common meeting place
  • Levelers or places that encourage, and are inclusive of, social and cultural diversity
  • Regular patrons
  • Low profile and informal places
  • Places that foster a playful atmosphere
  • A home away from home
  • A place where conversation is the primary activity
  • Places that are easy to access and accommodate various sedentary and active activities

Oddkin

“Here’s Donna Haraway, talking about kin, in Staying with the Trouble (2):

“Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin, rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin…troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible….What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what?”

Haraway is reclaiming kin to mean not merely blood relatives (“godkin”) but also those whose company [1] we choose to be in (“oddkin”). “Odd” works here to mean unexpected or unusual but also suggests the odd ones out. “Oddkin” brings the odd ones together into kinship.

But what does it mean to be oddkin? To whom are we actually responsible? The nuclear family restricts the answer to that question to the smallest possible unit: only immediate [2] relatives, not other more distant ones, and certainly not friends or neighbors. This isn’t just a philosophical restriction—it’s built in to our streets and buildings and laws with parking lots and bricks and surveillance cameras. But oddkin rewrites those boundaries, opens them wide up. Oddkin stakes the claim that the shape of kinship isn’t a birthright but a choice, that the people we choose to gather with are connected to us in ways at least equivalent to those we were born alongside.”

-Mandy Brown, “Oddkin: A working letter.A Working Library. August 29, 2021.

A Community is Defined By Its Center and Not Its Periphery

“My sense is that you need to build up a nucleus of people who know each other and who can network and support each other [in developing a proficiency in a technology with the complexity of R.]”

—Hadley Wickham in an interview with Dan Kopf, “What’s next for the popular programming language R?Quartz. August 17, 2019.

Made me think of a Larry Wall Slashdot interview, question 7, from back in the day.

Run Your Own Social Network

“I suppose I’ll repeat what I said multiple times in this document, which is that running a small social network site for your friends is hard work, but it’s worth it. It is first and foremost the work of community building, and only secondarily is it a technical endeavor. And it’s completely possible to do, today, though depending on who you are and what your resources are it’s going to be difficult in different ways.”

-Darius Kazemi, “Run Your Own Social Network.” runyourown.social. July 8, 2019

The net: Get five friends together. Open a lightweight account at a hosting provider like Masto.host for $100/year and see how it develops.

It is possible to meet the needs of a 5 person group in something like group chat in Signal or another messaging application. However, it is difficult to grow these groups without compromising the dynamic.

The advantage of hosting it on a Mastodon server is that is provides a scalable platform to grow up to 50 users. If you have a hosting provider, it cuts down on the technical skill necessary to run the server, but you will have to give up the ability to customize the software to your community’s needs. For most circumstances, this is a reasonable trade off.

Of course, you can roll your own on a virtual server or an old PC you have laying around. However, old PCs fail, as do old PC administrators. Do yourself a favor and outsource the work for $100.

Alienation at Home

“Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is, and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer?”

-Hanif Abdurraqib, “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative,” in “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, 2017.

I remember the moment I decided to leave home. In my seventeenth summer, stocking groceries in a supermarket. I was in the store putting wine bottles on the shelf before the sun had risen. Slowly, working my way to the last item on my last cart, I finished the work, at the mid-point between noon and dusk. Entering the backroom, there were my colleagues, weary men with fortune-telling faces telling of possible futures. Like me, many started stocking in their teens. They were the men who remained, who stayed after the culling of years.

In a twinkling moment, I had a realization. I hadn’t done well in school, and if I didn’t make a radical change that this would be my life. I could see the years roll past and my greatest aspiration would be to become a manager of a grocery department and then of a store.

Looking at it today, a manager of a grocery store seems like honest work. Perhaps not a bad life. I think I may have judged the possibility too harshly. A life revolving around a grocery store didn’t seem big enough to me then.

Within the week, I had sought out a military recruiter. I had completed the military aptitude test as a high school sophomore, partly because it struck me as a more enjoyable alternative than going to my classes that morning. I had scored well.

The next Saturday afternoon, the recruiter took me to the major recruiting station, and I had completed all the paperwork. But, I hadn’t realized that I was not old enough to sign the papers on my own. I understood very little about the process of signing up. Everyone signs for eight years, and the choice is how many of those are active and the number of years you pick — two, four, or six — determines what jobs are available to you. Four is a normal tour. You do six if you want to get extensive training, such as nuclear power, advanced electronics, special operations, and so forth. Two was for reservists. You do two years active and six on reserve and you can get help paying for college. I chose six. But like much in life, you have no idea of what you are signing up for when you sign up for it.

They called my mother and had her come in to give her permission. She came with her boyfriend, not her husband. I hadn’t said anything to her. After some discussion, my mother signed for me. I stayed at home for another year to finish high school. Then, I left ten days after graduating.

A handful of times since, I have returned to the place I grew up. Once after completing my initial military training. Another time on leave. But, each time the visits were separated by more time. The first time I came back, it was after a few months. Then, it took a year, then four. Now, it takes a decade or more.

With more time, “home” has become more alien. But, it was alien from the start. Home was always a place where I never felt like I belonged. It was a place I was always escaping. Either I would disappear into books or later, I would avoid going home, leaving for school on a Friday morning and not returning until Sunday night. Spending the night at the houses of friends that were gracious enough to let me stay. During the week, I did a sport for every season, so I had somewhere else to be in the afternoons. Working at the grocery store, it was easy to fill up week nights and weekends and the dead space of summer. I enjoyed working more than staying up late watching Wimbledon.

No one asked where I was. I had few friends. Anyone interested knew where to find me. But mostly, people weren’t interested in where I was or what I was doing.

As a child, I was frequently thinking of running out the clock, of getting to the part of life where I could make my own decisions without interference. Children are a permanent underclass serving the whims of parents and guardians. No one told me that life is mostly serving other people’s whims. Sometimes those other people are our past selves. Sometimes it’s our family. Sometimes it’s our boss. But, it is rare to be able to make decisions free of social suasion or interference of any sort.

It’s a funny thing about freedom. When you adopt autonomy as a principle value, where your independence is more important than fitting in, and even if you have, comparatively, a great deal of freedom, you’ll always want more. In this life, you can be free or you can fit in.

When you are free not to care about the opinions of your family or peers, free to think your own thoughts, free to violate the expectations of your social environment and go your own way — you’ll never fit in. It starts a cycle as you become more free, you are pushed to the edges, as if there is a threshold to the amount of variation a social milieu can tolerate, and then it ostracizes behavior beyond it, which pushes it further in the direction of variation.

That’s how people become the “crazy one” or “The Other” because they aren’t on the same page as everyone else in a particular social set. It must be how Satan felt in the Garden of Eden, if Genesis was rewritten from his point of view. It’s how Adam and Eve felt after pushed out of the garden. Once you start deciding for yourself, you’re on your own.

It’s one of the advantages of “mental illness” however defined. When you come into contact with it, either because it is a voice inside your own head or it speaks in the voice of a friend or family member, it becomes clear that reality is shaped or created whole-cloth from belief. Belief, more often than not, is socially constructed and serves someone else’s interests.

Illustration: What is the speed of light? In a vacuum, it has the exact value is 299,792,458 meters per second. But, do we know, experimentally, that is true in all areas of the universe today? Do we know that this is true throughout time? We don’t. There are variable speed of light theories. It is entirely possible based on what we know that light varies given different conditions than those where we have tested it in the last two hundred years. But, how do you test for something that may have existed in the past and doesn’t now? And, how would it change our current understanding of the world?

At base, this is the problem of induction. The problem of induction asks, “[O]n what grounds we come to our beliefs about the unobserved on the basis of inductive inferences?” If we did not observe and measure the speed of light 10,000 years ago, how do we know it was traveling at the same speed then as it is traveling now? When you go far enough down this particular rabbit hole, you come to the conclusion of Bertrand Russell that: if the problem of induction cannot be resolved, then “there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity.”

Assigning a value to the speed of light and saying it is permanent is more than convenient in terms of physics experiments. It suggests that some truths are timeless and not a function of an environment. We want truths we can count on, and the temptation is to call beliefs that can be useful true, even when there is reason to doubt.

Pick a conspiracy theory, cult belief system or alternative viewpoint of choice. You’re free to believe whatever you like. What do you choose? The criterion that matters to most people is whether the beliefs they adopt allows them to fit into a social group where they want to be accepted, often the nearest at hand. In most cases, this is what makes a belief useful. Like a diet, it doesn’t matter which one you pick (whether belief system or community since each is tied with the other), just so long as you pick one and stick with it.

Reading Hanif Abdurraqib, he talks about family. He talks about the black community, punk rock scenes, his romantic relationships, his family and his friends. He also talks about living in a society that treats him and the people he cares about as “The Other,” where the intersectionality of growing up as a black person in a poor neighborhood in a small city in the Rust Belt, has impressed upon him a sense of impending doom.

From his perspective, I am privileged. I am white, male, cis, “middle-class” broadly-defined, etc. I am much older than his 22 year old friend, and I have never attended a funeral of someone I loved.

But, from my perspective, there is privilege in having people that care about you at home, belonging to various communities, even if the larger culture in which you are living is designed to oppress those communities and the people you love. In some sense, it seems like a smaller community defined by skin-color might also allow for greater variation of behavior and belief, which may also have the effect of making the black community a source of so much of what eventually becomes mainstream culture. What I wonder are whether spirituals, jazz, rock and roll and other facets of black culture could have existed without white supremacy? Is there black culture without a distinct black community formed by racism? And without it, would humans desire to subjugate others just manifest differently, some kind of other arbitrary distinction like that of between Tutsi and Hutu in the Rwandan genocide?

What of the people that have aren’t part of any community? The elderly living out their lives alone in a nursing home after all their friends and family have died? Or, those with mental illness or a physical disfigurement acute enough that it is impossible for them to pass as normal. Perhaps there is a pass privilege, the ability to be accepted as belonging at a glance, until proven otherwise.

It works the other way too. You can pass and still know you don’t belong. On some level, we all have qualities that don’t belong, vary from some imagined norm. But, some of us feel that difference more acutely than others. Perhaps, this feeling is a form of variance itself.

I left home behind to seek out something else because I didn’t like the answers home had for me. One thing I found was that in a society like the United States, one that supposedly prizes individualism, is that everyone is trying to be different in the same way. Be different. Express your individuality through an acrylic sticker placed upon your chosen Apple product.

If you are going to choose something outside the mainstream, make sure there is a scene around it. It is hard to become a butcher, tailor, or candlestick maker, if you live in a post-apocalyptic vegan, nudist community living in a shelter underground. Different environments require different skill sets and different beliefs. Something singular will have to be made from scratch. Noah was a madman until the rains came. Then, his view was the only game in town.

Ultimately, the central question is: what story do we tell about ourselves? We all want a consistent narrative, to bind our best selves to the present and the future in an uncertain and changing world. Stories are the glue that does the binding. Whether the story is true or a fiction, it shapes us as people and our view of the world. This is always shaped to someone’s benefit. Who chooses? And who benefits?

When you start choosing only for yourself, it is the doorway to madness. God, love, and home can only exist in places where there is a multiplicity, where the “I” gives way to the “We”.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Matthew 18:20

Even the Christian God is imagined as a person, in three aspects. A singular God would be a mad God. One that would offer no redemption beyond changing her mind. And thoughts of home or a heaven would change with the changes of her mercurial mind. First this, then that. Hanging ten until the solidity of the surfboard is pulled from underneath, spilling you into the dark depths, possibly to be pulled down forever, never to rise again.

No board can ride a wave without a fin of belief giving us some measure of control. Diving the depths, we have to keep an eye on the time, a concept socially constructed. We are free to emerge, catch a wave, dive and try again. But, without community and without “The Other”, there can be nothing but chaos. Without chaos, it’s an ordered monotony, one that is serving interests other than most people living their lives in it.

A walled garden or the wilderness. Either/Or/Both. A palm tree can grow in the black iron prison. But do you want shade, dates or coconuts? And who can guarantee the fruit?

How to Turn Our Garden’s Bounty Into Community

“As someone who finds it hard—so so so hard—to ask for help, because it makes me feel vulnerable, weak, and in debt, which in turn has historically led to being abused, bartering is a safe exchange. Bartering equalizes exchange. There is no counting the change, because there is no change to give. Bartering involves consent; the exchange of two items must be deemed acceptable by agreement between two traders. You need. I have. You have, I need. You want. I want. We both want…

…Money disguises dependency. Money makes a rich person feel like they have all the power. That they don’t have to depend on anyone, for anything. What do we do in the face of this power? What can we do, other than protect ourselves from each other?

—Christine H. Lee, “How to Turn Our Garden’s Bounty Into Community.” Catapult Magazine. March 5, 2019.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

Community: A Third Place

“Home and work, I had read that morning, are our first and second places, respectively, and the third place is a sociable one we choose for ourselves as somewhere that helps root us in our communities, and promotes social equality. Or at least that’s the ideal, according to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the phrase in 1989 in his book, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. ‘Nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belonging as much as ‘membership’ in a third place,’ he wrote.”

—Brown, Jessica. “Searching London for My ‘Third Place’.” Longreads.com. July 2017.

Adding Oldenberg’s book to my queue. I am curious what qualities make for good First, Second and Third Places. I suspect they differ and could be classified, perhaps Oldenberg has already explored this in detail.