The Metaphysics of Pods and Places
Subtraction Society vs Real Community
“Get in the pod. Eat the bugs.”
I'm sure that some of you have heard about "pods" and the "bugmen" who live in them, but these terms, as with any label, have become muddled in vague usage driven by sentiment. I believe that "pods" are in fact a useful label to describe particular kinds of towns and cities that are populated by alienated individuals (many of whom we may call "bugmen").
I take issue, first, with the conception that any and all kinds of urban living are pods. I do not believe a house is a pod because it is small. There are absolutely wonderful small homes and apartments that serve people well. Off-grid cabins, etc. To properly understand a pod, we must dig deeper.
Second, I must engage in some self-criticism: in an earlier piece, I took to making statements that were far too general. I declared that suburbia was the first pods. As much as I believe there is a case to be made here, this is simply far too broad of a claim. Certainly there are suburbs that were designed in such a way as to foster community spirit, just as there were those that were structured to eventually become alienated messes. And not only did I make such a broad claim, but I did so without clarifying what I meant by "suburbs", which, truthfully, is not something I think I could define in a satisfactory manner then or now.
Which leads us to today's post: a long-form analysis of what makes a house or apartment a "pod." Let's dive in.
The Making of a Pod
My thesis is simply: A pod is a living quarters detached from any meaningful social community in one's physical surroundings. You may know your coworkers, but you have no idea who your neighbors are. As I've said earlier:
A pod is, at its core, a living quarters that alienates those inside from those outside. Sealed away, like an escape pod, the inhabitants of a pod are cut off from meaningful physical community.
The inhabitant of a pod is confronted, constantly, with an alien environment. He does not know the people he encounters beyond the most surface-level of interactions, if at all. He is unfamiliar with the events that are taking place. This is not to say that the pod inhabitants are agoraphobic or shut-ins, no. Rather, pods exist when society has been structured in such a way that there are barriers to the formation of meaningful physical community. In a world of endless convenience, when groceries can be delivered to your doorstep with an app, when entertainment can be streamed, when there is absolutely no material reason to care about those physically around you, is it any surprise we have no idea who our neighbors are?
This is why I have referred to pods as "dense without density." What I mean is you have a dense physical area (lots of people living in a small area) but the social networks simply are not there. People have fewer friends, don't know their neighbors, don't communicate as often. The hidden price of "saving" an hour a day getting goods delivered straight to your home rather than going out shopping is the gradual elimination of the kinds of spontaneous interactions that help build communities.
The Bugman is the lost soul who embraces the convenience and comfort at the expense of community and anything more meaningful in life. The Bugman is willing to slavishly devote himself to any man or system that promises him greater comfort and convenience. The "efficiency" that they worship is narrowly measured, and the hidden costs are waved away. It's not like these extra hours of free time appear to be doing us much good. Entrepreneurship was down until the COVID stimulus, we're getting fatter, and we still have fewer friends than we did 50 years ago. So forgive me for not believing in "efficiency."
Which leaves us with a pair of questions I've only hinted at answers to:
What makes a community strong?
How do communities grow strong?
Making a Strong Community
Connection, belonging, and common purpose. These are, of course, all related.
First, individuals must be connected with one another. They must engage with them regularly. So long as these regular interactions are positive, an individual will feel a sense of belonging. As individuals have greater connections to others in their physical community, a true social community is born, and individuals feel a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. When individuals have bought into this, they are aligned with a common purpose.
Put more simply: community is only built through empathy, and empathy can only truly be fostered in particular relationships. Which leads us to the conclusion that empathy doesn't scale (and, therefore, community doesn't either).
From my piece, Recovering Empathy:
Elaine Scarry wrote an essay titled "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," and while I disagree with parts of the essay and much of Scarry's Liberal principles, much of the essay remains fascinating. The central topic is the problem of the Other: How does one relate to this Other?
Scarry sees this problem as so important because it sits at the core of the injustices of our society:
The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring."
She illustrates this through reference to the work of British novelist Thomas Hardy:
He places before our eyes the dense interior of a man or woman. He then juxtaposes this ontological robustness with the inevitable subtractions, the flattenings, the emptyings out that occur in other people's vision of the person.
Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others.
It is this painful subtraction that characterizes our engagement with the world around us. In other words, we cannot escape the fact that society only ever sees a miniscule set of facets of our being (if society is even perceiving those facets correctly in the first place). Those close to us engage in what one might call a restorative addition over time as they "come to know us" more fully.
We live, fundamentally, in a "subtraction society":
Many feel, rightfully so, that this painful subtraction process appears to be intensifying and spreading. There are two reasons for this:
1. Material/Structural: Thrownness/Rootlessness
People "become" an individual in the eyes of another when they meaningfully interact with them and care about them. But what happens when people are not able to meaningfully interact with one another regularly? What happens when you switch apartment buildings or neighborhoods every couple years, never becoming embedded in a community? What happens when you move cities for jobs, and can only see your friends every 6 months (if that)?
The networks we operate in have simultaneously become broader and shallower, and I believe this is deeply detrimental to our lives (and I think the data on friendships, suicides, and mental health all support that claim)
2. Ideological: Autonomy and Wokeness
First, our Society celebrates autonomy above all else. The key here, of course, is that Autonomy directly opposes embeddedness. It demands shallow relationships:
We are all embedded within networks we had no choice in. We didn't choose where we were born or who our biological parents are, etc. We never consented to these characteristics that were thrust upon us. We didn't even consent to being thrown into the world in the first place!
And so, it is reasonable that when our society's core value runs up so strongly against the nature of our existence, our society rebels against "nature" itself.
The only way to escape a subtraction society is to cultivate an INTEREST in the hidden depths of the Other (a central theme within much romance, both literature and in real life). We must DESIRE to evade subtraction. We must actively want to dive into the depths of the Other, to lose ourselves in their complexity. For this, we must listen. We must observe. We must be quiet. But more than anything else, we must desire. Empathy doesn't scale because one cannot be interested in people you know only as an abstraction. Or, at the very least, one cannot be nearly as interested in them as one can be in a particular loved one.
We come to universality through particularity. It is the particular relationships we are in that prime and cultivate our ability to extend our empathy to distant others. It is through these particular relationships that we are interested in that we come to understand that Others have internal depths of their own. And it is only with that understanding that we can properly extend that to rest of the World.
And so we must understand that as the natural flower of true empathy is compassion, the root of true empathy is love. And love can only be built in a particular relationship. Love is built via increasing intimacy, as individuals grow together like vines until one cannot exist without the other. The loss of the other is very much a loss of the self. One's self expands to encompass the other. This, of course, can only happen in a limited fashion. Love is always particular. Expanding who you love necessarily diminishes the depth of the relationships you have. This depth is a function of both intimacy and time. You cannot escape this.
It is through our regular interactions that we may build connections. It is through our connections that we may find belonging. It is through our belonging that we may recognize a higher purpose we share with others.
And so, if we want to build strong communities, we need to begin from the material circumstances: we have to build towns and cities where individuals have regular interactions with one another. We need jobs that give people sufficient free time to connect with friends and family. We would prefer to have communities that have historical continuity, where a substantial percentage of people live in the same town they grew up in.
And, perhaps most significantly, we need people to be tied up with one another materially. Self-sufficiency on a town-level might be ideal, but communities are built via interdependence. Local economic specialization allows for trade and interactions. We respect what each person brings to the table and contributes to the broader community. These tie-ups make us accountable to one another: if you aren’t relying on your neighbors, you’re not part of a community.
Connection, friendship or otherwise, is fostered not only through deep interactions but rhythmic interactions (keep the sex jokes out of my comment section). We cant just have one 8-hour long chat with a friend once a year and expect to remain close. There must be both a regularity and a spontaneity to our interactions. Bumping into your friend at the store is just as important as making plans to go play basketball next weekend.
Pods exist in physical communities that have frustrated social connection. Bugmen are those who are willing to shred whatever remains of the social fabric, of community and a higher purpose, at the altar of convenience and comfort. If we want to overcome the issues with pods, we must build communities that are focused on ensuring that:
People have regular interactions with each other
People have space to express themselves and find a place they belong
People have sufficient free time to connect with friends and family
Towns and cities have at least some degree of historical continuity on a population level
Finally, my analysis of "pods" has been focused almost entirely on the social/community element of the equation. I understand that others also claim that pods are distasteful specifically because they are artificial and unconnected with nature. So,
People should have access to nature (and not just a man-made field but a proper park or forest, etc) nearby where they live
There are various ways to get here. Allow me to propose some "utopian" solutions:
1. Towns and cities should focus on being walkable.
- Town centers should not resemble a handful of strip malls slapped together. Every town, no matter how small, should have a walkable town square. It should serve as both a commercial hub and as a gathering place for the town's residents.
- Every new home built should be within walking distance (~1 mile or ~2km or something like that) from, at the very least, a grocery store and a pharmacy.
2. Towns and cities should be connected to make it more likely that people can find a nearby group for whatever their niche interests are. Ideally we have trains connecting most of the towns and cities in this country, making it possible to venture 3 or 4 towns over in <1 hour to meet up with friends.
3. Free time is difficult, and comes down mostly to our jobs. So, I propose the following:
- 32 hours of work at minimum wage + financial support for a stay at home parent should be sufficient to raise a family of 4 in any town or city in this country.
- Why 32? The working week should be shorter. Simple as.
4. We should have children live closer to their extended family, including but not limited to parents. I don't think multi-generational *households* are necessarily ideal, but I believe multiple generations should be living within the same town for various reasons (connection with the community, helping parents with young kids, helping the elderly live dignified lives - aka not in a nursing home)
- A way I could see this work: build affordable housing in rich neighborhoods, but the housing can only be occupied by either young couples of whom at least one of the two grew up in that town, or by elderly individuals who spent a sufficient amount of time living in the town. You could have "young family housing" and "elderly housing" which would give people greater support as well as dignity in their lives (and make things more affordable than spending half your income on rent in a megacity). Also this should hopefully make homeowners less afraid of declining property values.
5. Every new home should be within walking distance from some significant contiguous green space. Maybe 1 square mile of forest, or something like that.
These are just brainstorming for now. There is obviously much more to be discussed, many more details to be hashed out. But do not let anyone tell you a better future is inevitable, nor that the only way forward is via “technology.” We can build a much better future on the local level, focusing on community, decentralization, and humanity rather than “efficiency,” comfort, and convenience.
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(Sources for thumbnail images: 6sqft, CN Traveler)
We must start by pushing back against "diversity is our strength". What you describe without using the word is solidarity. Diversity is the enemy of solidarity, and so diversity is our weakness. We need to be able to segregate by race/religion/culture. Outcomes will vary - so be it.
I just wrote a long piece about a very similar thing. You get it. We need hundreds of thousands of towns and *small* cities, connected by rail. Revive 19th-century, elevated living.