I think about place a lot.
That’s a kind of weird sentence to start of with, isn’t it? At the very least, it’s not something you hear often. Who thinks about place?
So, let’s start again. What even is “a place”? For something that is so woven into human experience, It’s a hard word to define; amorphous, even, like describing a color without using its name. So, let’s go for an academic definition.
Officially, a place can be said to have three features — a spot in the universe, physicality and a name. Apart from that, a place is also somewhere that breeds emotional attachment. Without the stories and emotions of people attached to it, a place is not a place.
The places we inhabit affect who we are, how we think, and how we act. They are made by the people who inhabit and pass through them. Place-making is, as such, is a collaborative effort.
Okay, cool. But what does that have to do with working remotely?
A place in the landscape.
The company I work for, Bunny Inc., is a remote company. I work from home which, currently for me, is a farm in rural South Africa. I hear roosters crowing when I wake up and smell cow poop when I walk out my front door (it’s a smell you get used to). I feel grass and dirt under my feet when I walk outside, the same grass I taste in the milk from the dairy farm next door. When I have a shower, I wash in rainwater that fell on the roof of my house. And, if there is no rain, there is no water and, as a consequence, no shower.
Living on a farm fosters a strong connection to the landscape and, thus, to place. To this specific place, where all my senses ground me to an earth that, for now, is my dwelling place.
It would perhaps be strange if I told you that, while I may physically be on this land all day, working from the wooden bench outside my back door, I do not inhabit this farm, this place during my work day. I may be physically here but, in every other sense of the word — mentally, emotionally, what have you — I am not here.
A non-place place.
Where I am then? I’m somewhere else, somewhere that I refer to as my “non-place workplace”. Working remotely, you see, means that I work with people from all over the world. We interact online through message boards, emails and video calls. Through communication, shared goals, collaboration, and software, my teammates and I have built a community that, dare I say it, feels like a place.
But… didn’t I just say that in order for a place to be a place it needs to have physicality? Something tangible to hold, to walk on, to engage the senses?
That’s the paradox of the internet — it’s a place that is not a place. A liminal location formed in between the routers, cell towers, and undersea cables that make up its architecture. You cannot hold it, you cannot walk on it, but you can inhabit it; mentally and emotionally, if not physically.
As the progress of the internet marches on and as we envelop ourselves into it more and more, it becomes more place-like. An exponential function that may or may not ever cross the axis of physicality and of “true place”.
Unless, of course, we make a concerted effort to boot our non-places from the internet into the physical.
A place of our own making.
I write this exactly five days before I get on a plane to travel to the physical manifestation of a non-place. We have a company retreat, you see, just outside of Bogotá. Because of this, all of us, from all over the world, are journeying away from our internet non-place to a physical true-place.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. I’m excited, of course, and happy to give people real-life hugs for the first time. But the nervousness stems, I think, from not understanding how exactly a non-place will become a place. When rooted to the physical, will our communication styles and choice of language change? Will my mind and body even remember how to act in sync? It’s an unknown and unknowns, while valuable and an opportunity for growth, are scary.
I feel, for lack of a better phrase, that I am going to the physical manifestation of the internet. A non-place will, after this trip, have become a place. It will have a physical location and sensory memory attached to it. How will this change how I work and how I interact?
The unknown known.
In an article about something completely different, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek states that there are unknown knowns, or things we do not know that we know. This idea, while born in a political context, can be translated into other circumstances, too.
Despite having never been in this situation before, it’s likely that my brain and body know how to navigate it. We’re adaptable creatures and, perhaps, this is not a totally unknown situation. We, as humans, like to make places — to give them names and boundaries. It’s a thing that we do, for better or worse.
And as for the parts of placemaking that are still unknown? That’s where the the deepest development of the self hides.
So, I’m ready for that unknown. Are you?