The Hyperfamily Idea
An Alternative to the Nuclear and Extended Family Models Of Social Cooperative Organization
I originally wrote this in 1998, while I was working on contract in Wisconsin living by myself in an apartment with very little social contact. This is not to say that it was a passing phase; it still seems like a far better way of doing things than the way we seem to be stuck with, and it would solve a lot of issues in our current living situation.
What has happened, so far, is a combination of negative and positive happenings: (a) frustration with trying to get people interested, (b) the circumstances of my life deteriorating somewhat, in certain ways, to the point where I am not able to relocate without leaving behind my small-but-significant existing hyperfamily; (c) the continuing rise of the internet and its facilities, and especially live online communities such as those found on IRC, means that we have gained a sort of virtual hyperfamily, though without a lot of the benefits of physical presence, and (d) my new (emerging but as yet somewhat distant) goal of actually living in cyberspace rather than just using it to communicate.
Item (c) especially has some interesting possibilities, but we are all still dealing with the realities of the cost of living and haven't been able to make any logistical headway on the hyperfamily project. Hopefully this document will lead to some ideas and more active discussion on the wiki.
Looking at the text with the helpful wiki-generated table of contents at the top, I can see there are probably some pieces missing. And the list of "office equipment" may need to be revised; e.g. who needs a copy machine anymore?
That said, here's the essay more or less as written in 1998, except for the "membership" sub-section, which I never liked.
In summary: 1. One can't choose one's blood relatives. 2. One does not always get along with one's blood relatives, even if they are reasonable people. 3. Even people who don't get along with their families sometimes want stable living arrangements. 4. Sometimes two people aren't enough1.
The Life-Cycle of the Archetypal Postwar Western Middle-Class Family
Two people of opposite chromosomal gender meet during their childbearing years and enter into the cultural/legal institution known as "marriage". They then produce a number of offspring, who mature one by one and leave home to finish their education and seek employment. These offspring eventually pair up with unrelated others of opposite chromosomal gender and similar age as above and begin families of their own. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
What's Wrong with This Picture
Several things. First, the reality of the situation is that the offspring often end up scattered far from their parents and far from each other. Second, it is often the case (especially among the "better educated" of the middle class) that several relocations of residence are necessary for reasons of employment which is in turn heavily linked to social standing. What is ironic is that in order to maintain one's social standing it is often necessary to leave the group in which one's social standing exists. Contact between relocated individuals/families and their former social milieu is generally maintained via electronic telecommunication and letters and cards on paper media, though these latter are usually seen more as an obligation than as enjoyable. Typically this contact is gradually reduced to none over the course of months or years. Also it often takes years in the new location to build up one's social circle to a comfortable size and mix, and often by this time another career-related relocation is necessary.
Another problem is that care for the parents, once they become "too old to work" (an age which varies greatly depending on the individual's skill set, mindset, work history, and mental/physical health), is generally unplanned. Often the elder parents face the choice of living independently in greatly reduced circumstances or moving in with their children. Depending on the elder's health, daily assistance of some sort may be required which reduces the elder's choices to (a) imposing even more greatly on those with whom they move in, or (b) moving to a "rest home". Rest homes are usually expensive and often unpleasant places where even with the best of "care", the elder is usually not in the company of friends or family on a daily basis. Moving in with the (grown-up) children is usually a problem for a number of reasons, including: 1. the fact (as mentioned earlier) that individuals don't always get along with their blood relatives; 2. the fact that usually the children are not yet at a stage in their lives where combined resources are sufficient to obtain a dwelling of adequate size to accommodate the elder(s) moving in.
A further point: unless the elder is able to write extensively during this time, opportunities for passing on of any acquired wisdom are scarce and brief. Although the rapid rate of change of today's society outdates a substantial amount of such acquired wisdom, this "break" in the chain of spoken memory leaves huge gaps in the knowledge base of succeeding generations.
And a final note: although much progress has been made towards ending the "opposite chromosomal gender" restriction (see Gay marriage), it still seems odd to me that the focus of such relationships is still the couple, i.e. two people plus any offspring. To the best of my knowledge, the only purely social unit that is legally recognized is the couple-plus-offspring family configuration. In many locations, it is illegal for more than a certain number of "unrelated" people to live together, and yet there are no procedures for legally declaring oneself to be "related" to anyone else except through marriage. All of this severely limits the freedoms people have for organizing themselves along social lines, and it is limitations like this which cause problems such as those outlined above.
Lest anyone dismiss these problems as "just the way things are", let me make a larger point:
I believe the knowledge of the unhappiness resulting from situations such as this causes many people to be depressed and unhappy with their lives in general, though they may not realize this consciously. The existence of misery in the world – especially misery over which we have some control as a culture but relatively little as individuals – is one of the first things we learn not to think about when growing up. The knowledge resides quietly in the back of our minds, gnawing at our happiness like the serpent eating the roots of Yggdrasil. (Why is suicide the second leading cause of death in teenagers? Why are antidepressants becoming so overwhelmingly popular among adults? Ok, you can argue that there are other reasons for being depressed – but my take on it is that a lot of the dramatic increase in depression rates etc. over the last few decades has a lot to do with this dismantling and disintegrating of existing communities and the gradual eradication of the whole concept of community, really.)
If our society is crumbling at the foundations as many claim, I think it may have a great deal to do with the destruction of our "social ecology", if you will – the family and community structures with which humanity evolved and on which we depend for emotional sustenance, sanity maintenance, and optimal contact with reality.
A Different Approach
It is my contention that most people need other people, and are happiest when they are able to physically interact with a collection of friends whose membership does not change too quickly or exceed a reasonable size (too large or too small).
Anthropologists believe1 that when we humans did most of our evolving, we made our living travelling around in small groups working together on a daily basis to hunt, to gather food, and to carry out the various tasks necessary to sustain life. Our nature as a social animal is built around this way of life. Most humans become unhappy when forced into solitude or limited company – or when forced to deal with too many other people; all in a group, too many people become a "crowd". Taken one at a time, people can become "faceless" or "anonymous" when interaction with the same individual is not repeated on a regular basis.
To put this in less objective terms, most people need friends: people to come home to, people to trust, people to "hang out" with, people to share work, frustration, happiness, ideas, etc. Some people apparently need this less than others, and are willing to pay the consequences.
I personally am not, and that is why I'm setting out this proposal. It is my hope that there are enough other people (a) who feel the same way, (b) with whom I would get along (and vice-versa, of course) when placed in daily proximity, and (c) with whom I can somehow make arranging such a thing a practical possibility.
Some Examples from Experience
Example 1: When I was working at Brown University, some of my friends joined a "literary fraternity" where most of the members lived in the same large house. The frat was highly egalitarian and geek-oriented, and was therefore largely ignored or avoided by the usual frat crowd. Thus we had a highly selective bunch of people, male and female in more or less equal proportions, with a lot of common interests. Even though I was not a member of the fraternity, when those who were got together (often with "outsiders" like myself) it felt like a family should feel (in fact, the frat was often referred to internally as "The Framily"). People usually enjoyed being with the others in the group; there were frequent informal get-togethers for music making, food sharing, random discussions, mutual moral support, etc. Eventually all of those I knew graduated or moved away to take jobs (myself included), but I kept thinking to myself that if I were to start a family, this is how I would want it to be.
Example 2: A few years before this, I was in a pre-college summer school program with about 100 other kids. It wasn't as great an experience as the literary frat; for one thing, males and females were segregated (which I despise for personal reasons). For another, I wasn't that fond of most of the people there. But I did rather like a few of them, and we used to get together in the common areas of the dormitory as well as nearby hangouts (the university cafeteria, mostly). Simply living in the same building and being able to "hang out" with this group of people (without, for example, having to drive anywhere) was enjoyable and helped in carrying out the various work we each had to do, not to mention keeping sane in the face of work pressures.
My proposal is, in a nutshell, to create a similar arrangement but with parameters which do not give it a predetermined expiration date. Ideally, the family unit should be able to endure indefinitely. Individuals should be able to join or leave over the course of the time essentially as they wish, and younger people should be able to join to replace expired biological units (as well as those who decide they have "grown up and moved on").
Very Large House with Land
I'd like to start with a very large house, perhaps with some smaller dwellings nearby for those who need their distance. These must be within easy walking distance; preferably the paths between dwellings would have some sort of shelter for inclement weather (underground tunnel? covered walkway?) though this may not feasible and is therefore not required. The house would be located on land which should be of sufficient acreage to allow some privacy and which should ideally be owned by the family or at least protected from unwanted intrusions and development. The exact layout of the house is important, though it may be necessary at first to settle for what can be afforded or obtained rather than what is ideal. Details of this are still to be drawn up, but a workable minimum would include:
- a kitchen large enough for several people to cook together
- a living room large enough to accommodate the whole family comfortably
- a dining room large enough for the whole family to eat together comfortably
- a bedroom for each family sub-unit*
- enough bathrooms to avoid unnecessary bloodshed
- enough workspace for essential household chores & homework
*for couples / children within the larger family who feel comfortable sleeping together. It is not a given that everyone has to feel comfortable being intimate with everyone else in the family. Some individuals will probably want their own private bedrooms while other sub-groups (e.g. pre-existing couples joining the family) will prefer to share.
Budget permitting, the various resources of the individual family members could be pooled in order to provide various amenities. The following list is just for inspiration; the family should come up with their own list and prioritize it before any family money is spent. This prioritization could also be of use to any family members who are interested in purchasing any of these items themselves or in a group outside the family budget.
I. productivity enhancers:
|A. office equipment: copy machines, fax, computers & printers, paper cutters, office supplies, reference books / discs / magazines; internal communications – intercom, walky-talkies, LAN; external communications – multiple phone lines, fast Internet connection, cell phones? short-wave or CB radio broadcast unit(s)? (see also category E for equipment to keep productivity going in an emergency)|
|B. kitchen equipment: gas and electric ovens, microwaves, large pots, wok, toaster(s), various electrical gadgets, chopping boards, dishwasher, composting area (outside); household equipment – washer(s) and dryer(s), ironing board, vacuum cleaners, sewing machine & accessories, lawn/yard equipment (and/or funds to hire yard workers (who could be family members or not))|
|C. carpentry/shop equipment: table saw, band saw, router, drills, drill bits, level, workshop area & furniture, screwdrivers, lumber storage shed; automotive equipment: chock blocks, oil pans, auto tools, hydraulic lift... ?|
|D. gardening equipment: supplies, plants, hoses, shovels, wheelbarrows, storage shed...|
|E. emergency equipment & supplies: uninterruptable power supplies (UPSs), solar power system, gas-powered generator(s), short-wave/CB as above, automated computer backup system, flashlights, candles, first aid kits|
II. creativity aids: musical instruments − piano, keyboards, drums, and other large/expensive items especially; art equipment/supplies − easels, paint sets, paint brushes, air brush, paper, clay, kiln, glitter... I know I'm leaving some stuff out here; performance/recording facilities − small indoor stage, recording equipment, video camera(s) (it would be very easy to get too ambitious with this)
III. life-quality aids: recreational stuff − swimming pool or other bathing facilities; paths through the woods, picnic benches, gazebos, trampoline; items for kids: swings, jungle gym, sandbox; passive entertainment − large-screen HDTV, DVD, satellite dishes and/or cable (passive entertainment should probably be lower priority than active entertainment); miscellaneous − guest room(s)
- Category I items all help to reduce the amount of time spent doing scutwork (such as taxes, bills, meal preparation, clothing repair, etc.) and therefore increase the amount of free time available to family members. Items in category IA would be additionally useful in keeping the family physically together if one or more family members are able to telecommute for part of their living; they could also make it easier to keep in touch with family members not present.
- Category IC items almost fall into Category II and could additionally reduce household maintenance costs.
- Category ID items are in sort of a gray area between category I and category III, but yards do need to be maintained and fresh herbs and veggies are always nice to have. Any purely aesthetic gardening, e.g. flower beds, should probably be considered category III.
- Category IE items help keep productivity going in the event of power failure, but it also ventures into the category of safety which should really be a whole other category ("safety enhancers"; I'll get to this later).
- Category II is sort of a sub-category of Category III, with some additional justifications: Any creative products coming out of the family would be a legacy to future generations, would be a demonstration of the family's character (and therefore would be the best way to attract compatible new members), and if developed commercially could generate income which would help keep the family physically together. Category II items would also be very good to have around for children.
- Category III is for sheer decadence, a necessary part of life. The family's possession of such items would act as a partial reward for the extra work involved in keeping the family together and in good condition, and would also help to generate a sense of family pride (saints preserve us). The other two categories have their own rewards, but they also could be seen as "work" and therefore more of a zero-sum game; Category III exists solely for its own sake (or, rather, for the sake of enjoyment).
Note that it will almost certainly take some years before a substantial percentage of the items on this list can be afforded, but you can't get anywhere without a plan.
As far as location, it will probably be necessary to evolve gradually from the doable to the ideal in several stages, relocating or improving the family residence at each stage as resources become available. Funds for purchasing items above as well as the dwelling and grounds will probably be scarce at first, so a method for prioritizing purchases will need to be agreed upon as will some sort of system for deciding who contributes how much. Also, any of the following items possessed by individual members of the family should be shared as much as possible (encouraged but not required; always valued, regardless of ownership):
IV. culture/library: literature, music and other audio, movies and other video, paintings and other art
V. skills/knowledge (in alphabetical order, including but not limited to): anthropology, art, astronomy, auto repair, behavior, biology, business, carpentry, computers, cooking, cryptography, dispute settlement, electronics, engineering, gardening, geology, history, information theory, literature, math, medicine, music, law, physics, sewing, sociology, writing, zoology
It should be made clear, however, that family members would be under no obligation to contribute their private possessions to the "common good"; this is not to be a commune. (At least, not what I'm working towards.) Individuals will maintain their own finances, may make their own purchases, and need only contribute to the family's common possessions and wealth as they see fit.
Where & when can the family get together for real?
This is the hardest part. We are still in need of reliable income, which requires a job, which usually requires an employer who either is nearby or permits telecommuting. An important factor, then, is choosing a location that is likely to be capable of providing adequate jobs for all members who need them. Ideally the job base would be within commuting distance of the residence, but it should definitely be within a short day's drive. Family members may be willing to sacrifice coming home to the family every day in favor of other considerations such as scenic location, intermediate location between two or more large job markets, and lower costs. This would likely place additional strain on the family unit and should be avoided, but it is an option.
In addition to providing a job base, the ideal location would be meteorologically, biologically, geologically, and culturally pleasant, i.e. reasonable weather, interesting terrain, and a well-educated population. In reality, some compromises will need to be made. Hopefully over time better arrangements can be worked out as the family's resources and knowledge increase.
Who pays the rent?
This could be another source of conflict if everyone isn't paying attention. I don't think everyone in the family should have to have a paying job or even contribute financially to the family's coffers. Family members working at home for the family could be actively ensuring the continued flow of income by (e.g.) keeping up with job BBSs and/or employment classifieds, handling investments, etc.
Some household tasks need to be done just as urgently as those that generate a paycheck with one's name on it. In the interest of avoiding stereotypical division of labor I'm hesitant to mention regular household chores such as cleaning and cooking, but they will need to be managed somehow. Particular individuals will need to be assigned to those tasks, they will need to be shared in some way, or assistance will need to be hired from outside (budget permitting). I recommend sharing as a way of increasing quality interaction between family members, which is one of the primary goals of the FC. Designating one or a few individuals to do all the scutwork runs the risk of creating the "unappreciated labor" syndrome.
Obviously, employed family members need to contribute enough to pay any housing expenses including utilities and upkeep. A document should be drawn up detailing available funds based on how much each family member is willing and able to contribute. This in turn would be based loosely on each member's present housing and utility expenses, assuming all members are solvent and able to pay these amounts themselves.
Any property being considered as a potential home base for the family should then have its own minimal requirements budget drawn up, i.e. figure out how much will it cost to run that place with no optional expenses added but including some margin for savings and unforeseen expenses.
Compare the two figures. If the income figure exceeds the budget of expenses, a plan can be put together to ensure that the family's basic needs are always met barring unforeseen problems. Any such plan should include some savings for future emergencies, and if possible a separate amount towards future purchases. If there is a big enough margin, some non-essential items may be added to the household budget (though it should be understood that these items are optional and can be trimmed if the available income is reduced at any time in the future). If expenses exceed income, then a cheaper location will need to be found or else full installation of the family will need to wait until adequate funding can be secured.
Appendix A. Literature references
Extended-model families in fiction
- Robert A. Heinlein:
- The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I wouldn't recommend adopting all of the traditions used by the "line families" in this story, but the general idea seems workable and demonstrates some of the strengths of the concept as I see it.
- The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. A bit (well, ok, a lot) heavy on the gratuitous sex and time-travel, but still somewhat inspirational.
- Friday. An example of an extended family that goes wrong; some issues to think about.
- motion picture: Where the Heart Is. (a better movie than title... the one with Dabney Coleman, not the later movie of the same title with Julia Roberts) Explores what happens when the parents of a well-to-do New York family force their children to live in a run-down quasi-mansion and take on renters to pay for expenses (as a sort of How Not to be Spoiled Rotten lesson). The parents are eventually forced to join them as the result of a business failure. What is relevant is the way the children, their friends, the renters, and finally the parents and the bank officer who authorized the loan for the business all band together in the face of adversity once it is clear the original rules no longer apply.
Extended-family-like arrangements in reality
Notes from Tigger:
Households kept at various times by Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, partake of some of the spirit and willingness to challenge conventions in the name of serious friendships and alliances. Of course family model proposed here does not necessarily propose the exact configurations of relationship which appeared in these settings; point is just that knowledge of said configurations makes for interesting, relevant reading and reflection.
When Virginia and Vanessa's old Victorian parents had both died, they and their brothers shocked society by moving to a house in the Bloomsbury region of London where they proceeded to live a life without chaperones (!!) and to begin a tradition of having brilliant and varied friends drop in for regular salon-style discussions of all sorts of things (these included satirical biographer Lytton Strachey and economist Maynard Keynes, among others). Male and female friends of the same generation even began addressing each other by first names! Later, some combination/subset of the male and the female friends all moved into a house together, with everyone living in her or his room -- also considered an unbearably shocking arrangement by standards of the times.
For a time, later, Vanessa and her husband Clive lived alone in their own apartment, and when Virginia married Leonard [Woolf] the two of them lived alone together for the rest of their lives (until Virginia's suicide). Vanessa, though, eventually moved to a house in the country known as Charleston where she set up an unlikely household. Clive did not come with her, though they remained on quite good terms and I gather he visited for extended periods. Vanessa, a painter, lived in this place with her two young sons by Clive, and two male artists who for some substantial period were each other's lovers and one of whom also had a romantic relationships with Vanessa, which ended without the household breaking up. In fact her third child, Angelica, was actually biologically fathered by one of these men, but grew up believing Clive was her father. (She later married the guy who had been her father's lover while she was growing up, and wrote a book called Deceived by Kindness detailing ways in which the unconventional family life had been hard on her -- may be worth reading with an eye for negative dynamics to watch out for.) They were all conscientious objectors in this place during war, and did a certain amount of farming on the land. Also, all these artists had a habit of painting the furniture, the walls, and everything else in interesting, fanciful, decorative ways.
These arrangements, at any rate, were consistently unconventional in that they moved away from traditional biological family as the basic unit for a household, and for the way in which various people involved did not view the presence or absence of romantic or biological relationships as the principal reason for or against living together or cultivating functional and affectionate family bonds.
- Angelica Garnett: Deceived with Kindness, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. ISBN 0151241856
- Quentin Bell: Virgina Woolf: A Biography, HBJ, 1972 (certain chapters). ISBN 0156935805
- Frances Spalding: Vanessa Bell, HBJ, 1983 (certain chapters). ISBN 0156933500
- 1998 (?) first written as MS Word document while in Wisconsin
- 1999-05-23 probable first posting on the web (at redhouse.com/icms/projects/hf/problem)
- 2000-03-15 posting on web "rebuilt" (?), same URL
- 2005-06-04 posted on HypertWiki
- North American Phalanx: a successful hyperfamily-like organization, 1841-1856. Dissolved largely due to internal disputes over political issues.
- Wikipedia's Utopian communities category should probably be looked through for other examples; also, there needs to be a close study of all "group living" communities to see what works and what doesn't, regardless of what the overall philosophy is.
- Intentional community