Person-Places in Life, Fiction, and Software

This unfinished post explores two categories of things: persons and places. Both of those categories can be thought of as spectrums, with each thing having a degree of placeness and a degree of personhood between 0 and 1. The intersection of the two categories is particularly interesting at a time when software is becoming both intelligent and omnipresent. In this post, I suggest looking into technological, religious, and fictional person-places as inspiration for interfaces of new smart technologies.

What are Persons?

All human beings are persons.

Not all humans have historically enjoyed an equal level of legal personhood, and we generally treat outgroupers as having less personhood than members of our ingroups.

Personhood is in the eye of the beholder. We treat our inert dolls and cars as persons, but don't extend the same treatment to our rather intelligent food animals.

Can software be a person?

Software can be designed in a way that encourages its users to view it as a person.

What are places?

Pencils are not places at all, while houses certainly are. The size of the object correlates somewhat with its placeness, but function is more important: a cardboard box is not really a place until a cat tries to sit in it.

We don't normally consider human beings to be places unless we're on the magic school bus or are using a spacial metaphor like Pixar's Inside Out.

Can software be a place?

Software often uses spacial metaphors. On the desktop, the best known examples are window and file managers. On the web, we have the aptly named sites (as distinct from pages, which are more similar to documents).

Most video games, from Pac Man to Half Life, are places. As virtual and augmented reality becomes mainstream, spacial metaphors from videogames are likely to find their way into the larger world of software. Our brains are good at navigating (and remembering) 3D spaces, so we will easily acclimate to virtual libraries (either in VR space or superimposed on real shelves), conference rooms (the Oculus version of Facebook Workplace), shopping malls, and hangout spots.

Places inhabited by Persons

If you live in a city, most places that you visit are not dumb chunks of concrete but must be staffed by intelligent persons. Some examples of places in this category:

Banks, stores, houses

Genius Loci and haunted houses


[ clippy, siri, candy crush, okcupid ]

Places that are Persons

In science fiction, intelligent places are described as artificial intelligences whose bodies are physical places like cars, spaceships, or buildings (Aperture Science, KITT, HAL). In the horror genre, they appear as haunted houses. They frequently appear in folktales and fairytales, as in the Slavic story of Baba Yaga.

Smart buildings

[ Aperture Labs, smart houses, Baba Yaga's Hut ]

Smart ships and vehicles

[ Knightrider, etc. ]

Personified places in religion and mythology

[ River Ganges, the Panentheistic God, Navajo Hogans ]

Navajo Hogans

The Navajo Hogan is a residential place that is treated as a person. Hogans are personified in everyday speech, and are treated as living beings that need to be fed, cared for, spoken to, and shielded from loneliness.

The Hogan demonstrates that it's possible to relate to a place as a person even without the digital magic of interactivity.

Physical and digital communities

Places with strong communities, whether digital or real, can also be perceived as persons. For example, nations are often personified both by members of the nation and outsiders with whom it interacts.

Pros and cons of the two types of intelligent places

Advantages of places inhabited by persons:

[ agent (e.g. siri) can accompany user between places ]

Advantages of places that are places:

From The Navajo House Blessing Ceremony by Michelle L. Biehl:

The hogan is most often treated like a living object by its inhabitants. It needs to be taken care of and loved to sustain the harmony of the Navajo home life. "Hogans are personified in ordinary conversations - they are alive; they need to be fed, cared for, spoken to, and shielded from loneliness" (Frisbie 1980: 166). The ceremony then, not only serves the needs of its inhabitants, but it serves the needs of the hogan. The ritual aims to "feed the house, show proper treatment and respect to it, prevent timber breakage, and remove the hogan's loneliness" (176). The hogan's loneliness, before the ceremony is performed, is a dangerous thing; it can attract evil spirits.


Person Place Place inhabited by Person Sentient Person-Place
Characteristics Has real or imagined personality and agency Can accomodate human presence, but no personality or agency of its own A place whose essence, when interacting with it, involves one or more persons A place that posesses its own real or imagined personality and agency
Intelligence/Memory Interpersonal, emotional, mirror-neurons Spacial Spacial + interpersonal, emotional, mirror-neurons (applied to agents) Spacial + interpersonal, emotional, mirror-neurons (applied to place?)
In everyday life Human, pet, doll, hivemind, culture, egregore, corporation Park, storage locker Bank, store, house Country, community
In religion Angel, avatar, spirit, personified god, Tsukumogami Place of worship, holy site Holy of Holies, Shinto shrine Panentheistic God, Navajo Hogan, Ganges River
In fiction Creature, spirit, enchanted item Fictional places, fictional universes Haunted house, Genius Loci Sentient ship, vehicle, house, or planet. Baba Yaga's hut
In software Conversational apps (QZ), Google Glass, Amazon Echo, Bonzi Buddy Website, internet, window manager, file manager, virtual reality, most games MS Word + Clippy, iPhone + Siri, Candy Crush, okcupid Aperture Labs (Portal), Pinterest, social networks with hiveminds (4chan, reddit)
Problems Uncanny valley. Missing opportunity to take advantage of spacial memory & intelligence. Nothing to fall back on if agent's ability or intelligence insufficient for a task. Impersonal. Learning new tools can be difficult. Uncanny valley. Nothing to fall back on if agent's ability or intelligence insufficient for a task. Personhood is bound to a specific piece of software or device, can't accompany user between different devices.

Hiveminds, cultures, and egregores describe groups of people that behave (or are seen as) as a single organism.

Corporations are machines that are treated as a persons in some legal contexts. We also mentally model corporations as persons to some extent, viewing them as having personality, and forming relationships with them. Corporations have marketing departments to maintain their brand image.

While it's more common for religions to view God as a person, some also conceptualize God (or a specific deity) as place.

For example, one of God's names in Judaism is המקום ("HaMakom", lit. "The Place"). See also 1 Corinthians 1:30 in which Christians are described as being "in Christ", and the theological concept of Panentheism ("the world exists within God").

Personhood-Placeness as a graph

Any entity can be placed on a Place/Person graph.

The vertical axis represents the degree to which the entity can be called a person, and the horizontal axis represents the degree to which it can be called a place.

At the very bottom you can find most objects (until you stub your toe on them) and most software (until it crashes).