The Technium

The Third Way

Howard Shultz, the founder of Starbucks, had a revelation that began his empire. He realized that people spent time in three different classes of spaces. They cocooned in private spaces, like their homes, and offices. And they spent time in public places like plazas, streets, museums. But all the civilized cities of the world were also filled with third places that people loved. Not quite private, not quite public, these third places were intimate but open to anyone.  Like settling down at a table at a cafe. It felt like your space, but you were not the landlord. They were public, open spaces that you could “own” for a while. They were also uncommon in America. So he decided to make his coffee shops third places where people could walk in from the street and spend all day there if they wanted to in an intimate mode. His empire was built on a third way.

There are lots of third ways that can be alternatives to problems we have. Are Uber drivers employees or contractors? Well, Uber drivers are not quite self employed, and they are not quite employees either. They are a third thing. We shouldn’t try to use the laws and norms for employees or self-proprietors with them. We need a new third category of work — something between “employee” and “not an employee”—that encompasses digital gig laborers.  AirBnB is neither a hotel, nor a private resident. It is a third thing, and we need to create a new category to deal with it.

Huge monopolistic companies running platforms like Facebook and Amazon are not mere corporations, nor are they governments, even though they have many of the attributes of both government and corporations. They are a new third thing: platforms. We should not expect to regulate platforms like companies, nor expect them to behave like governments. We need a third category of rights and responsibilities for them.

AI is not quite a dumb mechanical process that only does what we ask it to, and it is obviously not human either.  We should not expect to relate to AI and robots as machines, nor as a human. Their behavior and creation can’t be governed with our existing categories, nor with existing laws.  AI/Robots are a third thing.  They need to be treated in a third way.

This is the era of the third way. With the advent of genetic engineering, and ever more AI, and crypto and blockchain for organizations, we will be producing third things all the time. New ideas, products and services that are neither this or that, but something new that needs the third way. The most difficult part of this onboarding is opening our minds to the possibilities of a third way.