I’ve been reading Polish philosopher Zigmund Baum’s book “Liquid Modernity.” In it, he contrasts the modern world (a world that is disappearing) with the postmodern world (our current reality). He argues that the modern world is represented by its solidity. Solids are characterized by the togetherness of molecules, a defined form, for their rigidity, and slowness in moving. Think of the world of work. In the past, people used to work at factories, follow the strict instructions of a foreman, and use heavy machinery to produce solid goods. Goods were supposed to be durable. If you wanted to speak with someone in the old modernity, you had to use a telephone connected to a landline or type a letter.
Hotel companies had to have rooms to sell; taxi companies had to have cars; retailers had to have inventory.
The post-modern world, on the other hand, is liquid (and liquids are fluid). Because the space between particles is not as packed as compared to solids, liquids have no specific shape or form. They acquire the shape of the container they are in; they easily flow and spread out fast. Any homeowner has had at least one encounter with the power of liquids – the smallest crack in the roof and water will find its way into the ceiling, walls, and will eventually hit the floor. Liquids take full control of the environment they are in.
Translating the effect of liquidity to the world of work, most of us now work everyday without really producing anything that can be touched, and that’s largely because we work within networks of knowledge professionals exchanging bits of information. Offices are open spaces that allow for cooperation and exchange, not of solids or materials, but of ideas. Work relationships are no longer as rigid. And we now have the emergence of the ‘gig’ economy, (with more temporary positions/contracts and short-term work , and professionals sit in home offices and can work from anywhere in the world—and the current pandemic has made this even more of a reality. But that is not what concerns me. What is concerning is how new technologies, which have led to much of the ‘liquidification’ of the world, are and will continue to infiltrate every aspect of our existence. And it is our obliviousness and unpreparedness in managing the consequences of this pervasive permeability that are especially worrisome.
Smartphones are at the epicenter of the permeability crisis we currently face. This small device brings work, entertainment, weather, news, and so much more, and because these phones are so convenient and accessible, they can connect us almost anywhere, anytime, all the time. As such, we are literally bombarded with push notifications all day and night long (even though we may mute them while we sleep), and almost immediately after we wake up, our attention quickly becomes diverted and distracted.
In a solid world, the dinner table was a sacred place and time in which families ate together and passed dishes to one another as they talked about the day’s events (yes, I am old enough to have experienced this first-hand!) Today, however, work and entertainment have an easy way of slipping to the dinner table… a push notification informs you that a new message from your boss or a client has arrived and you thoughtlessly reach for the phone to respond while the kids bring their wireless devices and play games or watch videos. Our bosses and clients are now sharing our dinner table (and other parts of the household). Make no doubt about it—our Dark Horses* thrive in this liquid world!
Why all the concern though?
I believe that in this increasingly liquid reality, the world as we know it has been rewritten and reinvented by this technology which has completely changed how, when, where and why we interact with each other. And all of these have major consequences on goal achievement and productivity and I believe we’re not fully aware of and prepared to manage these intrusions into our personal lives. Smartphones, or any technology really that infiltrates our habits as these devices have done, have the power to turn us from subject to object. In other words, our position goes from the one who controls to the one being controlled. And in a world in which we are controlled, our personal aspirations, personal projects and goals are at the mercy of the one who controls.
I still believe that a good life—the one discussed by the Greek philosophers—is about living well and doing well. Reflecting on your personal goals and projects, ask yourself—is your ability to live and do well being challenged by the inundations of the liquid world? One way to live and do well is to manage our Dark Horse and our charioteer. The charioteer must engage in a rigorous and candid process of self-analysis to identify how this new liquid reality is influencing, either positively or negatively, your ability to achieve your goals. It must also be brutally honest about how it is allowing the Dark Horse to indulge in these liquid environments. In the end, you and you alone must create the conditions for your charioteer and your horses to thrive! *(Your self-indulgent, impulsive, instinctive self ---as discussed in Tamed)