Can we resist the allure of liquid modernity, asks Charles Assisi

Aug 04, 2023 09:19 PM IST

Humans have gone from being pilgrims in search of meaning to tourists in search of excitement. It is time to find a way back, a way to add depth to our days.

How India has overtaken China (or soon will), to become the world’s most populous country, is all over the news. Embedded in the headlines and numbers are sub-narratives about demographic dividends; the need to create more jobs; and which country the next century will belong to. These don’t interest me right now. My attention is focused on one question: What will the world’s largest population, particularly the young among them, choose to dedicate themselves to? Because that will determine our personal narratives and the collective future of generations to come.

Today’s young Indians have known no world except one of ceaseless stimulus. Can they reclaim their focus amid it? The answer to that will determine our collective future. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Today’s young Indians have known no world except one of ceaseless stimulus. Can they reclaim their focus amid it? The answer to that will determine our collective future. (Shutterstock)

It gives me no joy to report that, as things stand, the landscape looks bleak. Everywhere I travel, and in Mumbai where I live, I find that most people are committed to their smartphone screens to a far greater degree than they are to most else in their lives. On peering over their shoulders, I see that they are dedicated to games, soap operas, forwards on WhatsApp, and doomscrolling or humble-bragging on social-media platforms.

Perhaps it is the times we live in that make it hard to commit to anything more permanent than a newsfeed. Has commitment itself become counter-intuitive? Signs of a corresponding cultural shift are all around us.

Consider the sheer volume of content now available on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. While there is no denying the ingenuity and effort that go into producing the thousands of hours of eminently watchable content, there is also no denying the fact that it has become incrementally harder to decide what to watch. Presented with this degree of muchness, we become creatures on a treadmill, in constant browsing mode.

What if we were to extrapolate this to other aspects of our lives? Dating apps offer a near-endless scroll of options. Presented with that many potential partners, companionship ought to have become easier to find. Instead, the carousel has created a mindset in which many are constantly looking beyond their current short-term bond, in the hope that something better is on the horizon. Elsewhere, food delivery apps have added an element of ennui to what used to be an occasional treat: that of eating out or ordering in.

The truth is that surfeit breeds restlessness and boredom, and today’s privileged urban young have known no other world than this one of instant gratification and universal access. Perhaps this is what the Polish social scientist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman was referring to when he coined the term “liquid modernity” (as opposed, he says, to the “solid modernity” that preceded it).

“We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as ‘pilgrims’ in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as ‘tourists’ in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences,” Bauman says, in his 1999 book, Liquid Modernity.

It is now expected that millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and members of the generations to follow will routinely live to 100, as advances in sciences push the boundaries of medicine. Given the levels of ennui that set in by the mid-20s (a phenomenon described by the umbrella term “quarter-life crisis”), it is hard to predict what it will take to hold the interest in their later years.

Count me out. I hope to live by the counter-intuitive argument American civic activist Pete Davis makes in his deeply philosophical book, Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing (2021): “We’re doing something holy when we choose to commit to something. At its core, much of commitment is about taking control of our time. Death controls the length of our days. But we control the depth of our days. Commitment is about choosing to pursue — in the face of our limited length—boundless depth.”

This is not a religious argument, but I find it to be a deeply spiritual and incredibly liberating one. In my experience, dedication does feel like an act of defiance. Committing to dedicate an hour every morning to myself without interruption feels liberating. Choosing to be available only at certain hours, and letting go of the fear of missing out, has made me far less of a captive to my phone. The world feels like a better place, and isn’t that one of the primary goals?

(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)

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