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

How India overtook China (or will soon) become the world’s most populous country is all over the news. Included in the headlines and numbers are sub-statements about the demographic dividend; the need to create more jobs; And what country will the next century be? These do not interest me now. My focus is on one question: What do the world’s largest population, especially the young among them, choose to devote themselves to? Because it will determine our individual stories and the collective future of generations to come.

Today's young Indians do not know the world except as a constant stimulus.  Can they reclaim their focus in the midst of it?  The answer will determine our collective future.  (Sutterstock) premium
Today’s young Indians do not know the world except as a constant stimulus. Can they reclaim their focus in the midst of it? The answer will determine our collective future. (Sutterstock)

It gives me no pleasure to report that, as things stand, the scenario looks bleak. Wherever I travel, and in Mumbai where I live, I find that most people are committed to their smartphone screens more than anything else in their lives. Looking over their shoulders, I see them devoted to games, soap operas, forwards on WhatsApp, and doomscrolling or humble-bagging on social media platforms.

Perhaps it’s 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 similar cultural shift are all around us.

Consider the sheer amount of content available on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. While there’s no denying the ingenuity and effort that goes into producing thousands of hours of eminently watchable content, there’s also no denying the fact that deciding what to watch is increasingly difficult. Presented with the abundance of this level, 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 an almost endless scroll of options. Presented with that many potential partners, finding a mate should have been easy. Instead, the carousel has created a mindset in which many are constantly looking beyond their current short-term bonds, hoping that something better is on the horizon. Elsewhere, food delivery apps have added an element of ennui to what is sometimes a treat: eating out or ordering in.

The truth is that surfing breeds restlessness and boredom, and today’s privileged urban youth 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 “solid modernity” before it).

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

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

Count me in. I hope to live by the counter-intuitive argument made by American civic activist Pete Davis in his deeply philosophical book, Devoted: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing (2021): “We are doing a sacred thing when we choose to commit. For some. At its core, most commitment is about controlling our time. Death controls the length of our days. But we control the depth of our day. Commitment is about choosing to pursue infinite depth – in the face of our finite length.”

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

(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of Foundation Impact)

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