The phrase ‘liquid modernity’ is one way to view our society’s behavior in the modern age. It was coined by Zygmunt Bauman whose book of the same title explains his view on the state of human affairs describing how our behavior has become more liquid where it once solid before. Umberto Eco’s last book (Chronicles of a Liquid Society) containing excerpts from his writings also referred to this idea of a ‘liquid society’ and he recommends the user read ‘State of Crisis’, another book co-authored by Bauman and Carlo Bordoni.
So what is a ‘liquid’ state for society?
There is a much better and more comprehensive summary of the book but this line in particular makes a thought provoking connection to technology by pointing out the difference between a network and a community.
‘The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the network that people fail to learn the real social skills that you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people with whom you need to enter into sensible interaction.’
The liquid nature points to the fact that our lives have less structure than previous generations because there is less rigidity in our jobs and communities. We have more choices, more patterns available in the jobs we choose and the roles we play in society. This has moved us from a solid state to a more liquid state and has had a big impact on how we live. It may be one of the reasons for a growing feeling of anxiety, unrest and depression in the modern world. While we have seen unprecedented progress of humankind, it has brought about a change in our societies that we may not have noticed or paid enough attention toward.
Bauman describes a ‘caravan park’ effect. Instead of citizens in a shared household, we behave like individuals in a caravan park, coming and going as we please, using the resources, paying for the service but not getting involved in the managing of the site, taking responsibility for it and as a result it doesn’t improve. You can compare this caravan park example to what we are building with technology today e.g. cheaper rides via Uber, fast and cheap delivery of goods to your home via Amazon, and AI driven recommendations in just about every platform you can think of. As consumers we are happy to use the services just like people at the caravan park, but we’re not inclined to get involved in anything more than that – and even if we wanted to, we don’t have the means in the designs of our networks today. The systems are set up in a caravan park type of way – use up resources and leave.
Technology may have promoted this liquid state through social networks or it may be a symptom of it as we have found ourselves seeking structure online but end up suffering the consequences of a kind of liquid unsupportive structure instead. The availability to change our identities, take on different personas, rapidly built and destroy online, is a kind of liquid network.
- Networks can be fleeting, self serving easily accessible without having to put much effort in but equally making it hard to get much value out.
- Communities grow and become better because of the effort people put in for a shared purpose.
Everyone knows what they working to in a community whether it’s a safer neighborhood or a supportive online forum, whereas networks are designed primarily with the individual in mind. Your network grows as the network itself grows but the purpose of the individual and the leaders of the network have very different metrics of success – as shown by the state of some of our biggest networks. As they grow huge in numbers, the benefits to members is not really clear yet tremendous profits for the network leaders is without doubt a benefit to them.
- Communities attract the volunteers i.e. people who want to improve the locality, organization or online groups.
- Networks attract the people looking for connections and knowledge that comes with it. There is more take and less give in a network, and the way we have designed the technology to serve the individual’s needs first and foremost only compounds that.
Is there a way to turn a network into more of a community? Perhaps with a greater sense of purpose and awareness of the long term impacts we could turn the social network caravan parks into social network shared households which might be good for everybody.