Rod Dreher introduced the concept of “liquid modernity” into my life through his Benedict Option book. Dreher writes a bit about liquid modernity in light of Sen. Ben Sasse’s recent remarks:

This weekend I am at an event called The Gathering, for Christian philanthropists. …

Yesterday I heard a wonderful lunchtime address by Sen. Ben Sasse, who told the audience that the US is going through an unprecedented historic transition right now, driven by economic restructuring, technology, and other things.

“We’re entering an era for the first time in human history where people are going to hit forty to fifty [years old], where their entire skill set will cease to exist, because of technology,” he said. Sasse went on to discuss the strong challenges this new world pose to human community.

According to Sasse, social science data show that a human being needs four basic things to be happy:

  • A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
  • A family
  • Close friends
  • Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”

Sasse said that technology and automation is going to rob more and more people of meaningful work — and that whether we like it or not, this is going to have tremendous impact socially and psychologically.

He also quoted some statistics showing that loneliness, isolation, and the withering of friendship in recent decades has gone up markedly.

In the years to come, he said, we will see lots of confusion as fragmented, atomized people scramble to find a “new tribe.” The senator said that Christians will have to “figure out how to revalue place and the local at a time when place and the local is evaporating for most people.”

He ended by urging the philanthropist to “invest time and treasure” figuring out how to teach people to do this, and to make it possible.

Whether the senator realized it or not, he’s talking about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity,” in which nothing is solid. The world Sen. Sasse describes is Bauman’s world.

Alright, so what does liquid modernity really mean? Here what Zygmunt Bauman thought:

Liquid Modernity is sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term for the present condition of the world as contrasted with the “solid” modernity that preceded it. According to Bauman, the passage from “solid” to “liquid” modernity created a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives.

Bauman’s vision of the current world is one in which individuals must to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like “career” and “progress” could be meaningfully applied. These fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability.[2]Liquid times are defined by uncertainty. In liquid modernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty.[3] The time it takes to fully consider options and make fully formed decisions has fragmented.

As society progresses, the creation of value liquefies and begins to flow unfettered. The production time it takes for value to occur declines. To survive, products and interfaces must quickly flow from spaces of high-resistance and poor usability to spaces of low resistance and user interaction. Successful interfaces induce a liquid state of flow in their users. Environments are becoming aware of relevant information, and are able to pull context-aware data into play when necessary. Devices can be small on the outside, but large on the inside.

If we’re living in a “liquid” time, that suggests that there really can be no meaningfully progressive sort of politics or mainstream social consciousness. It’s a radical idea, because it suggests that to thrive requires laying down the sort of social and physical roots that so much of the 20th century’s technology freed us from, starting with the combustion engine and automobiles and reaching its zenith with the internet.