The characterization of modernity as a “liquid time” is one of the greatest successes of contemporary sociology. The term, coined by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, realizes precisely the transition from a “solid” -stable, repetitive to a ‘liquid’ -flexible, voluble- modernity in which social structures no longer endure the time to solidify and no longer serve as frameworks for human acts. But uncertainty in which we live is also due to other changes including the separation of power and politics; the weakening of security systems protecting the individual, or the renunciation of thinking and long-term planning: oblivion is presented as a condition of success. This new framework involves the fragmentation of lives, requires individuals to be flexible, be willing to change tactics, to abandon commitments and loyalties.
About liquidity from the Wikipedia: “… its characteristics are about the individual, namely increasing feelings of uncertainty and the privatization of ambivalence It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the ‘liquid modern’ man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support.” In practical terms, what this brings is destruction of values, morals, ethics, social structure. Decadence in other words. In a shapeless society, which is like a jelly without form, there can be no project, no reform, no vision, no roadmap. Societies and civilizations cannot evolve without some sort of structure to sustain them and their philosophies.
But when did all this happen? Clearly the transformation process didn’t start suddenly. In actual fact it is impossible to say when it kicked in as the process itself is extremely articulate, slow and highly complex. Events which contributed to the transformation of society evolved at different speed and intensities in different countries. However, what can be done is to examine the evolution of complexity and entropy over the past few decades. Complexity grows when a system evolves and represents its ‘vitality’ and ‘potential’. More complex systems are able to perform more functions. This is a well-known fact. However, any evolutionary process entails the inevitable creation of ‘waste’. Waste comes in many forms: CO2, heat, solid waste, digital waste, etc. While it is very difficult to accurately measure all waste produced by humanity during, say, a period of one year, it is possible to measure the amount of entropy, which provides a reasonable proxy.
Complexity has ben growing more or less steadily over the past five decades. This is illustrated in the graph below. Data from the World Bank, spanning the economy, industry, healthcare, education, transportation, energy, social and ethnic aspects, etc. has been analyzed. Over 260000 parameters have been taken into account from 196 countries). The bumps correspond to crises or destabilizing events. The most prominent of these is the current crisis which had started to build up in 2004. The drop which started in 2008 gives an idea of how severe the crisis is.
But let’s turn our attention to entropy. Until 1998, for nearly three decades, entropy has been increasing at a steady pace, just like complexity. In approximately 1997 the rate of ‘entropy production’ has increased dramatically – see change of slope indicated by the second red dotted line. In practice, until 1998, the Entropy/Complexity ratio – which reflects the ‘efficiency’ of a system – has been constant. After 1997 the ratio doubles. In 2001, after 9/11, the World changes dramatically. With all likelihood, 9/11 has consolidated the change – entropy is now growing very quickly: for each increase in complexity (growth) the amount of waste that is produced increases by 100%. This is what happens at global, planetary level.
But another, even more dramatic turn of events took place approximately a decade before. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 has become the symbol of the fall of communism in Central Europe. A few months before, in June, the first ‘almost free’ elections in an eastern Block country were celebrated in Poland, paving the way to the first truly free elections in 1991. These events are reflected in Poland’s complexity in an astonishingly eloquent manner – the plot is illustrated below (red arrow indicates the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989).
We now have a measure of the ‘difference between a communist/totalitarian regime and a free economy’. In the decades of communist rule, the country has evolved very little – complexity grows at a very mild rate. Until 1980 the growth is almost exactly linear. In 1980, the Gdansk Agreement is signed and in December 1981 martial law is declared. This is when the first fluctuations in complexity commence. A decade of turbulence follows. In 1991, the year of the mentioned first free elections, complexity skyrocketed at rates never witnessed before. The growth is sustained until it stabilizes, almost suddenly, in approximately 2003. The country is now in an almost free market economy – complexity is approximately 550, five times what it was during the communist regime. The ratio (5.5) provides an interesting measure of what a suffocating totalitarian regime can do to a country and how a free market economy can almost instantly unleash its potential.
But such things come at a price. In less than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall the World doubles its rate of entropy production. This rate is maintained until today. Let us see why.
With all likelihood, the advent of the internet and the fall of communism approximately five years earlier are the two triggering events which push humanity onto a new high-entropy path. Since the mid 1990s, the Internet is having a revolutionary impact on culture and commerce, including the rise of near-instant communication by electronic mail, instant messaging, telephone calls, two-way interactive video calls, and the World Wide Web with its discussion forums, blogs, social networking, and online shopping sites. Everyone now is able to travel, to communicate, to access information instantly.
But why would all this lead to such a high rate of entropy production? There are very many possible causes and it is impossible to list them all and we will not attempt to do so. What appears to be evident is that our global society has a radically different set of values than it did in, say the 1970s. Our lifestyles are today generally more wasteful, largely driven by consumerism. Teenagers burn their existence in social networks (which do more to destroy society than to help it become better). There seem to be more tablets than books. Even the concept of family – the basic building block of any society – is being questioned. The new “liquid” culture embraces relativism and rejects stability in human relations. All this cannot but generate more waste.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Bauman began exploring postmodernity and consumerism. If you ask me when the liquid society started, I’d say it all began when the discontinuity in global entropy production took place – around 1997.