City City Bang Bang, Columns

The future as flow?

Technology has a way of making radical change feel matter-of-factly incremental. The arrival of the digital world has enhanced our capabilities in ways that are profound, but this dramatic change is consumed as if it were the most natural thing in the world. That one can listen to virtually any song in the world, for instance, when one feels like it, is a truly incredible facility. Similarly, streaming services have made access to all kinds of films and television shows available whenever one desires. Conceptually, this is a fundamental shift. We are in effect trading off longitudinal ownership of a little for latitudinal usership of a lot. By limiting our claim over a film or a piece of music, by foregoing any permanent right to it, we are able to in effect get access to it without restrictions. The idea of subscription acts as a sort of master key that unlocks a dazzling array of options.

The shift from a world based on the idea of ownership to that of ‘usership’ has been well documented. Underlying this, is perhaps a more fundamental shift in orientation. Our mental models are moving from being rooted in the idea of accumulation (stock) to that of continuous experience (flow). Earlier we thought as progress as the gradual accretion of assets- a cycle, a two-wheeler, a car, gadgets of various kinds, money in one’s bank account, a house and so on. So many of our everyday practices are rooted in this stock-orientation, on the idea that progress is additive.

Shops are essentially godowns full of inventory as are kitchens at home. The wardrobe accumulates clothing of all kind, out of which we use a mere fraction at any given point in time. Even devices that try to capture the flow of time have tended to be little pieces of frozen accumulations- magazines, the daily newspaper, the 9 pm news. The photo album is a repository of memories. The home a collection of objects acquired painstakingly through the years. A job is a fixed allocation of time and attention to a single employer. A cab stand, an aggregation of hireable vehicles. A restaurant, a residence for a fixed menu.

The trajectory of change is unmistakable. Today we are able to live much more in the present continuous tense. We can shop wherever we might be, listen to music on the go, order any food of choice at the most inopportune time. Food delivery apps can, in theory, make the idea of a well-stocked kitchen redundant. Already one can order ingredients that go into a specific dish and all one has to do is to cook it. Albums of photographs give way to an endless stream of selfies and other markers of the present. The photograph itself is not so much a document that preserves memories as much as a marker of what is happening today. The news timeline moves rapidly, every moment of the day. Social media is all flow and very little stock, the past disappears rapidly under ever-new bits of the present. The gig economy converts work from being fixed to fluid. Co-working spaces with ‘hot desks’ dismantle the idea of a fixed office.

The idea of abundance too changes from possessing a lot to being able to access whatever one desires, whenever one desires it, as effortlessly as possible. Being wealthy is increasingly not about owning more things, but about being able to bridge the gap between desire and fulfilment. If one could have whatever one wanted whenever one wanted it, why would one need to accumulate anything? The pursuit of material acquisition could well give way to cherishing of ever new experiences.

Going forward, imagine a life where one’s needs are on call. We could get our food, whether cooked or in an ingredient form, on call. Instead of owning an elaborate wardrobe, we could order whatever we wish to wear on a daily basis. It isn’t as outlandish as it sounds- already renting of clothes is a rapidly growing business and there is no reason why it cannot become more mainstream.

The possibilities are many. A flow-based world could look at money very differently. Imagine work resulting in getting placed on a band of entitlements, and within each band, getting one’s desired lifestyle streamed. In effect, it would mean an all- inclusive subscription to a lifestyle. Everything you want, available to you for consumption, not for ownership. The clothes you will wear today, the furniture you use this year, the food you will cook at the next meal, the car you will take a ride in to get to office.

In such a scenario, things begin to lose their materiality, the solid becomes vapour, choosing things becomes a life pursuit. The need to save diminishes. The need for self-knowledge deepens, for only when one knows oneself, can one choose the life one wishes to surround oneself with. Choice can even become oppressive, for there are simply too many options that do not keep still. Experimentation rises, for everything is transient, the costs of choosing one thing over another reduce dramatically. Randomness, or choosing not to make a choice, becomes attractive.

The other consequence of a flow-orientation is that we are forever reacting in the instant, to the world around us. The focus is on consequent action rather than foundational thought. Actions are increasingly tied to primitive instincts rather than reasoned deliberate positions. Opinion too is less analysis, more commentary for the former is an account of what has passed, and the latter a way of framing the present. Extempore debate is privileged over historical perspective, transient events over enduring phenomena.

There are many more implications that will inevitably follow such a foundational shift in human priorities. Possibilities, both liberating and terrifying, lie embedded in a change of this kind. Hanging on to a coherent sense of self in a world where everything is in a state of fluidity might well be our biggest challenge.

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