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The End of Time?
An interview with
Zygmunt Bauman

Once upon a time there was time. But time is no more. At least not the way we used to think about it.
Because the people of the third millennium are condemned to live in the present. At the mercy of the moment. Mobile fragments of the liquid society in the era of liquid time. In other words, in an endless, unstoppable evolution.
This is the description provided, in a quiet voice and with an orderly stream of thought, giving the correct weight to each idea, by Zygmunt Bauman: philosopher, sociologist, celebrated observer of post-modernity and its transient transformations.
An imposing man in spite of his fragile appearance: born in 1925, Bauman has lived through the twentieth century with its twists and turns, the horrors of history and the acceleration of development and technology. Of Jewish ancestry, in 1968 he was obliged to flee his native Poland, a country scarred by antisemitism. And for half a century, as a professor at the University of Leeds, in England, he has applied an old-fashioned patience and dedication to the task of providing generations of students with the necessary categories to understand reality.
With one required precondition. “The world is changing too rapidly to be able to ascribe a universal meaning to things. Nowadays it’s an individual struggle: each of us is fighting alone to make sense of time,” he politely explains.

How has the notion of time changed over time?
There are two aspects to consider, both of which significantly influence our way of perceiving and using time. The first is the absence of a long-term perspective. Today people are no longer used to planning their actions in time because they are increasingly and painfully aware of the rapidity of change. The speed with which events follow one another is such that any occurrence is largely spontaneous. And perhaps also unpredictable.

So we are at the mercy of the present?
It is no longer possible to conceive and plan things that take years to achieve, because in the time between the idea and its actualisation everything could change. The idea that people have of time today is no different to that of instant coffee: you pour some water, you put the powder in and you drink it immediately.

So even time is disposable?
There’s a word to define this notion; nowist time. The time of this particular moment.

What makes nowist time different from the past?
Speed, for example the speed with which we lose interest in something: we can’t keep our commitment and our attention on the same subject for too long.

What else?
The fact that we can’t use the weapons of the past to face time.

For example?
Patience, which we used to teach to children: plan things carefully, work towards them step by step, do one thing first then another.

If we have lost the linearity of planning, what is left?
Pointilism, to borrow a word from the world of art. Like a picture, life is made up of moments, single points of colour. If you look at them individually they are just dots, each one very similar to the next, but by combining them carefully the painter is able to create a picture.

You said there were two aspects to consider.
Yes, the other is the morphology of time: time used to be structured. People fought to make it stable. For example, in my day time was divided into working time and private time, between duty and pleasure, so to speak.

Is it no longer like that?
Nowadays the divisions are becoming blurred, they are no longer clear. Not only are the boundaries not negotiable; they are also based on events that can’t be predicted. Do you know why?

Because these days nobody is absent anymore, we are all constantly present. Anyone who has a mobile phone or an iPhone in their pocket can send a signal at any moment. And that signal means that someone wants you to do something different from what you are doing.

A side effect of email, which keeps us chained to work.
That’s not all: the idea works in every sense. How many times do we see groups of young people on the street, each with his or her phone. When they get bored, when the conversation stops being interesting, they just have to pull out their phone to immerse themselves in something else.

So near and yet so far?
Time is liquid too, like society. You can maintain physical proximity but not spiritual proximity.

If it’s limited and fleeting, how should we use time?
This is a very individualistic society and we are each fighting our own battle to make sense of time. Benjamin Franklin said that time is money, for example, but I don’t think that’s true.

Why not?
Just take a simple example: you save all your life for your old age, but time depreciates money, making it worth less. So it’s a contradiction in terms. In theory, time repays you in a different way…

At least in theory, when you use it for things that seem impossible nowadays: for example long-term projects that oblige us to prioritise our interests, perhaps sacrificing momentary pleasures in favour of lasting things. In theory, by doing this we can look back and feel gratified by time.

And you insist that this is only theoretical?
Yes, because in practice often conditions aren’t stable, so planning doesn’t bring gratification after all. Students are the best example. They choose what course of study to undertake based on the skills that the labour market requires: theoretically, their choice should reward them.

But instead?
Instead circumstances are so changeable and unstable that at the end of their chosen course of study those skills are no longer any use: the market is already looking for something else.

So there’s no way out.
The numbers are clear: 50% of young people with a degree in Europe are either out of work or not doing what they studied to do.

Give us one positive aspect of the change currently happening.
Technology - the possibility of being constantly in touch with the public space by using a smartphone at any moment - is a revolution. It has swept away institutional obstacles, the gatekeepers who up to 30 years ago blocked access to the public sphere.

Is the modern world more democratic?
We can’t say: the consequences of the technological revolution are enormous, but impossible to assess today. While it’s true that everyone can access the public space, it’s also true that we can become slaves to Facebook “likes” and the number of people reading our blog. This phenomenon has a name.

The Poor Man replacing celebrity: success is measured by being seen as much as possible. This is the key statistic of our times.

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