Without realizing it our lives have become continuous; we no longer leave work and go home, we just leave the office, but we take our jobs with us in our pockets. And the same happens in the opposite direction, we kiss our family goodbye, we arrive to the office, we pull out our phone and we resume fighting over who forgot to do the dishes.
Although we can barely remember the time when life used to be different, it was just a decade ago. Our lives used to be quantized, there were these little, or big, chunks of life where we were mostly devoted to the task and people we had in front of us. We could leave home wondering if our college-aged-daughter would get that job, and this could be in the back of our heads until we got back home at night to hear the news. And it could occupy some headspace during the day, but it certainly was not as distracting as a text message conversation in the middle of a meeting.
This ability to compartmentalize certain aspects of our lives has been slowly declining during the 19th century, maybe even earlier, with the development of communications. One could argue that the Romans were the first civilization that increased continuity in an impactful way, by building roads to communicate the whole empire.
So even if nowadays we think of mobile, as in mobile phones, the concept of mobility has always been ingrained in human history. It took homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to transition from hunter gatherer societies to settlers, and start building the modern civilizations. During those years, humans, were able to spread from just a small region in Africa to all over the World, so how is that for mobility.
The incredible insight is that what it took thousands of years, and hundreds of generations, it can nowadays be achieved in just a few hours. However, looking at the big picture, the impact that airplanes have had has only been incremental from what the Spanish Conquistadors started in 1492. In just a span of 300 years, the world map went from being an unknown possibly-yeah-most-likely-a sphere, to a fully detailed we-are-sure-now world globe. And in this process, languages, customs, cultures and religions were wiped out. The Pope spoke and the whole world listened. The number of cultures plummeted and a few huge cultures were imposed. This development could be explained, to a great extent, by the increased mobility that new technologies applied to sail boats brought.
Then globalization happened: low cost flights, one-day international shipping, Hollywood, and any little sense of cultural quantization almost completely vanished. Hamburgers and french fries conquered the world, tequila was brought to corners of the world that Aztecs did not even know existed, and suddenly everybody spoke English.
Societies became more homogenous, and the world got divided in just a few very large blocks, which over time became even larger. The UN and free trade probably did the rest, and out of nowhere Big Macs tasted the same in San Bernardino, California, or in Mumbai. At the macro level there were still countries, with their unique set of customs and cultures, but the experience felt more continuous: same hotels, restaurants, shops, cars, retailers…
At the same time, a huge transformation was also happening at the micro level. There used to be a time, not that long ago, when people would leave the Old Continent, migrate to America, and not go back to their hometowns until many years later. New continent, new life; they could leave who they were behind, and create a new persona.
But communications started improving: the postal service became more reliable, the telegraph was invented, then the telephone and finally came the internet. The internet brought one very important thing with it: quasi-perfect memory. This made it much more difficult to leave the past behind, and suddenly, even if a person tried to actively avoid it her public persona got foreculy mobile, no chance of leaving it behind in the Old Continent.
Nevertheless, there still was some discontinuity; one paradigmatic example is Homer Simpson who had Moe’s, where he could escape Marge, reality and his responsibilities. But then the smartphone came around and that last stronghold of privacy got breached: Marge could know exactly where Homer was, Burns could bother him for not being at work, and Principal Skinner could call him to let him know that Bart set Milhouse’s pants on fire.
Certainly, the ubiquity of the smartphone has brought great improvements too; it has made separation much more bearable for families, it made it impossible to get lost, it made home office exponentially better, it gave children more freedom of movement albeit with a loss of privacy, just to name some examples.
It has become clear by now that quantization in our lives is dead, and that they have become an homogeneous mix of work, family, friends, here and there; past, present and future, reality and fantasy. What is even more amazing is that it is difficult to tell whether we like this new reality or not, since we seem to be incapable of putting our phones down.
My humble opinion is that the resurgence of meditation and mindfulness in these past few years is directly linked to a defense mechanism that has been alerted deep inside our minds, that are rejecting this new paradigm. Even if we want to fool ourselves thinking that we are good multitasker, our minds are better wired to do one thing at a time, specially when they are demanding tasks, like work, cooking or raising a child. This is why I think, that quantization in our lives will come back from death, and that we will find a way to balance the advantages that the ever increasing mobility has to offer us and the restlessness that it has brought to our minds.