I’m reading, rather later than I intended, Carlo Rovelli’s excellent Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In the lesson on particles, he points out that we live in, “a world of happenings, not of things.” This is a reference to the constant fluctuations in the most fundamental building blocks of reality. Even the things we consider solid, static, fixed, are really the product of lively and ongoing sub-atomic actions and interactions.
This is a far cry from the Newtonian world where objects would be at rest until acted upon. This is still an entirely valid approximation for beings of our scale, but we now know it doesn’t explain our reality.
There’s a parallel in our lived experience to this transition in the theories. Our lives too, are now less dependent on, or defined by, fixed places. Instead, they are defined by a constant series of interactions. And the infrastructure of our world isn’t necessarily equipped for this.
The working week used to be daily bounce between two locations. I and many others now circulate rather than oscillate, travelling from interaction to interaction. My experiences just yesterday highlights how poorly public transport supports this sort of behaviour: I spent over £40 and nearly three hours covering less than 24 miles, resorting to taxis when buses failed to show or when it became clear that the cost was essentially equivalent with two people travelling — certainly once the extra time loss is taken into account.
If you want to understand the argument for autonomous vehicles, it is right here. Automation is likely to slice further into the base of 9–5 work, leaving most commuters either travelling to shifts in service-industry jobs or jumping between high-value human interactions throughout the working day. In this scenario, we need mass transit where it makes sense and mobility on demand where it doesn’t.
Outside of work too, our worlds are less defined by spaces and objects and more by experiences. Housing has moved more and more towards private rental, shorter-term arrangements than ownership or public lets. Objects have become less important as digital devices come to represent all media: books, films, music, news. Travel and live entertainment, by contrast, capture a growing proportion of our expenditure. Certainly amongst the young.
It has long been preached that we are defined by what we do, not what we own. But the shift in investment from stuff to experience seems to be making this real. Not driven by good will or charity, or even faith, but by a prevailing desire to live and experience the world when so much is filtered through the dulling lens of a smartphone screen.