In Pressed for Time, Judy Wajcman explains why we immediately interpret our experiences with digital technology as inexorably accelerating everyday life. She argues that we are not mere hostages to communication devices, and the sense of always being rushed is the result of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set rather than the machines that help us set them. Indeed, being busy and having action-packed lives has become valorized by our productivity driven culture. Wajcman offers a bracing historical perspective, exploring the commodification of clock time, and how the speed of the industrial age became identified with progress. She also delves into the ways time-use differs for diverse groups in modern societies, showing how changes in work patterns, family arrangements, and parenting all affect time stress. Bringing together empirical research on time use and theoretical debates about dramatic digital developments, this accessible and engaging book will leave readers better versed in how to use technology to navigate life's fast lane.
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Pressed for Time
The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism
By Judy Wajcman
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Is the Pace of Life Accelerating?
Any attempt to make sense of the human condition at the start of the new century must begin with the analysis of the social experience of speed.
William Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time
The relative speed of society has long been seen as one of its essential characteristics. Many of the inventions that are considered pivotal to progress, from the wheel to the microchip, have been designed to enable us to go faster. Yet it is in diagnoses of our contemporary times that acceleration features most prominently. Time-space compression, the idea that technologies have dramatically telescoped temporal and spatial distances, is a constant motif, as is the notion that economic, social, and cultural change is much more rapid than in previous eras. Things seem to happen at a relentless pace, imbuing us with a different sense of time.
According to the dominant narrative, our ubiquitous experience of busyness makes perfect sense as we inhabit a high-speed society. Our age is obsessed with speed: faster cars, faster trains, faster broadband, even speed dating. Speed is sexy, and digital devices are constantly sold to us as efficient, time-saving tools that promote an exciting, action-packed lifestyle. Nowhere is this more apparent than in iPhone's Siri software, which allows you to "use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more," while, the advertisement suggests, driving or exercising. Similarly, self-logging wristbands that track everything from heart rates and sleep patterns to mood fluctuations are marketed for a busy life on the move.
Our obsession with doing more at once is symptomatic of the frenetic pace of life. The yellow brick road may wind through the Googleplex, with all its indoor tree houses, volleyball courts, apiaries, and giant, colored rubber balls, but over-the-rainbow Google engineers talk of needing to work smarter and harder than they could ever have imagined. Although speed and timing is of the essence, Zen masters are brought in to teach employees how to stop and take a deep breath. The typical mantra of CEOs is that technology is pushing us faster and so we have to adapt to new ways of doing business in "a world of screens, texts, cell phones, information all over you."
Like corporate speak, much social science sees technology as the main force driving acceleration. The idea that digitalization has spawned a new temporality is widespread and is variously described as instantaneous time, timeless time, time-space compression, time-space distanciation, chronoscopic time, pointillist time, or network time. There are even calls for a new science of speed or, as Paul Virilio has termed it, dromology. All of these concepts have at their core a view that life is speeding up. The spread of communication technologies in particular and their evident potential for the further speeding up of an already accelerated modernity has added urgency to the question of speed and human reactions to it.
But if acceleration defines our digital universe, what precisely does this mean? Despite the dazzling array of theories depicting the present era as one of exceptional speed, the concept remains vague and elusive. The fact that so much of the academic and popular commentary is prone to speculative hyperbole compounds the problem. This, in turn, is exacerbated by the extent to which the agenda for discussing the future of technology is set by the promoters of new technological products.
I begin this chapter, then, by disentangling the rhetoric in order to clarify the relationship between technological acceleration and the pace of life. I also present an overview of the most influential accounts of high-speed network society, which will help to expose the technological determinism implicit in such theories. Perhaps this is an unfortunate but necessary corollary of the scale and scope of the authors' arguments. What gets downplayed or lost, however, is the extent to which the "virtual" is made up of wires, buildings, and bodies, as well as the fact that real human beings know and use (or not use) information and communication technology (ICT) in concrete, local settings. My approach contrasts these tactics by firmly grounding the discussion of how digital time is perceived, organized and negotiated in commonplace everyday situations.
Moving forward, I principally draw on literature from science and technology studies—STS for short—which, for some time, has been urging a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which technology shapes time. Taking on this lens allows us to see that society is more than its technology, but also that technology is more than its equipment. In other words, the social world cannot be reduced to the technology that makes it up. However, this is not at all to diminish the role of technology—in fact, quite the opposite. It is only by paying attention to sociomaterial practices that we can begin to see the rich interplay of technology and society.
Such an approach necessarily questions all-embracing, linear narratives about everything speeding up, pointing instead to a more complex temporal patterning of experience. It requires us to pose questions, such as when, and where, people encounter accelerations (as well as decelerations) and what the consequences for the quality of our lives are.
Although acceleration itself is rarely regarded as the central topic for sociological analysis, it is ever present in theories of contemporary society. Physicists have clear ideas about what speed and velocity mean but, in describing human experiences of time in high-speed society, the term is used to refer to a variety of phenomena. This is particularly confusing, as time compression has multiple dimensions, so that while some aspects of life are accelerating, others may not be and could even be slowing down.
One notable exception is Hartmut Rosa, who examines in detail what it means to say that Western societies are acceleration societies. I find his definition, and the distinction he draws between different aspects of acceleration, helpful and have adopted it here.
The first and most measurable form of acceleration is the speeding up of transport, communication, and production, which can be defined as technological acceleration. The second is the acceleration of social change, meaning that the rate of societal change is itself accelerating. The central idea here is that institutional stability (in the realms of the family and occupations, for example) is generally on the decline in late modern societies. The third process is the acceleration of the pace of life. It is the focus of much discussion about cultural acceleration and the alleged need for deceleration. The pace of (social) life refers to the speed and compression of actions and experiences in everyday life.
Now the most intriguing question is how these three types of acceleration relate to each other. As Rosa points out, there is clearly a paradox between the first and third process. If technological acceleration means that less time is needed (for production, transport, etc.), this should entail an increase in free time, which in turn would slow down the pace of life. Rather than time becoming abundant, however, time seems to be increasingly scarce. Accordingly, it only makes sense to apply the term acceleration society to a society if "technological acceleration and the growing scarcity of time (that is, an acceleration of the 'pace of life') occur simultaneously." Interrogating this "time pressure" paradox is the central quest of my book.
According to this definition, most general analyses of contemporary society can be read as versions of the acceleration society thesis. In other words, they make a direct, causal link between technological acceleration, especially the speed of electronic communication systems, and the harriedness of everyday life. The fact that our social interactions in both work and leisure time are increasingly mediated by technology—that we live in a state of constant connectivity—is a recurring theme. Here I want to focus primarily on how the connection between the speed of technology and the pace of life is formulated.
There is a vast literature on what is commonly referred to as time-space compression. Geographer David Harvey classically conceived of this process as being at the heart of modernity, or, in some formulations, postmodernity: "I use the term 'compression' because ... the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while ... space appears to shrink to a 'global village.'"
Key to Harvey's work on the spatial-temporal dynamics of capitalism is the notion that economic processes are accelerating. For him, the driving forces behind social acceleration are globalization and innovations in ICT that facilitate the fast turnover of capital across the globe. In contrast to industrial capitalism, which requires the exploitation of labor through strict adherence to clock time and Fordist spatial models like the assembly line, flexible accumulation requires a shift in the ways we think about time. Harvey observes that the general speed-up in the turnover time of capital accentuates the volatility and ephemerality of commodities and capital. Fast capitalism annihilates space and time. The distances that once hampered global trade are made meaningless as humans increasingly communicate using "real-time" technologies. Time becomes beyond control as distance disappears in a world of instantaneous and simultaneous events. Acceleration, then, is reflected in the substantive temporalities of human existence, in particular, the growing sense of time-space compression in everyday life.
Such discussions of acceleration typically invoke Karl Marx's analysis of capitalism and the constant need to speed up the circulation of capital. The faster that money can be turned into the production of goods and services, the greater the power of capital to expand or valorize itself. With capitalism, time is literally money, and "when time is money, then faster means better" and speed becomes an unquestioned and unquestionable good. Technological innovations play a key role in that improvements in the conveyance of communication, commodities, and bodies reduce the cost and time of capital circulation across the globe (what Marx called the "annihilation of space by time"). The extent to which such time-space compression would be fulfilled, however, was unforeseen by Marx.
Developments in the speed of transport and communications have shrunk the globe, from the horse-drawn coach and sailing ship to jet aircraft today. Yet it was only with the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s that the carriage of bodies by wheel, sail, and steam was challenged by the transport of messages at speeds dramatically different from those that had previously existed. The telegraph meant that a message could be delivered at a tiny fraction of the time afforded by physical transport.
Electronic communication has increased this speed in exponential ways. The velocity of automated financial trading, which is now moving from milliseconds to microseconds (millionths of a second), has become emblematic. This is far faster than human reaction times, which typically range from around 140 milliseconds for auditory stimuli to 200 milliseconds for visual stimuli. In this context, even a 5-second pause can seem like a very long time. Indeed, the exponential growth in Internet transmission speeds over the last 100 years is accelerating to the point where data can be transferred at a sustained rate of 186 gigabits per second, a rate equivalent of moving 2 million gigabytes in a single day.
Our own sense of time has been profoundly altered by the convergence of telephony, computing, and broadcasting technologies into a pervasive environment of instant and simultaneous information and communication. So it is not so surprising that, in the face of such an intense phase of time-space compression, and the resulting changes in our time consciousness, many social scientists herald a new social order.
The problem, as I will show, is that theories about social acceleration are too schematic to capture the multiple temporal landscapes, both fast and slow, that come into play with digital devices. The prose is all about "virtual" networks and ubiquitous computing, which are conceived of as borderless disembodied spaces and ethereal instantaneous times. This has the effect of rendering invisible the tangible human and social time dimensions of everyday life as "banal, repetitive, and trivial." In other words, the quotidian time of intersubjectivity, in which actual women and men coordinate their time practices in real-world contexts, gets completely obscured.
The Network Society
Perhaps the best-known example is Manuel Castells's The Rise of the Network Society. For him, the revolution in ICT has given rise to a new information age, a network society in which labor and capital are replaced by informational networks and knowledge. Information is the key ingredient of organizations and flows of electronic messages and images between networks now constitute the basic thread of social structure. He defines the space of flows as the technological and organizational possibility of practicing simultaneity without contiguity. These circuits come to dominate the organization of activity in individual places such that the site of networks and their relationship to other networks become more important than the characteristics of place itself. For Castells, the information age, in which virtuality becomes an essential dimension of our reality, marks a whole new epoch in the human experience.
For our purposes, here, what is particularly interesting is his argument about the disappearance of time: that we are increasingly moving away from the clock time of the industrial age, in which time was a method of demarcating and ordering sequences of events. Instead, he argues, the world is increasingly organized in the space of flows: flows of merchandise, people, money, and information around dispersed and distributed networks. The sheer velocity and intensity of these global flows, interactions, and networks dissolve time, resulting in simultaneity and instant communications—what he terms timeless time. While this new timeless time emerged in financial markets, it is spreading to every realm. No wonder then, Castells opines, that life is a frantic race as people multitask and multilive by means of technology to reach "timeless time: the social practice that aims at negating sequence to install ourselves in perennial simultaneity and simultaneous ubiquity." In true postmodern rhetoric, society becomes eternally ephemeral as space and time are radically compressed to the point where, at least with regard to the latter, it ceases to exist.
This vision of the network society, in which the accelerating speed of ICT annihilates time, has been extremely influential. For instance, echoing Castells's concept of timeless time, John Urry argues that new technologies generate new kinds of instantaneous time, characterized by unpredictable change and quantum simultaneity. This new time is based on inconceivably brief instants that are wholly beyond human consciousness and, as a result, the simultaneous character of social and technical relationships replace the linear logic of clock time. According to Urry, instantaneous time is also a metaphor for the widespread significance of exceptionally short-term and fragmented time.
While such conceptions of time do capture something important about the extent to which the extraordinary speed of technologies is transforming the economy, financial markets, politics, and patterns of production and consumption, it is far less clear what this speeding up means for the experience of lived time. Urry does include in his specification of instantaneous time "the sense that the 'pace of life' throughout the world has got too fast and is in contradiction with other aspects of human experience." The tenor of his discussion of instantaneous time is that it is socially destructive, yet he does not provide systematic empirical research to support this claim. One is left wondering what time "organised at a speed that is beyond the feasible realm of human consciousness" might mean to people and how it concretely relates to the actual use of ICT in everyday life.
Let me provide just two brief examples. Surely highly mobile, "hot-desking" professionals would be a good test of the notion of timeless time, as their spatial-temporal practices are fundamentally altered. Yet according to a detailed study, rather than time disappearing, their time became dominated by a concern to connect in time and space because they considered face-to-face meetings to be the paramount means of communicating in organizations. As a result, one of their main uses of asynchronous technologies (such as voice mail and e-mail) was to make arrangements for synchronous communications. That the digital media industry is so geographically clustered in both London and New York similarly attests to the importance of "live" social networking. In this sense, local time is hardly superseded. My own research on the contemporary workplace, detailed in chapter 4, shows that while network technologies do alter the tempo of work, the myriad ways in which people deploy their devices can hardly be described as the annihilation of time.
Or take the extreme case of time-space compression, finance. Even here we do not find Castells's immaterial world where time, place, and bodies are replaced by virtual information networks. Financial trading is in fact underpinned by materiality: physical, technological, and corporeal in nature. Trading centers are large warehouses, consuming vast amounts of electric power to dissipate the heat generated by fast computing. There are relatively few staff but rows and rows of computer servers and digital switches and miles of cabling connect those servers to the matching engines and the outside world. By today's standards, a very large data center might be a five-hundred-thousand-square-foot building demanding fifty megawatts of power, which is about how much it takes to light a small city. To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit polluting diesel exhaust. The ethereal imagery of virtual data stored in the "cloud" is belied by the brute physicality of the infrastructure it needs.
Excerpted from Pressed for Time by Judy Wajcman. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Introduction: Tools for Time
1 High-Speed Society: Is the Pace of Life Accelerating?
2 Time and Motion: Machines and the Making of Modernity
3 The Time-Pressure Paradox
4 Working with Constant Connectivity
5 Doing Domestic Time
6 Time to Talk: Intimacy through Technology
7 Finding Time in a Digital Age