Who would have expected that apparently timesaving technology results in time being scarcer than ever? And has this seemingly limitless access to information led to confusion rather than enlightenment?
Eriksen argues that slow time – private periods where we are able to think and correspond without interruption – is now one of the most precious resources we have.
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Introduction: Mind the Gap!
0821: Scan the first page of Aftenposten, the Oslo broadsheet, while waiting for the traffic lights to change. A half-page advert entices readers with the one-liner: 'Watch Norway's fastest TV programme'. Thanks anyway.
0835: Buy a tabloid in the canteen. Got to have something to read while I'm waiting for the lift.
0843: Enter the office. Turn on the computer. 21 new e-mails since yesterday afternoon. Hang my coat on a peg and fetch coffee.
0848: Looking forward to starting to write. Just have to take the phone and check something on the web first.
0853: Cannot find the information I'm looking for. Start replying to e-mail instead.
0903: Understand, in a rare glimpse of genuine reflexivity, that something has to be done. Turn off the computer, pull out the phone cord and begin to take notes in longhand.
But this, I have to admit, is a misrepresentation. The last entry is anyway. Apart from the very first, fumbling notes made on a Palm handheld computer and on scraps of paper, this book is in its entirety written on a word processor. Like others who have grown up with the keyboard as their fourth finger joint, I have enormous problems writing anything more substantial than a postcard by hand. In reality, it happened like this: I had a few general ideas and keywords, some electronic notes from talks I had given, and a few one-liners I was pleased with. I then began to re-work the notes into a kind of continuous prose, while simultaneously trying out different outlines for the book as a whole. When the content of this initial document, after a frustrating period of abortive attempts and non-starters, cutting and pasting, adding and deleting, began to show the rudiments of a kind of linear progression, it was too long to be manageable (in my case, the limit is about 30 pages in 12 point, that is about 80,000 characters). I then divided the file into seven separate files, one for each main chapter. I wrote the draft version of Chapter 3 first, and then began work on Chapter 2. But then I painted myself into a corner, left Chapter 2 as a troll with three heads but no tail, and embarked on the middle section of Chapter 5 instead. While writing, I continuously entered keywords and scattered ideas into the other open files. Until a very short time before the publisher's deadline, the whole manuscript was punctuated with lacunae, missing paragraphs, missing references, question marks and incomplete sentences.
In the old days, there was a rigid distinction between a draft and a finished text. When one began to copy out a manuscript, one ought to know where one was heading, irrespective of genre. Preferably, one should have a long, coherent line of reasoning or a well-structured plot present in the mind when one wrote the first sentence. When one had copied it out, the text was finished and went to a professional typesetter. This is no longer the case, as the above description indicates. Nowadays, writers work associatively, helter-skelter, following whims and spontaneous ideas, and the structure of a text is changed under way; the ship is being re-built at sea. Word processing has probably affected both thought and writing more than we are aware, but exactly how it has affected the way we deal with information has not yet been subjected to systematic scrutiny. Would a messy work of genius such as Marx's Capital, for example, have been shorter or longer, simpler or more complex if its author had had access to word processing software? It would, I suspect, have been tidier and less complex. Probably at least 25 per cent longer. Because of the very style in thought and writing word processing encourages, the chapters and 'books' that make up Capital would have seemed more like blocks stacked on top of each other than organic links in a long, interconnected chain of deeply concentrated reasoning.
This is to do with time and technology, and the ways in which technology affects the way we live in time. These may seem large philosophical questions that ought to be treated with great deference and deep bows in the direction of Kant, Bergson and Heidegger. However, the issues have recently announced their arrival right at our doorstep by entering everyday life. The actual take-off of this new era was in the second half of the 1990s, and this will be demonstrated in later chapters. For this reason, the issues can and should be treated in a concrete and largely commonsensical way.
A central claim of the book is that the unhindered and massive flow of information in our time is about to fill all the gaps, leading as a consequence to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical series of saturated moments, without a 'before' and 'after', a 'here' and 'there' to separate them. Indeed, even the 'here and now' is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present. We live with our gaze firmly fixed on a point about two seconds into the future. The consequences of this extreme hurriedness are overwhelming; both the past and the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment. This is the era of computers, the Internet, communication satellites, multi-channel television, SMS messages (short text messages on GSM phones), e-mail, palmtops and e-commerce. Whenever one is on the sending side, the scarcest resource is the attention of others. When one is on the receiving side, the scarcest resource is slow, continuous time. Here lies a main tension in contemporary society.
Allow me also to put it like this: as a boy, I belonged to that subculture among children whose members are passionately interested in space travel and dinosaurs. Only late in puberty did I realise that there were thousands upon thousands of children, spread thinly across the modern world, who had been in exactly the same situation as myself: they were bored by the tedious routines of school, they were below-average performers in sports, and were for these reasons easily tempted by various forms of imaginative escape from reality, frequently spending their days among knights and dragons in societies of the generic J.R.R Tolkien kind, or at recently founded space colonies in the Andromeda region or on the moon, or else in the no less marvellous universe of natural science and technology.
The popular science fiction literature directed at an adolescent readership of this generic kind depicted two complementary futures. One of them was abruptly called off in the mid-1980s. When the Challenger space shuttle exploded and the crew was killed in January 1986, an era was over – or, rather, a likely future had suddenly become extremely unlikely: the space age had been abolished. Today, more than 30 years after the Apollo XI, passenger shuttles to Mars are much further into the future (if there at all) than they were on that unforgettable summer day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon.
The other future that was envisaged for us was the computer age. For most of those who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed more remote, and much more abstract, than the space age. We were on friendlier terms with King Arthur, Frodo and Tyrannosaurus Rex than with Vax-I. Most of us had hardly even seen a computer, but we knew that they were enormous machines with a maze of thick wires and blinking bulbs, which required a large, sterile and air-conditioned room, a small army of engineers and a steady supply of punch-cards and paper strips to function. A few years earlier, the marketing director of IBM had uttered the immortal words, that the world needed a total of about ten computers.
From the late 1970s, microcomputers began to reach the consumer market, from producers such as Apple, Commodore and Xerox. In 1981, the 'PC' from IBM was launched in a major campaign aimed at a non-nerd market, and only three years later, Apple developed its first Macintosh, a computer equipped with a mouse and a graphic interface, both of which were later copied by Microsoft (and by a few other companies including Amstrad). An image which is very similar to the original Macintosh 'desktop' forms the display of most personal computers today. When IBM made their first major, ultimately ill-fated, assault on the market, computer gurus stated that within a few years, there would be a computer in every office, and many would even have one at home. People shook their heads in disbelief. A few years later there was a computer in every office, and many had one at home.
About ten years after the personal computer, the Internet had its major breakthrough. As I write, another decade has passed, and today it is easy to see that if one of our two complementary futures never delivered its goods, the other came with a vengeance: it arrived faster, and with much larger consequences, than anyone could have dreamed of a little more than two decades ago.
This is not a book about computers. They are far from irrelevant to the issues at hand, but blaming technology as such would be tantamount to shooting the pianist. The book is about information society and the strange social and cultural side-effects it has entailed, many of which are only obliquely related to computerisation. Economic growth and time-saving, efficiency-boosting technology may have made us wealthier and more efficient, and it may have given us more time for activities of our own choice, but there are sound reasons to suspect that it also – maybe even to a greater degree – entails the exact opposite. More flexibility makes us less flexible, and more choice makes us less free. Why do most of us have less time to spare than before, contrary to what one might expect? Why does increased access to information lead to reduced comprehension? Why are there no good, politically informed visions for the future in a society infatuated with the present and the near future? And why do we still feel that the loading of Microsoft Word takes too long? The answers are to do with too much complexity of the wrong kind and the increased rate of turnover in the rhythm of change.
There are several good reasons to be pleased about living right now (and certainly a lot of bad reasons). We live longer, we have a wider range of opportunities and, on the whole, more options than earlier generations did. This is particularly true of the rich countries, but there have been advances in this direction in many 'Third World' countries as well. Both longevity and literacy rates rose dramatically in most countries during the twentieth century, the current setbacks in Africa notwithstanding. Yet, something is about to go awry. That is our topic. Let me nevertheless stress – in case it should still be unclear – that the author is neither an old-fashioned romantic nor a nostalgic who dreams of a pre- or early modern age when coherence and wholeness could still be taken for granted. My relationship to new information technology is in principle active and enthusiastic, and I regard the information age as a worthy successor to the industrial age. How these views can be reconciled with a fundamental critique of a prevalent pattern in our age, I shall have to indicate in the course of the book, chiefly in the final chapter. The reader is not encouraged to cheat and check the contents of the last chapter first. This cellulose product is true to just that cultural style which is threatened: it is linear and cumulative. It has a particular, non-random order, and the chapters are not merely blocks stacked on top of each other; they are connected organically. The book thus gives the impression of having been written in a particular sequence; it imitates the era before word processing. The topic is of current interest, but the form – the slowly unfolding, reasoning essay – may well be judged as old-fashioned by the next generation of information consumers.
The story about the tyranny of the moment is about to begin, with a short overview of some characteristics of this era, the period after the Cold War. This era came about so fast that the best research still consists in trying to catch up with the present. The following chapter pursues some selected paths back in cultural history, emphasising the history of information technology and not least its unintended consequences. The fourth chapter introduces a particularly important aspect of the history of the last century or so, namely acceleration: nearly everything changes faster and faster, and we are only millimetres away from the point where a new product is obsolete before it hits the shelves. Time is hacked up into such small pieces that there is hardly anything left of it. The fifth chapter calls attention to a particular kind of mathematical function, namely exponential growth. The main property of exponential curves is the doubling of their values at regular intervals; so long as the numbers are small, they do not seem to grow dramatically. Eventually, they take off and begin to resemble vertical lines, which indicates – since the x axis represents time – that time approaches zero. Surprisingly many such curves can be identified nowadays. In the sixth chapter, I discuss a curious side-effect of acceleration and exponential growth, namely the phenomenon I call stacking: the strange fact that more and more of everything is stacked on top of each other rather than being placed in linear sequences. A couple of examples are information as funnelled through multi-channel television and the World Wide Web, but there are other, less obvious cases which may be no less consequential. The next and penultimate chapter shows what all this implies for everyday life in our kind of culture; how contemporary mores, ranging from serial monogamy and the cult of youth to 'flexible work' and new consumption habits can be seen as expressions of the tyranny of the moment.
In spite of its popular style and modest length, this is not an unambitious book. We are talking about nothing less than a new pattern, a new code and a new set of organising principles that may be about to dominate our kind of society. For that reason, it seems pertinent that it should end with some political considerations. It would be both simplistic and misleading to conclude that 'we must regain control over time'; instead I suggest that we must re-learn to value a certain form of time. In order to discover what this kind of time is like, in which domains it rightly belongs, why it is important and why it is threatened, there is no other solution I can think of than setting a few slow hours aside to read the entire book in a linear, cumulative fashion.
Information Culture, Information Cult
The phrase 'information age' has been around for some years now. It might well have been coined by Alvin Toffler when he wrote his bestselling books about future shocks and third waves in the 1970s, but as a concept it can be traced to media theorists like Marshall McLuhan, who wrote his most important books in the early 1960s, and further back to the cultural critics of the Frankfurt School, notably Adorno and Marcuse, presenting their apocalyptic visions for Western civilisation to grateful audiences of masochistic students in the years following the Second World War. It is no coincidence, however, that the term (and concept) of the information age had its major breakthrough in the 1990s. Like other fashionable terms, including globalisation and identity, the term easily becomes meaningless in the mouths of politicians, who may be tempted to use it in a rather glib way to prove that they are abreast with the current situation, not in order to say anything substantial about the differences between this kind of society and the industrial society, or 'mechanical age', which preceded it. It is a sad fact that perfectly good words become useless clichés just when they are needed the most; the reason is that these words tend to say something important about the present and are therefore appropriated by everybody. On the other hand, the falling marginal value of words – their decreasing value and shortened lifespan – is itself a symptom of the problems typical of information society.
Put differently, the phrase 'information society' has lost its meaning because of information society. The latter is a reality, and if one is going to make a serious attempt at understanding the contemporary age, there are a lot less useful ways to begin than by looking at the transition from industrial to informational society.
Excerpted from "Tyranny of the Moment"
Copyright © 2001 Thomas H. Eriksen.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface Introduction: Mind the Gap! 2. Information Culture, Information Cult 3. The Time of the Book, the Clock and Money 4. Speed 5. Exponential Growth 6. Stacking 7. The Lego Brick Syndrome 8. The Pleasures of Slow Time Sources Index