Book Reviews & Essays

Speed Kills

Review of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, by Judy Wajcman

A version of this article was originally published January 15, 2015 in The Nation

Not long ago, while crashing with my parents for a few days, I had the opportunity to sift through a wicker box stuffed with memorabilia from my youth: cards, letters, notes scribbled furtively in class. I’m not that old—the historical period in question was the 1990s—but the exercise felt like stepping back into an ancient era. There were letters from old flames, grandparents and, disproportionately, my childhood best friend; creased paper and smudged ink, the occasional drawing, inside jokes that still made me laugh. An erstwhile sentimentalist, I had saved paper fragments with the scrawled names of people I could no longer place (who was Sharon?) and their phone numbers (most of which, quaintly, had no area codes). For several evenings, until I’d touched and pored over every last scrap, the box seduced me away from my usual nighttime dabbling in work and diversion.

Throughout the hours that I spent with this paper archive, my experience of time seemed to change. I was fully absorbed in each old document I encountered. I was also reminded of a period of my life when I had a very different relationship with time: I would kill entire afternoons scribbling bad poems in my journal, or napping to the tunes of obsessively curated mix tapes.

Now, I can nod along to the refrains about how quickly time passes, how busy life is. What changed? Was it just that then I was a kid, and now I have a kid? Time no longer seems unlimited: then I had possibilities; now I have responsibilities. Is it because I was blessed (or so it seems to me) to be in the last generation to grow up without the intrusions and distractions of the Internet and cellphones? Or maybe I’m just misremembering it all through a haze of nostalgia. (It may even be possible that the ’90s were not objectively the greatest decade for music and culture in my lifetime, but merely the time when I happened to be 16. Unlikely, but theoretically possible.)

On a larger social scale, we have been observing similar patterns and asking similar questions for some time. Why are we so busy, and why do we have so little time? Is it because our gadgets and gizmos have accelerated the pace of life? Much as I have had to assume the obligations of adulthood, do we all shoulder greater burdens now than we did before hyper-globalization and the shriveling of the welfare state? Or are we just engaging in collective nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed and that, in fact, we don’t even really want to inhabit?

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These are some of the questions Judy Wajcman takes up in her bracing, if not altogether convincing, new book, Pressed for Time. The title is somewhat misleading, for Wajcman’s argument complicates the prevailing idea that we have less time than ever and that technology is to blame. She is impatient with unsupported assumptions about how people spend time. She points out that people’s experience of time is heterogeneous, and that those who dominate public discussion of the issue tend to generalize based on their own experience. (The underemployed, for instance, may not be so busy; the notion of acceleration may not resonate for care workers, because the pace of care is inherently slow.) She also points out that theorists on the subject have seldom drawn on empirical research regarding “time practices.”

In her slender but dense book, Wajcman aims to remedy all of these failings. She tries to talk about time in more precise and rigorous language, some of which is jargony but often useful nonetheless. For instance, we all have twenty-four hours in a day; what we really want is not more time but “temporal sovereignty,” the ability to choose how we spend our time. Shunning abstract formulations, she aims to take a closer look at the texture of our experience of time.

Wajcman, an Australia native and a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, is an important figure in the field known as science and technology studies (STS). Its presiding conviction is that “all technologies are inherently social in that they are designed, produced, used and governed by people.” Much of this book summarizes, and sometimes critiques, the insights from her field. Though Wajcman frowns upon muddled thinking and unempirical claims, her bête noire is what she calls “techno-determinism”: the notion that technology operates as an independent force influencing society from the outside. Instead, she sees a “dialectical process of promise, resistance, improvisation, and accommodation.”

In addition to her suspicion of oversimplification, Wajcman delights in paradox and complexity. She points out that for all the focus on hypermobility, human bodies are increasingly stationary, sitting in front of screens and steering wheels. Similarly, “increase in speed increases the potential for gridlock.” Cars promise liberation and exhilaration, but the more cars are on the road, the less they can fulfill that promise: “The irony is that a horse and buggy could cross downtown Los Angeles or London almost as fast in 1900 as an automobile can make this trip at 5 p.m. today.”

More such examples pepper the book. Her points aren’t jaw-droppingly counterintuitive; rather, they tend to crystallize nuances or contradictions of which we are vaguely aware from our own daily life but that rarely get articulated. Many of these observations come from her colleagues, whom she cites. The ideas might be familiar to specialists in STS, but fresher to lay readers.

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Wajcman approaches her subject rather like a mystery: Why do we sense that life has gotten faster and that we have less time? In fact, several surveys indicate that working hours have not increased for most people and that we have more leisure time than before. And yet, survey data also support the notion that our subjective experience of time is more harried than in the past. From 1965 to 2005, the percentage of Americans reporting that they always feel rushed climbed from 25 percent to 35 percent, and nearly half now say they almost never have enough time on their hands.

What’s going on? Wajcman identifies several intertwining changes that affect not necessarily the quantity but rather the quality of available time, making it feel more disorganized and fragmented. One factor is the dissolution of standard schedules. The 9-to-5 office or factory job, as the most obvious example, has given way to irregular hours, extended hours, working from home and so on. As Wajcman puts it, “collective social practices, derived from institutionally stable temporal rhythms, have been eroded.” This shift makes it challenging “to mesh work schedules with the social activities of friends and family…. More negotiations, more decisions, and more effort are required to perform the necessities of daily life.”

At the same time, we have the rise of the dual-earner household. Dad isn’t coming home at 5:30 anymore, and in any case Mom wouldn’t be there waiting to serve him a cocktail. (This may never have been true for most families; now the image is more dusty relic than sitcom cliché.) Both partners are likely to have schedules that vary from the old standard in different ways. We’ve also seen a concurrent change in culture for children and adolescents, although Wajcman doesn’t delve into the well-worn territory of the “over-scheduled child.” Thus, coordinating activities becomes an activity in its own right. This is to say nothing of the rise in single-parent families, which, for obvious reasons, suffer from their own distinctive time pressures.

And then there’s technology, which Wajcman acknowledges has wrought changes. But she insists they are not as simple as we sometimes claim. When examining the effect of technology on the pace of life, she finds another paradox, another mystery. “But hang on a moment. Weren’t modern machines supposed to save, and thereby free up, more time?” It is by no means inevitable that technological advances should accelerate the pace of life; on the contrary, once you think about it, the opposite result seems more intuitive.

And yet the connection is not necessarily off the mark. What happens, of course, is that the introduction of technology into our lives changes our expectations. Consider the washing machine. Wajcman begins one chapter with a provocative epigraph, a quote from economist Ha-Joon Chang: “The washing machine has changed the world more than the Internet has.” This assertion appeals to Wajcman, because it suggests the importance of an ordinary household artifact and of housework, both of which are typically overlooked. Still, she also questions how much time the washing machine and comparable appliances really save. Instead, she finds, the introduction of the washing machine changed the culture so that people had higher standards for cleanliness. At the same time, household labor (for women) began to be valorized. “In other words, it may be that appliances are being used to increase output rather than to reduce the time spent on housework.”

Similarly, with the advent of e-mail, texting and social media, our expectations of response time changes. Because it is possible to communicate instantaneously, we expect immediate responses. Instead of (or in addition to) using the devices to save time, we use them to communicate more—to increase our “output” of communication.

Wajcman finds some truth in the charge that technology is playing a role in the felt acceleration of life. But her analysis of the empirical research on time use leads her to challenge other assumptions often taken for granted. We fear that constant connectivity means the encroachment of work into the home and family life. While this issue certainly exists, Wajcman finds that cellphones are primarily social tools, and they allow people to communicate with friends and family during work hours. In part, this communication enables people to make plans and coordinate schedules, thereby saving time: “by allowing some of the concerns of family and personal life to be handled during the working day, they might even be deployed to reduce time pressure.”

She agrees with the popular perception that boundaries between work and home are blurring. But she doesn’t exactly lament this development. Indeed, she points out that the division between work and home, public and private, was a creation of industrialization, which perhaps reached its apex in 1950s American suburbia and is not necessarily an ideal to be preserved.

Likewise, she discusses the dissolution of other boundaries in her chapter on texting. She conducted her own study on the texting practices of teens in Australia. In contrast to the common complaint that teens are not fully present during family time, she proposes: “Perhaps, in a distinctive manner, young people are now able to concurrently experience family time and time with friends.” In the same vein, Wajcman recalls seeing, at a nursing home, a daughter with one arm slung around her elderly mother, the other tapping on her smartphone. Though Wajcman acknowledges an initial negative judgment of this scene, she quickly reconsidered. The elderly mother was clearly not very aware of her surroundings and was likely comforted by her daughter’s presence. The daughter was able to provide this solace while engaging in other activities. (She could also have been reading a book or magazine.) Is this really to be condemned?

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My guess is that many of us instinctively disapprove of the multitasking daughter, as well as the teens texting during dinner time—and also that most of us have done similar things ourselves. As our constant lamentations about our love of speed suggest, what we really feel is profound ambivalence. One of the most valuable contributions of Wajcman’s book is to explore that ambivalence.

One intriguing theory posits a connection between speed and social progress. “Our common sense notion of ‘modern’ denotes a historical process of steady advance and improvement in human material well-being, occasioned by technological innovation,” Wajcman writes. She cites one of her colleagues as arguing that progress depends on “impatience with the way things are…. Change thus comes to be valorized over continuity…the speed of change becomes a self-evident good.” As experienced in everyday life, sometimes speed itself may be alluring. But not always: it may be, instead, a matter of a “cultural ‘bargain’ with modernity.” We may love speed or hate it (or both), but either way, we see it as intimately related to the benefits of modern life that we are reluctant to relinquish.

Wajcman devotes less attention to why we might rue speed. But by the same token, modernity and technology have always been associated not just with social progress but also with destruction and violence. Speed is arguably synonymous with modernity, and as Marshall Berman argues in his classic book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, ambivalence has always been the dominant—and appropriate—response to modernity.

There is also a more specific class dimension to the pace of daily life. As opposed to the “leisure class” of yore, intense work and what Barbara Ehrenreich has dubbed “conspicuous busyness” are associated with high status. (Fat, of course, was once a status marker, until ordinary people got fat; perhaps as the proles won shorter working hours, something analogous happened to leisure.) It may be that some of us claim to be busier than we are—or that, if we find ourselves with time, we rush to fill it. Thus, unscheduled time may itself lead to feelings of stress rather than relaxation. If you aren’t very busy—or, preferably, “crazy busy”—you must not be very important. When we complain about how busy we are, it may be sincere, but it is also a kind of humblebrag.

Yet Wajcman recognizes that fast-paced, busy lives may provide us with genuine satisfactions, even as they leave us frazzled: “action-packed lives,” she writes, can be “both stressful and affirming.” Similarly, our current time practices stem from certain societal changes that we can’t or wouldn’t want to roll back. At their root, we find some feminist triumphs: more women pursue professional success, while more men invest more time in parenthood. Though these victories are partial (Wajcman notes that women tend to feel more harried and more compelled to multitask than men), this is a sign of progress. But both professional achievement and parenting take time—lots of time. (We should also keep in mind the single working mother for whom a hectic schedule is a necessity, not a lifstyle choice.)

This ambivalence and the reasons for it—the fact that we welcome progress, increased convenience and the sheer excitement of speed in different forms—are so deeply entangled with detrimental effects (the stress and feelings of disaffection that come with living a mediated life, the actual physical danger of speed in some cases) that the phenomenon is interesting to analyze but difficult to address. Accordingly, the prescriptive portion of Wajcman’s book is considerably weaker than the descriptive part. She makes a few gestures at drawing out the implications of her analysis: “the process of technical innovation and design needs to be opened up to reflect a broader range of societal realities and concerns.” But she does not elaborate on how we might carry out this rather vague idea. And in fact, much of her analysis seems to imply that we are doing just fine. In her zeal to challenge dogmatic condemnations, she sometimes errs too much on the side of uncritical celebration. She shows that we are not passive victims of technological innovation, but rather use our gadgets creatively to maintain intimacy. She demonstrates fairly convincingly that we aren’t doing as badly as we think, but she doesn’t leave us with a sense of how we might do better still.

This lacuna is all the more striking because her discussion of ICTs (information and communications technologies) is almost exclusively about the C. She discusses e-mail, cellphones and texting, but says almost nothing about our consumption of information, in particular media and social media, which combines elements of I and C, and which has become such a dominant part of the landscape. In both the news and social media, speed has had costs: as news outlets rush to churn out content, that content becomes increasingly sloppy and shallow. She also doesn’t acknowledge that our gadgets and social-media sites are operated by corporations that stand to profit from our addictions to them.

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We don’t have less time than ever; on the contrary, life expectancy has steadily increased. What we have, at this latest point so far in human history, is more of so much else—more people, more books, more cultural products of every kind, in addition to the staggering volume of online content. We feel ever more acutely the mismatch between available time and all the possible ways we could spend it. Population growth has overlooked effects: even if Steven Pinker is right that per capita violence has declined, something horrible is always happening to someone, and thanks to our ICTs, we’re going to hear about it in “real time.” This fosters a sense of relentless drama, of the world spiraling out of control, and chronic low-grade anxiety.

And yet, despite the ostensible constant novelty—new information, new communication, new techno-toys—there is a numbing sameness to the experience of daily life for many of us. Too much of life is spent in the same essential way: clicking and typing and scrolling, liking and tweeting, assimilating the latest horrors from the news. And this relates back to the speed of time’s passage. True experiential variety, the social scientists tell us, is what gives life the feeling of passing more slowly—getting out of our routines, having adventures. It’s when the days pass by in a barely distinguishable blur that we look back and think, “Where did the time go?”

When Wajcman critiques technological determinism, she emphasizes that social practices shape the use of technology. This sounds empowering, but it can also be oppressive. As a late adopter, I can attest to the social pressure that eventually makes it an effective necessity to buy the big, new tech product or participate in the latest hot social-media site. Yet with every social act, and however infinitesimally, we either buttress or erode a social norm, or begin to establish a new one. A universal slowdown or a global unplugging is neither desirable nor achievable; but, as Wajcman stresses, a more reflective relationship with time and technology is both. Last week, I sent dozens of e-mails, but I also wrote a letter to my best friend, in pencil, on paper. I texted my husband at work, but I responded to a text message from my downstairs neighbor by ringing her doorbell. These things take more time, but they also give us memories that enrich it. Some of us are lucky to have more temporal sovereignty than we think.

Source: The Nation

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