Sunday, 30 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Five: David Harvey on Time-Space Compression

The contraction of the present, as Hartmut Rosa presents it, strikes an intuitive chord, but seems to be too rooted in the realm of sociological theory. Something like this seems to be the case, but experiential flesh needs to be put on to the theoretical bones. A lot of the elements seem to be there in previous postings, the tightly-knitted networks of production, the proliferation of weightless social contacts through social networking sites, the increasing pressingness of time as we struggle not only to meet our obligations, but also to avail ourselves of all the good things that are made instantaneously available to us at any time of day or night. But what are we supposed to make of all this? How are we supposed to knit these disparate observations into something that may serve as an explanatory model- something that helps us to understand our world?

Here lies one of the fault-lines between modernism and post-modernism. Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition (1) announces the disintegration and de-legitimisation of what he calls Meta-Narratives. On the one hand, to provide a generalised account of social acceleration, is to build a meta-narrative which seeks to enclose within its interpretive framework a heterogeneous bundle of ‘facts’ or ‘insights’ or ‘language-games’. Such language-games are drawn from very different and individualised contexts and the meta-narrative imposes upon them a homogeneity that no longer allows them to speak for themselves. Hence the oppressive nature of theory. This is, of course, the criticism that is often levelled at Marxism. On the other hand, do things really speak for themselves? Isn’t it the case that the immaculately turned out George Clooney, inviting us, from our television screen, to partake of his beautiful lifestyle consisting as it does of stylish machines, flirtatious encounters and sophisticated coffee, expressly obscures and conceals the nature of the commodity that is on offer and the mode of production through which it came to be on offer. And in the absence of an explanatory model that seeks to make connections between disparate phenomena, are we not left only with mute post-modern irony in the face of Clooney’s collusion with the forces of naked capital accumulation?

Perhaps we don’t need to worry away at these dichotomies and we should simply mobilize all the linguistic resources at our disposal to create the desired effect.

This is a subject that has been argued over a lot and I raise it here only in order to situate what follows.

David Harvey, in his The Condition of Postmodernity (2), picks out the same phenomenon of the contraction of the present as does Rosa. Harvey describes this as space-time compression. At one point in the book he describes it in a fairly similar way;

“…accelerations in turnover times in production, exchange and consumption […] produce, as it were, the loss of a sense of the future, except and in so far as the future can be discounted into the present. Volatility and ephemerality similarly make it difficult to maintain any firm sense of community. Past experience gets compressed into some overwhelming present.” (Harvey, D. p. 291)

Harvey is coming from the position of an economic determinist when he says this, which is to say that he considers the capitalist requirement for capital accumulation to be the driving force behind this process. Whilst this is an historical process whose origins coincide with the beginnings of modernity, he focuses particularly on the economic shift towards flexible capital accumulation in the 1970’s. I’ll look more closely at what is meant by this later, and whether it is too narrow an approach, but suffice it to say for now that however one accounts for space-time compression, its effects are felt across multiple contexts and on multiple scales.

From the financial markets which discount future trading operations into the demand of the present for the extraction of value, to the exploitation of the earth’s resources in order to make money now. From the cashing in of the study of history in order exploit it’s potential to amuse in the form of for-TV television dramas, to the reviving of old acquaintances on Facebook in order to burn up an un-productive half hour or so. From slit screen rolling news delivered in segments of no more than 20 seconds, turning context and analysis into a parody of itself in order to maximise audience share, to the ubiquity of gadgets that keep us perpetually alert to any new information that might stimulate us where we would previously have waited for the nine o’clock news or to get back and listen to messages on the answer phone.

And that’s all prioritising time. One need look no further than the process of globalisation to see how space is being compressed. Restaurants from every corner of the world in every city of the world, distance learning, cut-price air travel, American series disseminated globally via the internet, completely rupturing that outdated commitment to scheduling, all feverishly exploiting value, interest and novelty to stimulate us right here, right now.

The breeching of what used to be called values is another matter again, not immediately connected with time or space, but generally a prerequisite if spatial and temporal limits are going to be dismantled.

This is where the evaluation part gets so difficult, because it would seem from what I have written that I am outraged and alarmed by all this. In fact I lap it up. As I have said previously, evaluation tends to get used to forestall further discussion.

What seems incontestable is that there is some historical process taking place which demands to be understood. If it is not an historical process, and I don’t entirely discount the possibility, then it is unimaginably strange.

Harvey is clear on this point. He an economic determinist (a nuanced one, but one nonetheless) and sees the acceleration of social processes to follow naturally from the need for capital accumulation that sits at the heart of our economic system. The processes of technological innovation and globalisation were both generated by the particular dynamic of capitalism, whereby in order to stay competitive the productive sector must grow, creating the potential for crisis when that growth hits a limit, for instance in the capacity of people to consume. According to Harvey this is what happened in the 1970’s, after the post-war consumer boom petered out and there was little opportunity for fresh growth within Europe and the States. How else can demand be stimulated?

One way is through expanding the market. What had been done a century earlier through colonialisation was now repeated, but under the banner of globalisation. Exchange rates floated freely, free trade was either encouraged or effectively imposed by the international financial institutions and the project to convert the world into one great integrated market was set in motion. This market provided not only consumer demand, but also a vast and impoverished labour market.

Another is through technological innovation. Individual ingenuity probably has a part to play in this, however staying ahead of the game with respect to your competitors is certainly what lends the process of technological innovation its dynamism.

Something else that Harvey points out should be added. The de-industrialisation of western economies was also, in part, a response to the need to accelerate turnover times in production and consumption. Manufactured goods take too long to produce and they last too long. Built in obsolencence and disposable commodities have had a part to play in addressing this. Equally important has been an increased reliance on the service industries. With many service industries, value can be extracted from nothing, literally in the case of the financial sector (futures markets, credit financing etc…), and virtually in the case of the media, advertising, image consultancies and PR to name but a few of the slew of industries that have proliferated in recent years. The speed and scale upon which value can be extracted is, of course, greatly expanded by both the new technologies and globalisation. But so too is the need for expansion and growth.

Here, once again, we see a feedback mechanism whereby the demands of capital accumulation give rise to an acceleration in technological innovation which compresses space, creating a new form of global market, new forms of behaviour and new opportunities for accumulating capital which must be exploited to the full if the company is to remain competitive.

This connects to another important idea, that of the creative destruction of capitalism. In order to exploit any opportunities for capital accumulation capitalism tends to destroy all manner of established structures which act as barriers. This might be outdated manufacturing industries, maintained by subsidies because of the social importance that they have to the community or they may be the social values mentioned above that prevent, for example, Spanish shops from opening on Sundays.

Capitalism seeks to dynamise production and consumption through a perpetual revolution in values, institutions, loyalties and allegiances. Given the nature of capital accumulation, this is bound to occur at ever accelerating speeds, accounting in large part for why we live frenetic, over-stimulated lives, in spite of the technology we have at our disposal, in spite of the fact that the work force was massively increased by the introduction of women, in spite of so many factors that should logically lead to a reduction in working time and a capacity to spread the wealth more equitably and a focus upon how to live well as opposed to how to accumulate and do as much as possible in the time available. As to the question of where all that extra productive capacity has gone the answer is clear- profit. There is a tiny elite that controls an immensely exaggerated proportion of the worlds capital (and material) resources.

In Rosa Hartmut’s treatment of the topic he identifies three motors of this process of social acceleration. The first is the economy, and is broadly in agreement with Harvey’s analysis. In addition to this he considers the ‘cultural motor’ and the ‘structural motor’. In the next posting I’ll consider these approaches and, if time permits, start to consider how Baudrillard sought to reframe the debate in terms of the virtualisation of all aspects of social relations.

1. Lyotard, J-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press.

2. Harvey, D. (1995) The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell

Monday, 24 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Four: Hartmut Rosa and the Contraction of the Present

So if the accelerating rhythm of advanced capitalist / post-industrialist / late-modern society is captured by the metaphor of the wheel spin, is it susceptible to a more analytic account, and will it be possible to provide a description of the motors that are driving this acceleration?

Rosa distinguishes between three manifestations of social acceleration; the acceleration of technological change, of social change and of the pace of life (1). The acceleration of technological change is the easiest to objectively verify. Moore’s law states that computer processing speeds will double every eighteen months and this has proved to be the case since it’s formulation in the 1960’s. Concurrent with this change in processing speed has been a proliferation of technical innovations giving rise to a perpetual revolution in all areas of society, but perhaps most significantly in the field of communication.

Social change, whilst less easy to quantify, is nonetheless fairly familiar. It relates to the rate of circulation and change of attitudes, fashions, lifestyles and the institutional vehicles for these things. This highlights something that gets to the heart of what people mean when they talk about modernity. Obviously people mean a lot of different, not always compatible, things when they talk about modernity, but at the very least, it must indicate a certain relation to time. Being modern, in terms of fashion, attitudes and tastes made perfect sense in the 1960’s. It must have made sense in the 1860’s because Nietzsche railed against it soon after. But in the 13th century? Modernity implies a temporal directionality that was absent, or very differently conceived, before the renaissance.

Acceleration of the pace of life is the most subjective of the three. It relates to feelings of hurriedness, time pressure and the perception that one is unable to keep pace. One way of analysing it objectively would be by quantifying the amount of time people spend engaged in certain activities such as eating, sleeping and talking to one’s friends or family. However, I think this would be to neutralise the most interesting approach to the topic and our most immediate experience of the phenomenon. After this is, after all, where social acceleration really bites. But more of that later.

Separating out these three forms of acceleration is obviously a pragmatic way of highlighting features of a sociological and phenomenological situation which is highly complex, many sided and inter-related. However a concession is made to their interpenetration when Rosa considers a paradox inherent to social acceleration, namely that whilst the acceleration of technology is, in many cases, a response to the desire to save time, the consequence seems to be that time is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. This links back to an earlier posting in which I suggested that all of these time saving gadgets and mechanisms should have left us wallowing in a glut of surplus time, but that this is patently not the case.

Rosa accounts for this by arguing that the acceleration of technological innovation has been outstripped by the increase in the quantity of activity. So, we may be in possession of an impressive array of time-saving devices, but if the amount things that we need to do is increasing faster than the time being saved by all our gadgets, then rather than saving us time, their macro effect is to increase the metabolic rate of our interactions. This creates a feedback loop. Technological innovation enables increases in social and commercial activity, which, in turn, generate time scarcity, the alleviation of which requires further technological innovation. Social networking sites make it quick and easy to stay in touch with people. Soon you’re in touch with vastly more people than you previously were and you’re spending far more time maintaining those contacts than you ever would have when the only option was to write a letter. Widespread ownership of cars was never going to mean that people’s travelling time was slashed to a fraction of what it had previously been, even if this was the initial attraction. The macro result was that new scales of interaction were introduced that gave rise to a reconfiguration of the field of social and commercial interaction.

This seems to be the pattern. There is a micro change in technology which enables something to be done faster or more efficiently. This has an obvious benefit so long as the macro environment in which the change took place remains unaffected. However, before too long the cumulative effect of such micro changes is to re-configure that macro environment, ushering in new expectations and assumptions regarding scales, velocities and rates of productivity.

From a certain perspective, the replacement of the handloom by the power loom towards the end of the 18th century was indisputably a good thing. How could you possibly argue that the slower, less productive technology was preferable to the faster alternative? On a purely micro level this might be the case. The weaver who previously spent the entire day producing a given quantity of cloth could now complete the task in a matter of hours and spend the rest of the day wallowing in that glut of surplus time. Of course this is not at all what happened. For a start, ownership of the power loom required capital investment, so the handloom owner could forget it. Instead their livelihood and way of life was going to be utterly displaced by a new macro environment involving highly productive factories regulated by the timetable and hourly rates of pay and powered by external sources of power (external to the previously existing community that is. Obviously innovations of this sort played havoc with the meaning and scale of community).

In his article Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians(2), Lauriston Sharp showed how the introduction of steel axes into an aborigine society that ascribed symbolic and social importance to the traditionally made stone axes had the effect of de-structuring the social bonds that held the society together. The production of the stone axe had an important role to play in maintaining social links with neighbouring tribes, ownership of the axes was important in maintaining the social hierarchy and the stone axes held an important symbolic position in the mythology of the Yir Yoront. When the first kid was offered a steel axe by a missionary, this was surely a good thing- she didn’t have to go and pester her father for this symbolically important object- she could just take it and chop the damn wood. However the macro effects of the ready availability of steel axes were devastating.

When we get that new iPad, sign up to that new social networking site or buy that wonderfully clean, efficient and fast Nespresso maker the micro benefits are all to clear to see. What we tend to be completely unaware of are the tectonic transformations that are taking place at a macro level. Which is not to say I'm a Luddite, I think the question of evaluation is particularly thorny and generally used to forestall further consideration of the topic. I don't think the point is to either give our assent to or withhold our assent from such developments, but rather to recognise them for what they are, which is to say in the context which is appropriate to them. The car was never a labour saving and time saving technology. It was, and is, a symptomatic component of the cultural and psychological upheaval that is affecting societies and peoples across the planet. It is the visible sign of a metabolic shift which is taking place both in our societies and in ourselves. And so is the iPad. And the Nespresso maker. It seems to me that the nature of that metabolic shift is worth thinking about.

One of the ways Rosa approaches this is by talking about the 'contraction of the present'. Rosa defines the past as that which no longer holds or is no longer relevant to us and the future as that which does not hold yet. The present then is “the time span for which the horizon of experience and expectation coincide”. Rosa claims that this time span has been gradually contracting. Focusing primarily on the areas of work and family, he suggests that the pace of change has itself changed from being inter-generational, through being generational to the present situation where it is intra-generational.

“Thus, the ideal-typical family structure in agrarian society tended to remain stable over the centuries, with generational turnover leaving the basic structure intact. In classical modernity, this structure was built to last for just a generation: it was organized around a couple and tended to disperse with the death of the couple. In late modernity, there is a growing tendency for family life-cycles to last less than an individual lifespan: increasing rates of divorce and remarriage are the most obvious evidence for this.” (1)

While there is something intuitively convincing about this characterisation of the decaying time span of the present, it is a little unsatisfying in that the treatment that it receives from Rosa doesn’t really do justice to its importance as a determining feature of the transformation of our societies at a macro level in the postmodern era. Also I think that the relation to temporality holds promise as an mode of analysis that has the capacity to connect the extraneous technologies and timetables with the apparently subjective sense of the pressingness of time, or, to use Gleick’s phrase, ‘hurry-sickness'. It's for this reason that I find Rosa most interesting when he engages with such 'subjective' features such as pace of life, but also find his analysis a little bound by his apparent obligation to the methodological conventions sociological research. David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, provides a far fuller, though differently conceived, account of the contraction of the present, which he calls “space-time compression”. I will look at Harvey’s account in the next posting along with a consideration of possible motors of social acceleration.

1. Hartmut, R. (2003) Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High–Speed Society, Constellations, Vol. 10 Issue 1, Ps 3-33

2. Sharp, L. (1952) Steel Axes for Stone age Australians, Human Organization, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 17-22.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Three: Hartmut Rosa on the Motorbike and the Treadmill

In his recent article, Full Speed Burnout? Hartmut Rosa offers two metaphors which he believes capture the metabolic rhythm of modernity and late-modernity. The first, relating to modernity, is the motorcycle, the second, relating to late-modernity, is the treadmill. More than just metaphors, each represents a practice embedded in the period to which he refers.
The motorbike was the embodiment of man’s longing for individual liberation through the conquering of time and space.
“The power and attraction of the motorbike is in the sensual experience of mastering life at high speeds, of being able—and having the power—to autonomously control and steer one’s motion; it is the promise of mastering space and time and conquering the world while leaving behind “all that is solid,” sluggish, earth-bound, heavy or burdensome.” (1)
This is most definitely directional stuff. It is about the autonomous individual taking the measure of the vastness of the horizon and annihilating it through mechanically induced speed. Paradoxically, while the biker seeks to overcome space and time through speed, he also depends upon both in order to carry out the performance of annihilation. In the same way, speed is contrasted to the “inertia and resistance” of everyday life, thereby creating a dependence upon such inertia.
One could equally think of the 70’s rock guitar solo. In both cases the individual frees himself from the monotonous rhythms that were holding him back to breathe the finer air that only the risk of crashing at high speed can make available.
This metaphor is clearly connected to the highways and big, open spaces of the United States as opposed to the swarms of mopeds that clog up the streets of southern European cities. These people are more likely than not on their way to work, and that’s definitely not the idea.
By contrast, the treadmill represents the transposition of this acceleration into the productive circuits of everyday life. Directional speed and the longing for liberation become accelerated rhythms of production and consumption, which reach into, and transform, every area of our lives. This is exemplified by the tightly-coupled networks that were considered from Gleick’s book. Competition in post-industrial societies, driven by the capitalistic requirement for capital accumulation, requires tighter and tighter margins, ever greater efficiency savings and increased consumption. As Rosa says;
The social logic of competition is such that the competitors have to invest more and more of their energy into the preservation of their competitiveness, until keeping up the latter is no longer a means to lead an autonomous life according to self-defined ends, but the single overarching goal of social and individual life alike. (1)
Rosa considers the motorbike to have been displaced by the treadmill as a guiding metaphor for our times. Clearly there are plenty of objections that one might raise to such a sweeping caricature. Nonetheless, the metaphor of the motorbike resonates strongly, evoking key features of what has come to be called modernity, most notably relating to space, time and personal autonomy.
However, I would take issue with Rosa’s second metaphor, the treadmill, because I don’t think it does the work that is required of it. It’s not the drudgery of everyday life that he wants to pick out here, but the increasingly frenetic rhythm of social life and the requirement that you keep up. The treadmill may work as a metaphor if you think Bill Murray struggling to keep his balance on a hotel treadmill that has gone rogue, but I’m not sure this is the first image to come to mind.
I think the wheel spin is a better one.
The wheel is rooted to the ground, but spinning irrelevantly as it seeks to gain traction. The faster it spins the less possibility there is of forward motion, but the driver, unable to conceive of any course of action other than increasing the velocity, keeps his foot firmly on the accelerator. The situation is clearly unsustainable and the only possible outcome is a rapid overheating and blowing of the engine.
As was mentioned earlier, in the case of the motorcycle, time and space remain in place and the sense of liberation is won through annihilating them through speed. In the case of the wheel-spinning car, the relation to space and time is severed as the vehicle embarks upon a metabolic intensification, which can only lead to a system failure.
In The Pataphysics of the Year 2000, Baudrillard invokes a similar dynamic, although by means of a different metaphor;
“…one might suppose that the acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges- economic political and sexual- has propelled us to escape velocity, with the result that we have flown free from the referential sphere of the real and of history. We are liberated in every sense of the term, so liberated that we have taken leave of a certain space-time, passed beyond a certain horizon in which the real is possible because gravitation is still strong enough for things to be reflected and thus, in some way to endure and have some consequence.” (2)
Escape velocity, in this case, would be the equivalent of the moment at which the wheel loses traction with the ground. It then enters a hyper-reality in which forward motion is no longer possible and the vehicle becomes autonomous, responding only to the dynamics of its own metabolic intensification, until the point at which overheating occurs, or the stress on the components becomes unbearable.
In their frenetic search for investment opportunities and value, the capital markets invest in non-existent future markets, non-existent wealth that the banking sector persuade people to borrow, mortgaging their future earning capacity in order to generate value now and non-existent companies that, while they don’t produce anything, may convince others that others may be convinced that they are worth investing in. If ever there was a metaphor for our having reached escape velocity, or entered full wheel-spin, the financial markets surely provide it. And, as has been made plain in recent weeks, it is those markets which control our destiny far more effectively than any government.
So much for metaphors, in the next posting, I will look more closely at the theoretical underpinnings of Rosa’s position and connect it with David Harvey’s notion of space time compression.
(2) Baudrillard, J. (1995) The Illusion of the End, Polity Press

Sunday, 9 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Two: Faster- Making Time

Earlier in the book Gleick talks about the "fast cycle time" system of production, exemplified by the practice of "just in time delivery". Increasingly manufacturers seek to eliminate profit-sapping inefficiencies within the production system by keeping the chain of production in perpetual motion. The key to this is to avoid the time wasting and unnecessary investment in fixed assets associated with storage of parts while they await assembly. Rather the production system is calibrated such that at every stage, delivery of parts dove-tails as tightly as possible with the assembly process. If you enquire about reserving products on the Ikea website, you receive the following message;

"We receive merchandise daily and that is why we usually have in our shops all the items the customer may need. We would need to have an extra store for the reserved items and this would increase the prices of the products".

Ikea operate a system of “just in time delivery” so as to reduce costs and, of course, maximise profits.

Gleick gives other examples such as airline scheduling, fast food and film sets, all dynamic systems that require the perpetual motion of their constituent elements in order to maximise efficiency. Dynamic is the key work here. The key to maximising the productive capabilities a system is to increase the metabolism of that system. Consider traffic driving around the M25 (London’s ring road). Increase the volume of traffic beyond a certain critical mass and the traffic has to slow considerably as the space between the cars diminishes. This makes intuitive sense. There is a close relationship between the speed we are travelling at and the distance that we are prepared to leave between ourselves and the car in front. This is principally conditioned by reaction speed. We project the potential situation of the car in front spinning out control or slamming on its brakes and gauge whether we would be able to react in time. The anxiety of living beyond the limits of your reaction time is what reduces the entire system to a snail’s pace. But there’s no reason why all the cars shouldn’t maintain their original speed, but just close up the gaps, so that they are spinning around the ring road bumper to bumper. As long as they forget about the potential catastrophe waiting to happen and have a lot of faith in the integrity of the system.

Of course one lapse in concentration, one accidental over-compensation at the wheel, and the whole system crashes. Or, less dramatically, minor fluctuations in the behaviour of individual drivers will most likely lead to a series of jams in which the traffic is subject to start and stop motion. This was well described by Philip Ball in Critical Mass (1).

Of course, if the system was fully automated this wouldn’t happen.

Gleick also addresses this fundamental instability under the heading of the ‘Paradox of Efficiency’. In it he describes the hyper-efficient, hyper-dynamic system of airline scheduling in the United States. Planes no longer fly regular routes between two cities, with a relatively stable crew assigned to that plane. Instead massively complex computer programmes calculate which route the aircraft should take in order to maximise efficiency of the system. Other programmes are used to calculate which crews should be assigned to which planes in order that they maximise their working time without going over the legal limits. As a consequence of this flexibility in the scheduling, only 2% of American Airlines’ fleet is on the ground at any one time.

This is a system which seeks perpetual motion.

This is described as a ‘tightly-coupled network’, and the paradox is that as the mesh of the network is pulled tighter together, small disturbances can cascade through the system, causing disproportionately high levels of disruption.

So we have a sense of acceleration which is metabolic in nature, and would appear to be a societal phenomenon, rooted in the systems of production, organisation and consumption which define us as workers, members of society and consumers. We increasingly inhabit environments which eschew dead time, non-productive activity and eccentric behaviour. Further, time must be experienced not as open and free, but rather in terms of pre-designated, goal-driven rationalisations. Clearly there is nothing new in any of this. Foucault has described how the control of time in the form of the timetable was central to the revolution in social organisation that took place in the early modern period(2). With the development of the new ‘employer-employee’ form of social relationship, the regularity and exact calculation of working hours became indispensable. Weber also describes how the spirit of capitalism (to use his term) reconfigured people’s relation to time, such that non-productive time was seen in terms of financial loss(3). This gave rise to the hitherto nonsensical formulation that time is money. We have inherited these temporal structures and the values that they generated.

What’s changed is the level of integration of disparate elements of the life of society and societies (the internet providing a single medium through which such elements can be coordinated), the rupture of categories of social involvement (such as work time / free-time, private life / public life) and the proliferation of digitised content which clamours for our attention. All this results in a quickening of the metabolic rate the societies of which we form a part and hence our increasingly frenetic involvement in those societies.

I’ll consider causes in subsequent postings, though I’d like to put down a marker at this point to say that, given that social organisation, on an increasingly global scale, is driven by the requirement for capital accumulation, this is an aspect of the phenomenon of social acceleration that can not be left to one side.

Gleick concludes his survey by focusing on the dual attitudes of boredom and mania in the contemporary world. Interestingly he points out that there wasn’t even a word for boredom until relatively recently. It existed as a verb, to bore someone, as a noun, as in ‘that man’s a bore’, but not in a passive, stative sense of feeling bored. He speculates that boredom is the backwash of mania, implying that as our lives become increasingly manic, accelerated, harried; we become acculturated to this rhythm. Sure we can take time out to have a leisurely stroll in the park. We can sit and read a book or just listen to music. However as we do, our minds race and our bodies twitch and we find it difficult to ignore the nagging suspicion that we are somehow wasting time, doing nothing.

And in such a situation, there is no better cure than going online.

1. Foucault, M. (1991), Discipline and Punish, Penguin

2. Ball, Philip. (2004), Critical Mass, Arrow books

3. Weber, M. (accessed 09/05/10)

Friday, 7 May 2010


I've added this video of David Harvey in which he talks about the financial / social crisis and capitalism's tendency to shift crises from one place to another both geographically and socially.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part one: Faster- Saving Time

At first sight the term "social acceleration" seems to hold promise. It connects to an intuition that there is some sort of acceleration taking place in the pace of life. Whereas a letter took days, email is instantaneous; whereas travel between the cities of Europe took weeks, now it takes hours (volcanoes permitting); production cycles are shortening, productivity is increasing and life seems more hurried.

Yet under closer inspection the idea shows itself to be rather more opaque. It may be the case that communication and transport have accelerated, but that doesn't mean that we have accelerated. In fact, the opposite should be the case. No longer required to deal with all that mundane paraphernalia that went with writing someone a letter, we should be wallowing in the time that has been gifted to us by email. As for the decades that must have been saved as a consequence of the acceleration of our means of transport, it's a wonder we even need to get out of bed. Weren't the futurists of yesterday earnestly discussing the post-work society that would be the inevitable consequence of automated production systems?

The point being that while the term seems promising it is far from transparent and needs to be got hold of in the right way.

My interest in the notion of acceleration was first roused when I read James Gleick's 1999 book, Faster (1). It was both a strength and a weakness of the book that it didn't attempt to provide a definition or try to characterise the nature of such acceleration. In fact it never really says what is accelerating. Its subtitle, "The Acceleration of Just About Everything" neatly sidestepped the issue. Instead, it provided a heady survey of instances of acceleration drawn from a huge variety of areas of culture and society, from the stock market and air traffic control to channel surfing and baking potatoes. The strength of Gleick's approach was that by juxtaposing so many different instances of what he is talking about he allows the reader make connections between them and form his or her own conclusions without reducing everything to a theoretical model. Its weakness is that it lacks an analysis that might deepen our understanding of the situation we are in with regards to accelerating social and cultural change. Of course, he was under no obligation to provide such an analysis, this was not an academic treatise. However a more sustained treatment of the phenomenon is required and can be provided.

In subsequent posts I will look at how the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa develops the idea of 'social acceleration' and discuss how, in my view, the phenomenon of social acceleration needs to be understood in relation to the dynamics of capital accumulation and social homeostasis. More of that later. In this and the next posting I will discuss themes related to Gleick’s treatment of the topic.

At the start of this posting I mentioned two features of the modern world which have been subject to an obvious acceleration- transport and communication. The first point to make about Gleick's book is that it reminds us that acceleration does not need to be directional. Processes can accelerate without going anywhere. Rhythm is more important than speed here. Whilst speed will often be required in order to increase the rhythm, this is not always the case. A paradigm example he uses is taken from a time and motion study done in the 1950's urging American housewives not to waste so much time with inefficient potato baking. They were reprimanded for carrying the potatoes from fridge to sink in one's or two's rather than using a pan to take them all and for not using both hands to turn on the tap and pick up the brush simultaneously. A more recent example of this has been the popularity of the Youtube video demonstrating the Japanese method for efficient T-shirt folding. Sounds dull, but it isn't.

No directional speed here, rather a combination of the elimination of unnecessary steps and multitasking.

Of course these are very specific cases, and most of us are quite capable of maintaining impressive levels of inefficiency in our private lives. However, we exist in environments that are dominated by these efficiency driven procedures and technologies, whether they be transport systems and traffic circulation or electronic communication and rolling news. For many people where it really bites is in the workplace, where idle chat by the coffee machine is the enemy of productivity. But just as insidious is the moral imperative that we stand on the right if we don't want to walk up the escalator in the Metro and soon become irritable when others don't fall into line.

To what end all this efficiency?

To free up time of course. But here's the rub, whilst such practices are always justified by reference to the almost absolute value ascribed to time-saving, the cumulative effect of such practices is that they end up colonising time. I suppose, in theory, we could wallow idly in the unstructured time that we have as a result of more efficient practices (and time saving devices), but we don't. Unstructured time induces anxiety which we seek to assuage with more activity, more projects and plans and more consumption.

Time comes to be experienced as a resource, or a commodity, which needs to be managed, rather than a gift that life bestows on us at absolutely no cost.

Who's to say that the 1950's housewife didn't enjoy dawdling as she prepared the potatoes, allowing her mind to wonder where it would? The same argument could be used with respect to the dishwasher, although I'm sure a lot of people would draw the line there and say that washing dishes by hand was, or is, boring and that if there is a device to do this for you it can only be a good thing. However, this operates on different scales. Sure it's a good thing that you don't have to stay at home for an extra half hour washing the dishes when you could be out shopping or watching a film or playing tennis or whatever else you enjoy doing. Taken on its own, and within a relatively unchanging context, the dishwasher is unambiguously a good thing. However, when seen in the context of the countless innovations and inventions designed to save us time, what we find is that our involvement in such processes, far from saving us time, acculturates us to these new rhythms. They cease to be a means to an end, and become an end in themselves. They cease to be time saving devices and become the media through which time is experienced.

Perhaps the inefficient potato baking process was in fact a way of creating time. I enjoy fly-fishing. It would clearly be cheaper and more efficient all round if I bought the trout from the supermarket, but that would annihilate the time that I enjoy creating.

It seems that far from being a waste of time, all that 'mundane paraphernalia that went with writing someone a letter' was constitutive of time.

The examples so far have been small-scale and personal, but this is clearly a systemic, society-wide phenomenon. In the next posting, and staying with Gleick, I will look more closely at the social side of the ‘social acceleration’ equation.

1. Gleick, J. (2000) Faster, The Acceleration of Just About Evereything, Abacus