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


  1. I wasn't sure initially how you connected time and space with the "breaching of values" until you mentioned Spanish shops! I think of it as more of an erosion than a breaching - isn't it that the value previously attached to "non-productive" uses of time (like any kind of social interaction for example) becomes slowly, regretfully, yet perfectly acceptably eroded by pressure to use that time more "productively"?

    Well done for "slew"! Keep that fucker alive!

  2. Joy, a comment from the Amazing Beryl!

    Yeah, the breaching of values thing was a bit of an afterthought, 'cos it doesn't fit so easily with the schema of space time compression- but I think that it key when it comes to the evaluative side of things and something that I'll maybe take up in the next post. I mean all the stuff about liberation, autonomy embodied in gay rights, women's rights, etc is clearly real and important, and yet in a sense very much in agreement with the dynamic of capitalism.

    I don't disagree about erosion, although I guess on the day that Sunday shopping is improved (as part of a stimulus package demanded by the financial markets for example), it will feel like a breach.

    Tell the world about

    There's a great vid up there,

    See you tomorrow,


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