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)

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