There is a widespread perception that life is faster than it used to be, and smartphones and the Internet are continually being blamed. In Pressed for Time, Judy Wajcman explains why we immediately interpret our experiences with digital technology as inexorably accelerating everyday life. She argues that we are not mere hostages to communication devices, and the sense of always being rushed is the result of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set rather than the machines that help us set them.
Time, it seems, is at a premium. There is a widespread perception that life these days is faster than it used to be. We hear constant laments that we live too fast, that time is scarce, that the pace of life is spiraling out of our control. Phrases such as “high-speed society,” “acceleration society,” “time famine,” and “runaway world” portray more and more aspects of our lives as speeding up.
These concerns are reflected in debates about work-life balance as people try to cope with the pressures of contemporary society, finding enough time for work, time for families, and time for leisure — even time for sleep. Indeed, the desire to slow down the pace of life increasingly features in studies of happiness and well-being. A lack of control over one’s time and unequal access to leisure are being identified as important dimensions of social justice. As leading European social scientist Helga Nowotny summed it up in her classic book Time, the challenge for modern citizens, who are liable to feel increasingly harried, is to “find time for themselves.”
But hang on a moment. Weren’t modern machines supposed to save, and thereby free up, more time? Not so long ago, commentaries about postindustrial society predicted a “leisure revolution” driven by automation in industry and the home. Economic progress and increased prosperity would free people from having to focus on providing for subsistence needs, delivering more leisure time. Sociologists talked of the “end of work” and wondered with some apprehension how the vacant hours would be occupied.
Instead, the iconic image that abounds is that of the frenetic, technologically tethered, iPhone- or iPad-addicted citizen. Academic discussions of the impact of digital devices, such as the Internet and the smart-phone, typically confirm the popular view that technologies are speeding up life and making us busier. Rapidly evolving information and communication technologies are seen as marking a whole new epoch in the human condition. It is as if the exponential growth in computing power predicted by Moore’s law applies to every aspect of modern society.
As technologies proliferate, we find that we do not have more time to ourselves; in fact, many of us have less. How, exactly, has technology hastened the pace of everyday life? How has it made us busier rather than making us more free? Why do we turn to digital devices to alleviate time pressure and yet blame them for driving it? This is the central paradox that I want to examine in this book.
Modern patterns of time can scarcely be conceived of without the use of technology. We rarely have a chance to live outside technologies — they are inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives, from birth to death, at home, in school, in paid work, and in leisure. From simple tools to large technological systems, our lives are intertwined with technology. We delegate tasks to devices and use them to mediate ever more complex social networks. Our actions and society itself are built on and with technical artifacts.
While sociologists emphasize that time is a social entity, formed through collective rhythms of human engagement with the world, technology is rarely accorded the same treatment.‘ Technology is too often seen as outside social relations. But if time cannot be separated from the collective rhythms, assumptions, and hopes of human life, then neither can the technologies that increasingly mark and shape time for us. This may not have been an important distinction in previous eras — but in the digital age, it really matters. For example, the tyranny of the clock, with its linear measurement of the hours of the day, is basic to narratives of the accelerating world. It is as if technical devices incorporate functional time demands that determine unequivocally our uses of time.
If we have, up to now, been too quick to accept the temporal logic built into our new technologies, then we need to remember that the social determination of time is built in to those technologies, just like the size of the screen is, or the power of the processor. Consider, for example, the fiber-optic cable between Chicago and New York. While previous cables between the two cities had been laid along railway lines, the new cable takes the shortest route possible, even drilling through the Allegheny Mountains. It shaves 1.3 milliseconds off the transmission time of the earlier cables. “Speed” is thus built directly into the design: the cable was laid where it was to make transmission faster. But what compels its use by financial trading firms isn’t anything directly technical; rather, it is the structure of competition among such firms. Temporal demands are not inherent to technology. They are built into our devices by all-too-human schemes and desires.
This is the thesis at the heart of the book. It enables us to leave behind the old dichotomies about technologies being either inherently liberating or enslaving. By now we should have learnt to be skeptical about both extreme positions: the messianic promise of a technologically-wrought new epoch on the one hand and a blanket rejection of dominance by machines on the other. The digital world is neither exactly the same nor completely different from the industrial world. In order to understand our current obsession with speed, we would be better off exploring both the things that have stayed the same, and the things that are particular to our time.
To this end, a historical sense of “new” technologies is required. Machines in the industrial age recast people’s experience of time, just as they continue to do now. Yet considerations of technology’s impact on time fixate on the latest gadgets, while older dependable artifacts are so familiar as to be left forgotten in the shadows. I will call into question this implicit division between cutting-edge technologies and existing technologies, the spectacular and the ordinary. With this in mind, we will be less inclined to identify technology itself as the source of positive or negative change. It is our own concrete social practices that generate those qualities of technologies we usually consider as intrinsic and permanent. In other words, technologies only come to life and have meaning as people adopt and use them. At the same time, technologies play a central role in the constitution of time regimes, as our very experience of human action and the material world is mediated by technology. It is simply impossible to disentangle our notion of time from our embodied habitual involvement with the sociomaterial world. We make the world together with technology and so it is with time.
My interest throughout, then, is in exploring the mutual shaping or coevolution of new technologies and temporal rhythms. Broadly speaking, the book takes a social shaping approach to technology, regarding technological change as open-ended and unpredictable, but shaped by a range of social, economic, and political forces. Much work in this vein has investigated the design or materiality of specific technologies, but this book has a rather different focus. While recognizing that devices are designed with particular capacities or affordances, I argue that there is nothing inevitable about the way they evolve and are used. Their relation to time depends on how artifacts enter and become embedded in our institutions and the quotidian patterns of daily life — this goes for organizations, user cultures, in production and consumption, family, leisure, and work.
Reprinted with permission from Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, by Judy Wajcman, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Judy Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.