Social Acceleration

It is a common sentiment that life is getting faster. However is it accurate and, if so, what does it mean? To talk of life, or social life, speeding up necessitates some working definition of ‘social life’ and what it would be for it to accelerate. Unfortunately these notions are more elusive than they may otherwise appear. Do we mean that things feel faster or that they are actually becoming faster? Whether we intend the former subjective sense or the latter objective sense, we face the problem of how to measure this putative acceleration – this is an empirical challenge of measurement but also a conceptual one concerning the units of measurement. In his Social Acceleration (source of all quotes in this post) Harmut Rosa addresses such questions in a sweeping and impressive way, offering answers to these methodological challenges and using them as a basis upon which to build a comprehensive theory of social acceleration. His account has two aspects: the circle of acceleration and the external ‘motors’ which drive it. These internal mechanisms of social acceleration are mutually reinforcing but this ‘circle’ is set into motion by external mechanisms which initiate the process and contribute to its progressive, though uneven, escalation through their respective impact on each of the three processes of acceleration within the circle. In his notion of the ‘circle ‘ of acceleration Rosa distinguishes between three distinct processes: technical accelerationthe acceleration of social change and the acceleration of the pace of life. Social acceleration becomes self-propelling because each of these processes contributes to the escalation of the others. In this series of posts, I’m going to discuss the three processes that are part of the ‘circle’ and the ‘motors’ Rosa sees as outside them. Then I’ll reflect critically on his work because I think there are some serious problems with it (specifically his treatment of agency) despite how energising I find his theoretical approach.

Technical acceleration changes the way in which human beings are in the world, their relations to each other and to their environment, with ensuing implications for how their respective spatio-temporal situations are subjectively understood. There are three types of technical acceleration considered by Rosa: the acceleration of transport, the acceleration of communication and the acceleration of production. This encompasses the “faster movement of humans, goods, messages, and … military projectiles across the earth, but also the more rapid production of goods, the speedier conversation of matter and energy, and, though in lesser measure, the acceleration of services.” (pg. 73). He also considers this to include “processes of organisation, decision, administration, and control – for example, in modern bureaucracies and ministries” because these are examples of the “intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes through innovative techniques” (pg. 74).

Our perception of time is a function of our perception of space because, as Rosa puts it, “a feeling for time develops because spatial qualities in our vicinity change; it becomes light as day and dark as night, warm as summer and cold as winter.” (pg. 98) It follows from this that well into the nineteenth century, the time of day differed from place to place because day time was defined by the relative position of the sun. The expansion of the rail network necessitated standardisation (there’s a fascinating discussion of this in a US context here) which was enacted temporally – the possibility of traversing previously vast distances as a regular part of day-to-day life newly demanded that these disparate regions be incorporated within a shared temporal frame of reference in order to make movement between them consistently comprehensible i.e. how do you systematically move around goods and people without a reliable sense of departure and arrival times? This serves to detach time from space, abstracting the former from the contextual specificity of the latter, in a way which also compresses space – our movement through space comes to be seen in terms of standardised time rather than time as bound within the specificity of place. This process of compression is compounded by the car and the airplane over the course of the twentieth century, with the result that space has shrunk to a sixtieth of its former size since the eighteenth century, with an average speed of transportation by ship and sailing vessel of 10 miles per hour before 1830 coming to be replaced by an average speed of transportation by jet plane of 600 miles per hour by 1965 (pg. 100). The latter innovation definitively frees people from the “topographical space of life and the surface of the earth”. Alongside this revolution in human mobility, the entrenchment of digital communications within social systems leads to an epochal change in how human beings orientate themselves within their environment where “human beings and goods are moving through space not only virtually but also really in historically unprecedented numbers and with great speeds” (pg. 102).

The trend described above concerns our relationship to space but Rosa argues that similar transformations can be discerned in our relationship to human beings and in our relationship to things. In each case, technical acceleration can be seen as the mechanism bringing about a substantive transformation: the acceleration of transportation transforms our relationship to space, the acceleration of communication transforms our relation to human beings and the acceleration of (re)production transforms our relationship to things. With regards to the acceleration of communication, “patterns of association and relationship are no longer or to a lesser extent bound to one common geographical space” and there is an “increase and rapid turnover of communication partners”: both are facilitated by a transformation in communications media (pg. 104). With regards to the acceleration of production, we see an increase in the speed of commoditization (“conversation of matter into useful commodities”) mandated by the imperative to accelerate “the turnover speed of capital”: the result is that “everyday objects that surround us and the material structures of our lifeworld as a whole become contingent and transitory” (pg. 105). I think Rosa’s point here is basically that the normalisation of  planned obsolesce becomes more significant than it might otherwise seem when we consider it phenomenologically: the things in which we are moved to take comfort (to paraphrase Danny Miller) are more disposable than ever and we are more inclined to replace them than ever. What then of the comfort we hope they may bring? As Rosa puts it, “identity-constituting processes of adapting to and growing accustomed to things become increasingly improbable” (pg. 105).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.