Acceleration is often framed as a problem. Things are speeding up. We never have enough time. We’re always falling behind. These will be familiar experiences to most. While the problem is more complex than may initially appear to be the case, with little quantitative time squeeze actually registering, it nonetheless leaves us with a sense of late modernity as a ‘runaway world’ in which things are accelerating beyond our capacity to cope with them. This diagnosis tends to identify the causality at the systemic level and occludes the role of agency: it’s ‘modern life’ which is running away from us while we’re left merely struggling to catch up.
The difficulty here is that the role of agency is crucial if we are to understand the time-pressure paradox. If we have roughly the same amount of time, what is it about how we orientate ourselves towards temporality that accounts for the pervasive sense that we are perpetually running out of time? It’s important that we resist the urge to do what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘pomo flip’ and respond to the systemic bias of the acceleration thesis with a corresponding bias towards agency. The motor of acceleration cannot be seen as straightforwardly arising from the social system, in the sense that it produces changing circumstances to which agents can do nothing but adapt or fail. But nor should it be seen as something that arises from people ‘using time badly’ (whatever that would mean) or any other account of (implicitly pathological) responses by agents leaving them feeling more harried while the objective availability of time remains constant.
Instead we need to understand acceleration in terms of the interface between the social system & agency. Crucially, this doesn’t mean ‘agency’ in a schematic sense: we need to understand how embodied people, with capacities & liabilities, live through the temporal horizons obtaining within the system and, through doing so, contribute to the transformation or reproduction of those (temporal) structures. One useful concept I’m thinking about at the moment which helps in this respect is that of the pleasures of acceleration. For all that people complain about time pressure – particularly, it should be noted, when responding to researchers studying the time-pressure paradox – there are also pleasures to be found within it:
- Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
- Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
- Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
- Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.
We need to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of acceleration. Through doing so, it becomes possible to flesh out the rather anaemic conception of agency usually found within the acceleration literature and instead look at speed as something which matters to people, in ways that are complex and often contradictory. We don’t just have first-order responses to our circumstances (whims and desires) but also second-order responses (concerns and commitments) which are themselves shaped by our cumulative experience of circumstances past. Understanding how people cope with acceleration requires that we attend to the former and the latter. We can’t treat agency as a cypher in the analysis of acceleration.
Nonetheless my point isn’t that people are embracing acceleration because they (secretly) like it. I’m only suggesting that there are pleasures to be found in it, alongside the many pains, which need to be recognised before we can even begin to grasp the agential dimension of social acceleration.