In the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with speed. It seems this often leaves me coming across like an accelerationist. I occasionally flirt with the idea that I’m a slightly peculiar form of left-accelerationist, but it’s more for rhetorical amusement than genuine conviction. In fact I find much of what’s written about the politics of speed inadequate, with my interest instead being in a political sociology of speed. By the former, I mean a valorisation or condemnation of speed, exploring the emancipatory potential in speed or seeking salvation through slowdown. By the latter, I mean an analysis of how speed is a vector through which power operates in social life. The concerns of the former often obstruct the analytical imperatives of the latter, though of course accelerationists inevitably address these questions as well.

What made me reflect on this was an interesting example I stumbled across in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. On pg 127-128 he describes the enforced slowness which results from data-driven policing inspired by a ‘broken windows’ philosophy of crime:

If you’re charged with a crime, and you get notice of a court appearance, you have to show up to a packed room at an appointed time that in reality is only an approximate time. If it says 10: 30 a.m. on the notice, you may end up waiting three, four hours for your case to come before the judge. During that time you are permitted to do exactly one thing: sit in court and watch the action. There is no talking, sleeping, eating, or reading in any of the courtrooms like the one on Schermerhorn Street. You must pay attention to the judge at all times. Some of the judges are insanely touchy about these rules, too. Judge Charles Troia, a glowering dark-haired man who runs a courtroom on the eighth floor, has a particular mania for talkers and readers. He has his court officer bark out instructions on the matter repeatedly throughout the morning. “In case you missed the sign,” the officer yells out, “there’s no reading, eating, or sleeping. Listen up! It’s going to be a long night.” The ban on reading is particularly odd, given that some of the judges have literary ambitions. Judge John Wilson, who by the time this book is published will have moved from the Brooklyn courts to the Bronx, is notorious in this courtroom for having authored a children’s book called Hot House Flowers.

This looks like hyperactive activity when considered at the level of the police, with 22,000 people arrested for loitering in a typical year in New York City. But from the perspective of those regularly subject to such nuisance arrests, it’s profoundly decelerative, with one interviewee describing how “you come to court and you’ll sit there all day waiting for your name to be called” and how he had “probably sat ten hours in the three times” he had come to court (pg 125). This is an example of the chronopolitics of speed, something which manifests itself relationally within an institutional context. It’s hard to theorise if we remain on the level of treating speed as what Filip Vostal calls a ‘mega force’. For this reason our starting point needs to be the political sociology of speed rather than the politics of speed.

Later in the book he recounts the analogous experience of a welfare office. From pg 333-334:

On the morning of October 15, 2011, she shows up at the Seventy-Third Street office at 8: 30 a.m. It’s a giant hall with linoleum floors and plastic chairs—exactly what you’d expect, like a DMV, only even more depressing. There’s already a huge line of people. “People were standing up against the walls, there was people everywhere, all over, it was crazy,” she says. The drill is, you show up, take a number, and wait—and wait. Markisha takes her number and sits down. An hour passes, two hours. She has no idea when anyone is going to see her, and all the people in the packed room are in the same boat. Mothers with children are in the office, and by late morning the children are starting to get antsy because they haven’t eaten, but you can’t leave the place or you lose your spot in line. 

A chill goes through the room in the middle of the day when a woman steps outside the building to get a smoke and returns to find that her number has been called. She has to leave and come back another day. More hours pass. Markisha is squirming in her seat. By the late afternoon the crowd, which not only hasn’t subsided over the course of the day but has just gotten bigger, is turning hostile. At around three in the afternoon there’s a screaming match somewhere in the recesses of the office. Markisha can hear a man yelling at a welfare worker because a glitch in the system has cost him his benefits; something about a wrong address, which they’re telling him they can’t fix. He storms out of the office to oohs and aahs. 

By then the place is a zoo. “The kids is running around, because they hungry,” she says. “They’re running around, snatching stuff off the walls, drinking water, screaming.” The scene gets so intense, Markisha ends up pulling out her cell phone and taking a video panorama of the chaos. Nobody even blinks when they see her standing up filming the nightmare. You see all kinds of stuff in here: Who cares about some girl filming something? More hours pass. It’s after five now. A young Latin man just ahead of Markisha goes in and just as quickly is dragged out by security when he explodes at a worker after finding out he can’t get his food stamp card—Markisha doesn’t know why. “I’ve been here since eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still here after five o’clock!” he shouts. “I’m just coming for my EBT card! I need my EBT card!” Security drags him past Markisha, chucks him out the door. “I was like, dang,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think.” Finally, at 5: 30, after nine hours, Markisha is shown into an office where a bored-looking older black woman stares blankly at her from behind a mass of papers.

From pg 335:

But the kicker is, if you get all the way through the process, and actually get your meeting, and you get approved, they then tell you to go home and sit tight for your P100 search. And they don’t tell you when that will be, except to say that it’s generally within a week and a half. You then have to be at home at all times until they show up—it’s like sitting shivah, except you have to do it for more than a week. “If the investigator shows up and no one’s there,” says Halpern, “they shove a card under your door that says, ‘We could not verify your eligibility,’ and you don’t get your benefits.”

From pg 344:

Two is that there’s an explosion of errors that are infinitely more difficult and more expensive to sort out than they would be if someone with personal knowledge of the case was involved from the jump. Now there’s an endless parade of Annas and Diegos and Markishas filing formal appeals with the state, explaining their whole life stories from the start in each meeting, instead of just calling a caseworker on the phone, reminding them of a fact or two, and having them change a number on a screen. The system therefore clearly doesn’t really work for the state, either. It’s like opening a hospital where no doctor could ever see the same patient twice—the bureaucratic version of Memento, where the characters have to go back in time to re-create a whole universe of facts from the beginning in each new scene.

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

Earlier on this month, Hartmut Rosa gave a fascinating lecture at the LSE, marking the launch of this new book on the Sociology of Speed. It’s a great overview of his theory of acceleration, but it also included some things I hadn’t encountered before:

  1. His intellectual trajectory was shaped by encountering Charles Taylor’s work while at the LSE for two terms at the age of 23. I knew Taylor was a huge influence, given Rosa’s PhD was devoted to his work, but I hadn’t realised how linked to speed his interest was. As he describes it in the lecture, he was fascinated by Taylor’s focus on the role of strong evaluations in structuring how people orientate themselves to their lives but felt it lacked an important temporal dimension. Evidently, people often address the urgent rather than the important, suggesting temporal constraints subordinate ultimate concerns to practical considerations. My reaction to reading Taylor as a philosophy student was an overwhelming desire to sociologize his work, something Rosa does with an astonishing degree of systematicity, though of course there are alternative ways we could approach this task. Consider Doug Porpora’s wonderful Landscapes of the Soul.
  2. I recall the ‘contraction of the present’ from Social Acceleration but I’m unsure if it is the framing that has changed or my response to it. Rosa’s argument is that patterns of association and social practices change at an increasing rate. This means that the “decay rates of knowledge increase”: the purchase of our knowledge about the world and how it works degrades at an increasing rate because the reality of that world and how it works undergoes change at an increasing rate. The period of stability when “you know how the world works, who is where and how one does things” is contracting. If one accepts this claim, it has huge ramifications for how we engage with the idea of “information overload”. There’s a temporal dynamic to the overproduction of facts which is too little analysed.
  3. I like his description of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life as mysterious. We respond to this challenge by attempting to speed up life, seeking more episodes of action per unit of time. We multi-task, speed up each action and try to eliminate pauses and intervals. I like his example of taking the last possible train to an event, in order to avoid waiting once there. This is something I do entirely habitually, such that I rarely even consider allowing for contingencies unless there’s some reason to expect them. But when it goes wrong, the time saving action gets revealed as a false efficiency. There are so many examples like this, where what feels like saving time in fact costs us more time at some unpredictable point in the future. I’d like to hear more from Rosa on the ‘mysterious’ character of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life because I think it suggests something important about chronoreflexivity: the limited scope of how we orientate ourselves to time & the way in which habitual orientations circumscribe considered decision making about efficiencies.
  4. He offers the useful trajectory of the downwards escalator which I don’t recall encountering before. This is a metaphor for how we find ourselves compelled to “run faster and faster to keep pace with the world”. Rosa suggests we stand on a downward escalator relative to every system we’re embedded within and that we stand on many overlapping escalators. Furthermore, “functional differentiation increases the number of escalators on which we stand”, proposing that this issue can be placed at the heart of sociological analysis. Every change within each system necessitates action from us in order to cope. As Rosa puts it “we have to run faster and faster, on more and more escalators, just to stay in place” and the “feeling that time is scare commodity” leads us to seek faster technologies. What Ruth Müller describes as anticipatory acceleration in the context of careers could be extended into a general theory of the relative autonomy of agency vis-a-vis temporal structures i.e. when the necessity of ‘running faster and faster’ becomes sufficiently engrained, we begin to accelerate in an open-ended way as a taken for granted approach to life. I’m very interested in the cultural role played by productivity discourse, life hacking etc in encouraging and consolidating such a response to the world. Plus technology is embedded in this discourse at the cultural level (it’s a central focus of discussion) and the agential level (the solutions offered are often technological).
  5. He stresses that we are not just victims of the speed logic, identifying how it is tied to our notion of freedom. Drawing on Blumenberg, he stresses how death comes too early, before we have completed the world and the possibilities it offers for us. The fast life on this view represents the full life. This is a familiar argument of Rosa’s but I’d previously read it as an inditement of acceleration, rather than an analysis that is appreciative of the promise while remaining sceptical about its viability
  6. He has a greater emphasis upon what has not speeded up than has previously been the case. He talks about five dimensions of deceleration: natural and anthropological limits, cultural practices that could speed up but haven’t, territorial zones insulated from speed up, segmental pockets of deceleration under pressure to speed up and intentional deceleration. This latter category is one which fascinates me and am writing about as ‘triaging strategies’ used to cope with acceleration. As Rosa describes it, these strategies pursue “slow down in order to keep up the high pace of life”. They are ways to cope with acceleration rather than challenges to the temporal structures of digital capitalism. He also recounts being told that the average speed of traffic in London has been going down for decades, representing an example of collective slow down as individuals seek to go fast. He claims that these five dimensions of deceleration are either residual or reactions. He argues there’s an asymmetry between deceleration and acceleration, grounded in the different mechanisms producing each.

These ideas made me think of one of my favourite genres of YouTube videos:

 

What’s the moral status of ‘thoughtlessness’? It can be invoked as a defence, used to claim that an action was less morally problematic because it expressed a lack of consideration rather than a deliberate intention. But as the wise Jim Gordon once pointed out, such actions can actually be worse in a way, reflecting a wilful thoughtlessness (that could easily have been otherwise) rather than a deficit of character (which is at least somewhat engrained):

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But where I part ways with Gordon’s moralism concerns the conditions under which such thoughtlessness becomes likely. What happens to responsibility if we are becoming more socially distracted, driven by many overlapping factors in personal life and working life, such that we have less time and space to deliberate? Is it possible we are all tending to become less likely to think through the consequences of our actions, at least some of the time? If rushing is becoming an endemic social condition, albeit one not uniformly distributed, what does this mean for the possibility of responsibility? Is distraction diminishing us on a moral level?

My experience of watching the literature on asexuality spiral from a handful of papers ever through to new ones each month has left me fascinated by how quickly ‘the literature’ can become unmanageable. Within a relatively small and nascent field, it’s possible to grasp ‘the literature’ as a totality. But past a certain point, circumscribing it becomes an inevitability for purely practical reasons: focusing on this, ignoring that, excluding material from different disciplines.

At what point does it become impossible to represent ‘the literature’ as a totality? The impulse to do this doesn’t cease but with its growth these depictions are increasingly performative rather than representational. Demonstrating mastery of ‘the literature’ entails authoritatively circumscribing large chunks of the total knowledge stock within the field, naturalising these occlusion in a way liable to influence others. 

Furthermore, ‘the literature’ as a totality necessarily eludes depictions of it because each of these claimed attempts to represent the object in fact contribute  to that object’s spiralling complexity. 

The way we talk and think about ‘the literature’ is unsuited to the realities of publishing in the accelerated academy.

Notes for my talk at the Accelerated Academy on Friday 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the social sciences are proving too slow in catching up to developments in digital technology. This means that engagements with new possibilities are often piecemeal and ad hoc, pushing the threshold of innovation in methods while methodological and theoretical discussion lags further behind. We see changes at the level of platforms, infrastructures, devices and practices which allow new techniques to be developed but discussion of the implications of these techniques, how we should understand what they’re doing and how they fit with older and more established techniques struggles to catch up.

I’ve argued that the reasons for this are largely to do with the structure of scholarly communication. The proliferation of publications, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year, encourages specialisation in both writing and reading. I’ve watched this happen first hand with the asexuality literature, something which has grown from literally a handful of articles seven or eight years ago to a topic which would have to now be my primary focus to ‘keep up with the literature’. This is a microcosm of a much broader trend which I think it’s important for us to understand.

This is compounded by a norm for much longer articles in many social science disciplines vis-a-vis scientific reports. The imperative to ‘keep up with the literature’ militates against exploration and experimentation, while established forms of social scientific writing make it difficult to get important technical details included in substantive articles in mainstream disciplinary journals. Furthermore, publication is slow and this compounds the inter-journal competition which inculcates intellectual conservatism all around by discouraging epistemic risk taking on behalf of those seeking to be published in the highest status journals and instrumental strategies from lower status journals seeking to raise their impact factors. The more that’s published, the more markers of prestige get fought over in order to ensure that one’s intellectual wares stand out in a crowded market place.

Established structures of scholarly communication engender slowness in catching up with technical developments. Is the solution therefore to find structures which facilitate faster communication? Two obvious examples stand out here: open science practices and social media. It’s surely a positive thing that open science is becoming better established within the social sciences, such as a journal like Big Data & Society requiring authors to publish datasets and self-archiving of pre-prints becoming an established practice now mandated in the UK in the case of papers. Likewise I think it’s a good thing that social media has been taken up by so many social scientists. It reduces the opportunity costs of exploring outside one’s own area e.g. it’s much less onerous to follow a data science blog then it is to keep up with the latest data science papers. As a corollary, it also makes it easier to form connections outside one’s own circles, both by making it easier to have things in common to talk about and also simply making contact with these people in the first place.

But the idea these practices would fix the problems of scholarly communication appears to me to rest on a fallacy: ‘slow’ communication is problematic because it entails friction and lag in what would otherwise be ‘fast’ communication. If we break down the barriers, will everything flow more freely and these seemingly intractable problems might be solved? There’s a rich imagery of ‘fast’ & ‘slow’, ‘open’ and ‘closed’, lurking in the background here which we need to be critical of on a political level. But in a more prosaic sense, I think it straight forwardly distracts from the fact that the problem with slow scholarship isn’t simply a structural matter, such that the established system of scholarly communication (aided and abetted by the incentive structures of the contemporary academy) moulds academics to be ‘slow’ and that if we ‘hack the system’ then it might then mould academics to be ‘fast’.

Under present conditions, I can see how ‘open science’ might lead to all sorts of new pathologies, particularly if the transition from ‘filter then publish’ to ‘publish then filter’ is tied up with the commercial logic of platforms like Academia.Edu, Mendeley and now SSRN. If monetisation of these platforms is dependent on user attention and user data, it stands to reason that engineering strategies serving to maximise both will become a commercial imperative, if they’re not already (and we shouldn’t underestimate how long tech companies can be propped up with capital while making zero profit). The in itself entirely reasonable proposition that non-traditional forms of influence should be incorporated into scholarly metrics is likely to compound such a move, naturalising the algorithmic black boxes of social media and open science platforms and creating new forms of prestige available for fast scholars.

These mechanisms might not dominate the platform, but the idea of fast, free, open scholarly communication allowing a million flowers to bloom away from the disciplinary structures of the contemporary academy is a dangerous illusion. It represents the common sense of the ‘market’, the epistemic superiority of the crowd, creeping into how we view scholarship. We can need to be profoundly critical about how attention, reward and hierarchy work on these new platforms without jettisoning their affordances entirely in our rush to critique. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use social media, only that we shouldn’t culturally embrace it as the superior ‘new’ in relation to the inferior ‘old’. It should be both/and rather than either/or. This is something which I think will be much harder if we continue to think in terms of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, at least as an abstract dichotomy we apply to complex systems.

Nonetheless, I do think we need to in some way hack the structures of scholarly communication if the social sciences are going to reliably keep up in anything more than a narrowly technique-driven way to emerging technologies. But rather than ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, we should perhaps see this in terms of ‘collaborative’ and ‘atomised’: resisting the algorithmic incentives of platforms while embracing the affordances they offer for new forms of working together, even within the constraining structures of the accelerated academy.

In a recent book about the neoliberal superstar turned aspiring world saviour Jeffrey Sachs, a quote from his wife caught my attention. On loc 2909, she describes how Sachs only sleeps for four hours a night and works constantly throughout his waking hours. Even on a family holiday, he

often gave two or three speeches a day in addition to meetings starting anytime from 7 a.m. till late at night. He then spent most nights writing technical papers, articles, memos and proposals, while keeping in daily contact with his colleagues, working with them via phone, fax and email. All this, while consuming about a book a day on topics ranging from ecology through tropical diseases.

How do you feel when you read this? Sachs is obviously an extreme case but the uptake of social media in academia makes it much more likely we’ll be exposed to information about the working routines of people outside our immediate circles.

In some cases, this can be a good thing and such ambient intimacy can be a foundation for solidarity, as people see the possibility of working collectively to ameliorate shared conditions. But it can often be decidedly negative, creating unrealistic perceptions of how much others are working and helping contribute to cultures of overwork.

We need to be careful about how we present our own working habits through social media, as well as how we interpret the self-presentation of others.

I love this passage by Paul Mason in the introduction to The Global Minotaur:

Most politicians cannot be theorists. First, because they are rarely thinkers; second, because the frenetic lifestyle they impose on themselves leaves no time for big ideas. But most of all because to be a theorist you have to admit the possibility of being wrong –the provisionality of knowledge –and you know you cannot spin your way out of a theoretical problem.

A really interesting suggestion from pg 169 of Arlie Hochschild’s Outsourced:

Could it be, I wondered, that we are dividing the world into emotional types—order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom? Talking one’s way past the protective layers of a top executive, teaching a child to tie her shoelaces, feeding an aging parent, walking a recovering patient down a hospital ward, waiting with a child in a doctor’s office, meeting a teen arriving on a long-delayed air flight—all such acts call for patience, tact, sensitivity, qualities far removed from the bottom line.

Recording this for future use when Filip Vostal and I progress a bit further with our book:

You will remember that earlier this year we surveyed all members to find out more about your concerns around workload intensification and working hours. The report and an executive summary are now available here.

Thank you to the 18,000 members who took the time to respond.

The results are astonishing. Our report has 5 key findings:

  1. staff in both the higher education and further education sectors are working an average of more than two days unpaid every week
  2. workload is unmanageable and unsustainable for the majority of academic staff and lecturers
  3. staff are taking on more responsibility and administration
  4. student expectations have increased
  5. professional and career development is suffering as a result of increasing workload pressures.

The report suggests that it is our members who are bearing the brunt of national policy reforms and increasing competition. The implications for not managing workloads effectively are huge, affecting not only your health and welfare but also the quality of education for students.

https://list.mercury.ucu.org.uk/t/4529/2905416/1840/1/?ad5a924d=dWN1LW1lbWJlcnMuX19hbGwtbWVtYmVycw%3d%3d&560a3889=VUNVIHdvcmtsb2FkIHN1cnZleSByZXBvcnQ%3d&469547c0=TUQyMDk%3d&x=afeca0f2

From Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 174-175:

The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, ‘do something’, while academics participate in meaningless ‘debates’, and so on, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, an exchange of whatever kind, to silence –just in order to engage us in a ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.

Notes for a talk next week

My concern in this short talk is not to diagnose the underlying conditions which generate an acceleration of social life, or indeed the various experiences which differently placed actors have of such acceleration. Instead, I’m interested in the novel and deeply reflexive cultural forms arising under these conditions, as what we might think of as temporal strategies, originally grounded in the lived experience of coping with intensified demands, instead become commodified and take on a relative autonomy vis-a-vis their application.

The most familiar manifestation of this commodification is the self-help industry, estimated as an $11 billion industry in 2013. This is a market that has changed a lot in recent years, as depressing incomes have constrained a previously buoyant market of live events and the challenge of digital media has encouraged many self-help gurus to give away ‘taster’ content online as they attempt to build up a brand. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the highest profile speakers and their global best sellers: for instance The Secret has sold more than 19 million copies and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies. But there’s also a buoyant coaching market (estimated $1.5 billion world wide) and public seminars market (estimated $308 million in the United States) which need to be recognise as part of the broader self-improvement or self-help industry.

My concern is with a more recent addition to this landscape: productivity culture. The most influential text of productivity culture, Getting Things Done by David Allen Green, has sold 1.6 million copies. The category of ‘productivity’ has become a central feature of apps, with many thousands available for the many millions of iPads and iPhones in circulation, as well as comparable availability for other mobile platforms. There’s a whole movement towards what the technologist Alex Pang calls ‘contemplative computing’: designing software that minimises distraction and facilitates immersive productivity. The popular blog Life Hacker reaches over 20 million people each month and has helped spawn a much wider ecosystem of productivity orientated content online.

It’s within this broader ecosystem that we can see a rich flourishing of what I’ve come to think of as triaging strategies: ways of coping with an intensity of demands placed upon the self by calibrating our responses to our environment and establishing new priorities. We have to treat these strategies carefully because they’re being promulgated: some people might simply be reflecting upon their experiences for anyone who happens to take an interest but many are selling books, coaching services and webinars. In fact people can move from one category to the latter, as the fact of having accumulated an audience for one’s musings on these issues holds out an inevitable temptation of ‘monetising’ this audience through the production of a book. In this sense, the promulgation of a triaging strategy can itself be a triaging strategy i.e. it’s a scheme to escape the ‘rat race’ and find a new direction in life, one more satisfying and rewarding than the present reality.

One further methodological caveat. We shouldn’t infer a common outlook  from a common action. Just because someone buys a particular book or read a particular website, does not mean that they do so for the same reason or  react in the same way to the cultural content they are engaging with. Someone might buy  a book for idle curiosity, a deep sense of need, to fill time, to critique or for any number of other reasons. Someone might then devote their life to the principles expounded in the book, react with a disinterested curiosity about the different ways in which one can live life, throw the book away at the first opportunity, forget it all together or any number of other reasons. Recognising this variability of responses is crucial to understanding the phenomenon of triaging strategies: these are cultural resources, usually though not always offered as commodities by those seeking to sustain themselves through this activity, susceptible to being picked up and put down, applied in many different ways or not at all. These are technologies of the self. But we misconstrue them if we fail to consider the diverse range of ways in which differently situated selves might draw upon them, how their characteristics will be inflected through the ensuing context, as well as how such actions will aggregatively lead to the transformation or reproduction of the cultural form e.g. contributing to rising sales figures through word of mouth or changing public perceptions of it.

My suggestion is that the 7 triaging strategies I offer can be usefully analysed in terms of the nexus of work and life. This is the terminology that occurs frequently within the literature but these are also useful analytical categories to understand the lived experience of intensifying demands. We occupy multiple social roles and there are many factors leading to an intensification of demands upon each one of them e.g. constant connectivity at work, rising expectations of parental activity, automation leading to the outsourcing of ‘shadow work’ to consumers etc.

There are many factors, each of which could be a talk in their own right. My concern here is not to elucidate them but rather to consider how intensifying expectations within clusters of social roles that we can loosely categorise as ‘work’ and ‘life’ create problems for the subject. As Margaret Archer puts it, “roles are greedy”. There’s no logical limit to how much of ourselves we can invest in them but there are temporal, physical, psychological and socio-economic constraints on the choices that we make. It requires reflexivity to negotiate between these competing demands, something which itself requires time and space. My argument will be that these 7 triaging strategies can be usefully conceptualised as different solutions to the increasingly problematic relationship between ‘work’ and ‘life’ under digital capitalism. My suggestion is that this is usually experienced as personal life being consumed by working life, the concerns of the self being subordinated to the imperatives of the workplace. But a crucial part of the investigation which I’m still in the early stages of undertaking is to analyse the different ways the underlying dilemmas conceived of and represented in this literature.

  1. If personal life is being consumed by working life, one solution is to seek a job that perfectly expresses yourself.  Thus I believe we can see the contemporary resurgence of the notion of the vocation as  something expressive of an underlying impulse towards finding personal fulfilment in working life by blurring boundaries between the two domains. As well as the macro-economic untenability of this strategy for most under contemporary capitalism, much scholarship in cultural policy and the sociology of work reveals how this discourse of ‘passion’ – doing what you love – goes side-by-side with exploitative and worsening working conditions, growing expectations of unpaid work and spiralling working hours.
  2. An equally familiar solution  is to instrumentally calibrate the demands of working life and personal life. This is most frequently expressed in terms of the notion of the work/life balance, but in sectors defined by a project based knowledge work  we increasingly see the notion of the work/life merge: a wilful collapse of temporal boundaries, using mobile computing to both work and life in a more or less spontaneous sequencing over the course of the day. The extent to which this is chosen or enforced remains a pressing question.
  3. Another solution is to  is to minimise the demands of personal life and working life. The most extreme expressions of this  lifestyle minimalism represent a form of moral athleticism, in which advocates compete to see who most radically reduce their possessions into a set number of objects. It’s correspondingly hostile to ‘clutter’ and imbues it with almost magical capacities to shape one’s psychic life. It sometimes celebrates nomadism – of a very privileged sort – including a permanent home within the category of ‘stuff’ that constrains our lives. But it is driven by an underlying concern for quality over quantity: reclaiming core experiences by dispensing with that deemed ‘unnecessary’. It’s striking how completely dominated the online discourse of lifestyle minimalism is by childless white men in their 20s to 40s, usually seeming to be without attachments. This is asceticism for a certain demographic rather than a strategy for all.
  4. Perhaps the most novel solution is the concept of lifestyle design: instrumentally reducing the demands of working life in order to focus on personal life. Propounded most successfully by Tim Ferris, whose book The Four Hour Work Week has sold well over a million copies, it encourages a strategic mobility: exploiting currency differentials in order to live richly without necessarily being rich, outsourcing as many tasks as possible to virtual assistants operating out of Indian cities and taking ‘mini-retirements’ to focus intensively on certain skills or experiences. It almost represents a kind of hipster neo-colonialism, a strategy utterly dependent on global power relations defining contemporary digitalised and financialised capitalism.
  5. A fifth solution is to seek to dispense with working life to the greatest extent possible. A superb recent book by the Cardiff sociologist David Frayne presents interviews with a diverse range of movements sharing a common orientation to the refusal of work: reducing hours to their minimum, giving up work entirely or otherwise seeking to escape from working life.
  6. We can see a novel form of temporizing emerging in extreme early retirement: embracing a rigid asceticism for many years, intricately monitoring spending and income, in order to ensure the possibility of retiring by a fixed point in time. This represents a solution of sequencing: solving the problems of the relation between work and life by working now in order to live later. It’s interesting to consider the assumptions this makes about the future calculability of digital capitalism e.g. if this is reliant on pensions and investments, how will predicted long term declines in average returns lead to a gradual ratcheting up of the early retirement age and how will practitioners of extreme early retirement reaction to this?
  7. Finally, I think self-optimisation can be included here, particularly when it involves open-ended projects of self-improvement using self-tracking technologies. Not all self-tracking practices are concerned with self-optimisation: we need to distinguish here between goal orientated self-tracking, experimental self-tracking and ongoing projects to perpetually optimise oneself. But an ongoing project to become more productive in work and life, to optimise oneself for the conditions in which one lives and works, seeks to solve the dilemma by improving performance on both sides of the dichotomy. The problem arises because demands are not static and learning to be quicker inevitably incites one to do more: choices that might formerly have been made on the basis of practical necessity now become live options, risking an intensification of demands and rendering further self-optimisation necessary in order to cope.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and each of these strategies presented is just a brief outline of a complex phenomenon. My claim is that these need to be recognised in their specificity and that the ‘greedy’ relationship between the role clusters of ‘work’ and ‘life’ represents a useful analytical framework through which to understand the purpose of these strategies and how they can be taken up by subjects struggling to cope with the intensified demands of digital capitalism.

From the Commencement address Steve Jobs gave on June 12, 2005:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Life is short. We’ll be dead soon. This is why it’s important to fill life with as much of value and interest as possible. The good life is the full life.

Good news! This week it was learnt that CWTS will play host to the second annual conference ‘The Accelerated Academy: Evaluation, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life’. Generously sponsored by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, the event will take place from 30th November to 2nd December 2016 in the beautiful city-centre of Leiden, the Netherlands.

Theme of the Conference

From the 1980s onward, there has been an unprecedented growth of institutions and procedures for auditing and evaluating university research. Quantitative indicators are now widely used at various levels, from the level of individual researchers to that of entire universities, serving to make academic activities more visible, accountable and amenable to university management and marketing. The Accelerated Academy aims to draw together a number of cross-disciplinary conversations about the effects that acceleration towards metric forms of evaluation is having upon research, and the implications this holds for academic life more widely. Building on the successful maiden edition of the Accelerated Academy series in Prague in 2015, this year’s Leiden conference will be especially focussed towards the following questions:

  • What does acceleration mean in different research contexts?
  • What are the implications of digitally mediated measurement and tools for quantifying scholarly performance?
  • What are the knowledge gaps regarding the effects of metrics on scientific quality and societal relevance of research?
  • How can we harness the positive and minimize the adverse effects of performance measurement in universities?

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Michael Power (LSE), Professor Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna) and Professor Peter Dahler-Larsen (University of Copenhagen).

Conference organisers

Dr. Sarah de Rijcke
Dr. Björn Hammarfelt
Dr. Alex Rushforth

Scientific committee

Dr. Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick
Dr. Tereza Stöckelová, Czech Academy of Sciences
Dr. Filip Vostal, Czech Academy of Sciences
Prof.dr. Paul Wouters, Leiden University
Dr. Milena Kremakova, University of Warwick

A call for papers will be announced shortly. Event registration will be free of charge. In addition, a limited number of travel and accommodation support bursaries will made available for researchers especially inhibited by the costs of travel.

– See more at: https://www.cwts.nl/news?article=n-q2v2c4&title=2nd-accelerated-academy-conference#sthash.NGoOUKZY.dpuf

From Refusal of Work by David Frayne, pg 70:

Consider the extent to which the standard eight-hour working day fractures free-time into shards. The full-time worker experiences time as a rapid series of discrete pockets: a constantly rotating cycle of work periods and free periods, in which free-time is restricted to evenings, weekends and holidays. When free-time is fragmented in this way, the cursory hobbies that Adorno denounces may be all that we have time for. Slivers of free-time offer limited scope for engagement in more substantial self-defined activities –activities which would demand steady investments of time and energy in the form of concentration, dedication, the building of communities, or the learning of new skills (Lodziak, 2002: 100). The extreme casualty of this situation is today’s archetypal rushed worker, who commutes home in the dark hours with emails still to answer, feels too drained to engage emotionally with the family, and is disinclined to do very much other than drink wine and watch TV before bed. The point here is not that drinking wine or watching TV are ‘low’ activities, but that the worker has been deprived of the time and energy to choose otherwise.

A letter Filip Vostal and I have written to University Affairs in response to this interview:

We read your recent interview with the authors of the recent book Slow Professor with interest. While we welcome the continued expansion of critical debate concerning academic labour, we nonetheless found much to be concerned with in the interview. Perhaps this is inevitable, as neither of us are professors. In this we are like most within the academy. Though we recognise the complex considerations that factor into the naming of a book, this titular exclusion is indicative of the more substantive problems we have with the idea expressed in this interview and the broader discourse of slow scholarship within which they are embedded.

The interview with the authors confirms our assumption that slow manifestos of such a kind might account for projections and experiences of the authors, rather than for ethnographically or empirically informed studies. The archetype of the distracted time-poor scholar on the verge of psychological breakdown is far from being the norm – as many promoters of academic slowdown often tend to automatically assume. Whether one is distracted, accelerated, stressed, burn-out or just about the opposite – whether one thrives and enjoys plenty of quality and unhasty time – very much depends on other sociologically relevant variables such as age, gender, academic status, discipline, family situation, psychological disposition. 

We are aware that the notion of slowness is attractive and even seductive for academics but, at the same time we think that personal individual stories (and inferences made thereupon) – with all due respect to their seriousness – from academia often give an incorrect impression that academia is flooded with stress, despair and misery and that other corners of society are not (or not so seriously). It is also very much the case that the perceived acceleration of academic life is massively socially differentiated and often reflects power relations and hierarchies within the academy. This we think should be something of a start, perhaps a ‘working hypothesis’ to be explored, rather than more or less bold conclusions indicating that academia is taken by unprecedented speed and frenzy upon which one may be declaring the desperate necessity of slowness.  

One of the key components of such a hypothesis is thus this one: to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege only available to those already at the summit of the academic career structure. Indeed, it is likely only available to some of them, certainly excluding the assistant and perhaps associate professors who are ambiguously subsumed under the catch all term ‘professor’. In reducing the temporal regimes of academic life to a matter of lifestyle choice, regarding it as a matter of learning to be ok with having fewer lines on your CV the authors not only fail to recognise their own privilege but actively mystify the institutional hierarchy within which they enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. We would suggest, in the spirit of well-meaning critique, ‘slow professorship’ only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.

Mark Carrigan (University of Warwick & The Sociological Review)

Filip Vostal (The Czech Academy of Sciences & CEFRES)

At various points in the last year, I’ve made the argument that acceleration can serve to “reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs”. My point is that this is pleasurable: it’s something that people embrace because of the satisfactions they find in it, the thrill of moving from one event to the next without time for reflection. If the good life is understood as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

But as a lived ethos, it obviously wouldn’t be articulated in these terms, if indeed it’s articulated at all. It might just be an orientation to the world that people slip into fleetingly, for certain tracts of time until circumstances or personal consequences lead them to slow down. It might also be a modus operandi, elaborated over the course of a life time through someone’s struggle to find a satisfying and sustainable mode of being in the world.

To get a sense of what I mean by this, consider what Henry Rollins says in this interview:

I’m 55. I just want to go and do stuff. I want to work very vigorously. Travel hard. Have a crazy itinerary that demands that I get up at 8:40 and do this and don’t be late. And prep for this thing that I’m really not that good at doing but I signed up for anyway. Keeps the blood thin. That’s the life I lead. It’s eventful. But there’s things I go without.

In recent papers Ruth Müller has offered what I think is the very important concept of anticipatory acceleration to make sense of how subjects, in this case post-doctoral researchers, wilfully participate in social acceleration. Drawing on the work of James Scott, she outlines an attitude of ‘disregard for the present’:

The present figured not as important in and of itself, but as valuable because of its potential to become the future. Discomfort and sacrifice in the present were hence normatively acceptable and reframed as potentially beneficial. If the present is only a moment of transition towards a golden future, no serious attention needs to be paid to the trials and tribulations of the now. Uneasiness with a new system is recast as a period of adaptation, critique is washed away with the final argument of where we need to go.

This immediately makes me think of Ian Craib’s work on disappointment. Craib argues that we are increasingly unable to live with frustrations, denials or uncertainties. We seek to ‘escape the mess of life’ by looking forward when we meet disappointment, rather than recognising that some element of disappointment is an unavoidable facet of human existence. We turn ourselves to the next person, the next job, the next city as a place where we hope that everything will be ok. But it never is because we can’t transcend the nature of our own being-in-the-world simply by trying really hard to arrange the pieces of our life in a perfect configuration that always exists in potentia. When we actualise it and come face-to-face with its imperfection, we go on looking, assuming that we can make the world as we wish it to be by finding the circumstances in which the representation in our minds can match the reality of our lives.

Under these circumstances, the anticipatory acceleration Müller identifies in higher education becomes remarkably alluring. We bring ourselves closer to this imagined future through an “anticipatory orientation that aims to create future possibilities and tentative certainties, and ensure an ongoing trajectory that is somewhat recognizable as a good (future) life”. Or at least we hope to do so. But within higher education, we find those conditions further in retreat because so many others are chasing them:

VOSTAL (2014) proposes that junior scholars, who often work on temporary contracts and aim at establishing themselves in academia, are particularly exposed to the demand to produce more units per time. “It seems that early career academics are particularly vulnerable to the restructuring of higher education in comparison with more established and tenured/permanently employed senior scholars and professoriate” (p.12f.). This includes a heightened vulnerability to the changing temporal frameworks of academic cultures. Similar to the differences between career stages, the focus on speed appears to be pronounced more or less strongly in different fields. While the imperative to “Speed up!” seems to interpellate a wide range of scholars across the disciplines and faculties, fast growing fields that are receiving high policy attention and investments, often due to hopes of economic return, and that are exhibiting high degrees of internationalization and competition appear to be particularly prone to processes of acceleration. One such field is the life sciences. GARFORTH and CERVINKOVÁ (2009) point out that scholars in this field are faced with a growing standardization of possible career trajectories in the context of increasing international competition. This would result in a “rigid, narrow and increasingly formalised career path […] in the biosciences” (p.172) along which particularly junior scholars must run as fast as possible to outpace a growing number of known and unknown, local and international competitors. The article at hand focuses on a distinct category of junior scholars1) in the life sciences that are, as the empirical work shows, particularly strongly affected by experiences of competition and hence acceleration: postdoctoral researchers

So how do we respond? By going faster and faster. Wilfully hopping with ever more enthusiasm while management heats up the floor (to use the lovely image Will Davies offers). Or we quit. What’s the excluded middle: collective resistance that becomes ever hard because it entails a social hope about potential shared futures, one grounded in a communal attentiveness to the present which becomes ever more unlikely under prevailing conditions of acceleration.

After a year’s work, we’re pleasingly getting to the end of the first phase of the Accelerated Academy project. Here’s what we have to show for it:

In the not too distant future, we’ll have announcement about the second and third Accelerated Academy taking place in 2016 and 2017. We’re also planning to start work on a book later this year. Meanwhile I’ll be speaking on academic acceleration and social media at Warwick and MMU next month.