After the busiest few months of my life, I’ve spent the last couple of days doing what feels like nothing. I’ve been for a shave, bought a graphic novel, seen a (crap) film, had a walk, been out for dinner and had a massage. But otherwise I’ve just read, slept and watched tv. It’s obviously not the case that I have done nothing because I have just listed a sequence of activities which I’ve undertaken. But these have been chosen haphazardly, reflecting little more than my fleeting whims and my ready-to-hand preferences as I intentionally refrain from doing anything even remotely challenging.

This has left me reflecting on changing tempo in existential terms. What happens when we move between two periods of time with distinct and different rates of motion? The last few days have been a striking example of that for me, as I’ve moved from a crescendo of activity over the last four weeks (six trips in three countries, doing lots of work while I go) culminating in the Undisciplining conference in Gateshead last week before suddenly embracing nothing. My days have been increasingly defined by rhythms outside my immediate control, leading up to four days in which the closest I had to self-directed time was reading before bed. By changing tempo I refer to the pacing of activities (what do I have to do each day?) and their self-directedness or otherwise (to what extent am I choosing to do it?) but there are other ways in which we could characterise these temporal shifts.

The sudden transition into deliberate inactivity strikes me as interesting. Though it does occur to me that intellectualising the experience could easily be read as part of a pathological flight from rest which I’m prone to. I often feel strange when I change tempo. Many people do and I think this is at the heart of what people mean when they talk about coming down from events. The drug analogy works because it tracks what can meaningfully be called a different state of consciousness resulting from an (over) abundance of stimuli, a sudden increase in the quantity of interaction, an absence of time alone, a spatio-temporal break from normal routine or some combination thereof. But these experiences, returning to normal life after a specific intense event, should be understand as a particular instance of a more general trend. Put it this way: what do we mean when we say an event was ‘intense’? It conveys that much went on within a particular period of time. We understand these judgements because we recognise the intensivity of our days varies in patterned ways which are susceptible to analysis, even if sociologists of time are the only people who would use language like this to make sense of these patterns.

The opposite tendency for me is one particularly associated with when I lived alone. An extended period of working from home would often leave me failing to converse with anyone for up to a few days, beyond perhaps talking on the phone. When I’d then enter a period of more intense obligations, it would often be hard to get into the swing of things.  Certainly, the fact most of these were on the other side of the country from where I then lived imposed a spatio-temporal logic on the sequences which accentuated the change tempo. But I still get similar feelings now, even though my life is ordered in a way which makes the contrast between phases less stark and sharp than it would otherwise be.

If social synchronisation is unwinding then changing tempo will become an ever more common experience. If we can’t take temporal regimes for granted, as collective realities grounded in shared institutions, temporal heterogeneity within a life will become increasingly normal. Therefore I think it’s important we understand experiences like changing tempo, as well as the mechanisms underlying them and accounting for commonalities and differences in how we experience them.

The singularity is a speculative notion referring to the point at which exponential innovation generates a fundamental transformation of human civilisation. As Murray Shanahan puts it in on loc 78 of his book The Technological Singularity:

In physics, a singularity is a point in space or time, such as the center of a black hole or the instant of the Big Bang, where mathematics breaks down and our capacity for comprehension along with it. By analogy, a singularity in human history would occur if exponential technological progress brought about such dramatic change that human affairs as we understand them today came to an end. 1 The institutions we take for granted—the economy, the government, the law, the state—these would not survive in their present form. The most basic human values—the sanctity of life, the pursuit of happiness, the freedom to choose—these would be superseded. Our very understanding of what it means to be human—to be an individual, to be alive, to be conscious, to be part of the social order—all this would be thrown into question, not by detached philosophical reflection, but through force of circumstances, real and present.

How we should interpret this notion remains controversial. My own instinct is to see this as a form of techno-religion, delineating the point at which we transcend through our technological creations. But it is also something I feel we need to take seriously in order to understand, particularly how it is a framework for the future shaped by the conditions of late capitalism. It is in this sense that I was intrigued to see acceleration so explicitly invoked as a force which could be harnessed in order to drive this innovation. From pg 44 of the same book:

The last of these options raises the possibility of a whole virtual society of artificial intelligences living in a simulated environment. Liberated from the constraints of real biology and relieved of the need to compete for resources such as food and water, certain things become feasible for a virtual society that are not feasible for a society of agents who are confined to wetware. For example, given sufficient computing resources, a virtual society could operate at hyper-real speeds. Every millisecond that passed in the virtual world could be simulated in, say, one-tenth of a millisecond in the real world. 

If a society of AIs inhabiting such a virtual world were to work on improving themselves or on creating even more intelligent successors, then from the standpoint of the real world their progress would be duly accelerated. And if they were able to direct their technological expertise back out to the real world and help improve the computational substrate on which they depended, then the rate of this acceleration would in turn be accelerated. This is one route to a singularity-like scenario. The result would be explosive technological change, and the consequences would be unpredictable.

My point is not to dispute the scientific plausibility of this but rather to ask how the notions in play come to acquire the resonance they do for those advocating and exploring the prospect of the singularity. 

In his Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu is concerned with “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world”. There are presuppositions to enjoying this condition which shape the dispositions of the scholar, necessitating reflexivity for epistemic and ethical reasons if there is to be any hope of transcending the frankly peculiar déformation professionnelle which suffuses the academy. Furthermore, the conditions through which one person come to be ‘freed from the urgencies of the world’ is intrinsically connected to another having those urgencies imposed upon them, as Jana Bacevic reflected on in a recent essay on the necessity of a fridge of one’s own for women who are writers.

I thought back to this when reading Ann Oakley’s recounting of the domestic circumstances of her childhood in Father and Daughter.  From loc 273:

My father couldn’t change a plug or put a nail in the wall. He wouldn’t have known what to do with the blue plaque. He couldn’t drive a car or choose his own socks. His dependence on my mother for these necessities was as much a matter of pride to her as the meticulously managed interior of the house. She couldn’t have achieved this without an array of helpers –not only the men who washed the walls and put the nails in, but a succession of working-class women who came from the cheap terraced streets of Acton in their pink overalls (I only remember the overalls being pink, just as I only remember my father wearing yellow ties the same colour as the front door) to follow her precise instructions about what had to be done on what day in what order. He was always referred to as ‘The Professor’. Shirley or Sharon or whoever it was (they never had surnames like Mr Pearce or Mr Crawford did) had to be especially careful about not disturbing ‘The Professor’ when he was at work in his study.

And again on loc 291:

In the small space next to the confrontation of the cooker and the back door in the Blue Plaque House’s tiny kitchen, my father used to dry the dishes sometimes, and sometimes he would stand at the sink to peel the potatoes, but that was the extent of his contribution to household labour. There were two steps up from the kitchen to the breakfast room, so the person drying the dishes was higher than the person whose hands were in the sink. He was taller than her anyway, but this elevation exaggerated his dominance. He never looked after me, his only child, or took me out or away, on his own. He never wielded a vacuum cleaner or a brush or a duster; I don’t think he even engaged in that most epigenetically masculine of all domestic tasks, emptying the rubbish. He never went out to buy food, not even in a masculine bag-carrying capacity. He never made a bed, rising from his own and returning nightly to its magically straightened embrace. He never washed or ironed his clothes or anybody else’s. She organised his wardrobe, forcing him periodically to attend a bespoke tailor’s in order to commission a new suit or set of shirts: his arms, she said proudly, were too long for the ordinary ready-made kind. Her husband was not a ready-made man. Thus she was able to eject him from the Blue Plaque House every morning, every inch a well-attired Professor.

The world moves around ‘the Professor’ to facilitate his purposive withdrawal from it. He is able to be slow because those around him are fast, structuring their days around his rhythms and routines in order to ensure that mundane domesticity enables him rather than constrains him. My point is not the ‘slow scholarship’ inevitably takes this form. Obviously it does not. But we tend to moralise speeds, seeing acceleration as inherently corrosive and deceleration as inherently worthy. There are many reasons to be sceptical of both assumptions but the gendered realities of actually existing slow scholarship should surely be foremost among them.

It is worth adding that the same dynamic obtains even when ‘the Professor’ is not slow. Even when he acts purposively in the wider world, concerned to manifest the products of his disinterested study in bringing about social change, the temporality of these interventions relies on the support surrounding him. From loc 1251:

The answer, of course, was that our class was based not on property, or on inherited identity, but on the labour of ideas, the politics of mind. Richard and Kay Titmuss collected around themselves a coterie of people who shared their commitment to improving public and personal welfare through the analytic and prescriptive power of thought. They thought about it and talked about it, and the politicians and the social engineers tried to manifest these ideas in action. Actually, he thought and discussed and she served the meals, keeping a little notebook in which she wrote down what was served –‘roast lamb and cherry pavlova’, ‘Greek fish dish and apple pie’ –so the same people wouldn’t eat the same meal twice, which would have been a faux pas of unforgettable proportions.

This lofty distance from practical considerations can operate as a source of meaning, rather than just constraint, within the lives of those picking up after homo academicus. From loc 3628-3646:

Richard Titmuss never wrote about housework, just as he never did any. He played to the old stereotype of the absent-minded professor, whose head is so much in the clouds of abstract thought that he doesn’t notice the odd socks he’s put on, the train that’s going to the wrong place, the leg of a study table smouldering from its proximity to an electric fire. These events and many more were enthusiastically recited by my mother as evidence of my father’s domestic incapacity. It was her way of justifying her own role. Her domestic management was an essential pre-condition of his intellectual prowess: indeed, without her, he would scarcely be alive. The lesson a daughter learns from this is that intellectual and domestic work inhabit completely different spheres. The busy housewife looks after the thoughtful man, and they talk about equality without knowing what they’re talking about. I didn’t read what the thoughtful men who talked in the Blue Plaque House wrote then, but, when I did, I was floored by the conundrum that they, too, seemed to assume the Alienation and freedom line –women’s labour ties them to a natural world of love and care, whereas men exist in an historically contingent material place which is also the domain of public policy. 

I just returned from a Remembrance Day service, pondering the relationship between acceleration and the profane after finding the array of people walking past and through the service deeply irritating. It occurred to me that what marks out such a space as sacred, distinguished from the normal flow on everyday life, rests as much on deceleration as it does on silence. In fact the former could be seen as the precondition for the latter, in so far as that it’s hard to avoid making a noise unless you’re standing still. 

There was a constant stream of activity around the service: people walking past, the noise of bikes and cameras clicking as photographers roamed. People were silent during the formal silence but the movement didn’t cease. What happens to our aspiration to the sacred under such circumstances? It becomes harder to sustain but its achievement is all the more powerful for this reason. To actually have a crowd of people stop moving, stand still and focus upon a shared object of attention becomes a moving experience in its own right because there is little even approximating it in everyday life.
This might seem like a niche concern, a peculiarly long-winded way of complaining about the fact of people’s behaviour at a remembrance service. I nonetheless believe it highlights a more diffuse phenomenon, in which the harmonisation of attention is becoming decreasingly possible. This isn’t just a matter of movement or its absence, a proliferation of noise or a respectful silence. Take myself as an example: I’m complaining about the lack of attentiveness shown by others but I found myself writing this blog post in my head during the service. There are so many reasons to turn away from shared experiences, as the decreasing synchronisation of our work and lives (as well as the digital machinery of distraction through which this desynchronisation comes to characterise every facet of our existence) means the traditional pool of collective objects of attention seems to be in terminal decline.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of collectivity or even of collective attention. The role of mediation here is interesting e.g. television and Twitter combining to produce intense forms of mediated collective attention. If we accept that collective attention can be powerful even if synchronised then binge-watched television shows which reach the status of ‘cultural phenomenon’ represent an interesting case study. Nonetheless, we see an important and challenging transformation when collective attention comes to depend upon technologies of mediation for its very possibility. I suspect we begin to lose something quite profound, as collective affectivity dependent on real co-ordination of psycho-physical attention in time and space begins to fade away into an (imagined) past. The extent to which this is happening can certainly be overstated: the examples that have proved most transformative in my own experience illustrate this (e.g. key games in live football, the best live music, some protests). But even these are partial experiences, collective crescendos against a backdrop of individualisation, rather than defining features of the experience. The most moving examples also occurred when I was younger, long before any gig was filled with people constantly focused on filming the event using their phone. The only recent example I can think of was the memorial after the Manchester attacks this year, the effect of which upon me had been opaque until I found myself bursting into tears after a few minutes of standing with others in St Andrew’s Square. 

I’m worried that forms of collectivity like this, deeply precious but subtle parts of our lives, increasingly find themselves imperilled by social acceleration and that individualised enforcement of ‘proper’ comportment is liable to make the problem worse rather than better.

ZeMKI international conference „The Mediatization of Time“
December 6-8, 2017

Conference venue:
Swissôtel Bremen
Hillmannpl. 20, 28195 Bremen, Germany

Organizer:
University of Bremen, ZeMKI, Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research
http://www.zemki.uni-bremen.de
Topic:

Recent innovations in the digitalization and datafication of communication fundamentally affect how people conceptualize, perceive and evaluate time to create the kind of world they live in. The conference invites participants to think through the interplay of media and data in respect of the way social time is constructed, modulated, and experienced. This allows to appreciate how new technologies and representations deeply affect the temporal organization of today’s media suffused societies, and it also sheds light on transformations in mediating time. We assume that mediatization as a fundamental societal change that interweaves with the development and spread of communication and information technologies leaves its mark on the ways we process and order the pace, sequence, rhythms and of social reality.

This conference invites to think through the role of media and data people have or had at hand to time their interactions, relations, and states of being.

The conference is organized by Christian Pentzold and Christine Lohmeier from the ZeMKI, Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research, University of Bremen in cooperation with Anne Kaun, School of Culture and Education, Södertörn University, Stockholm.

Registration for non-presenting participants is open until November 30, 2017. Please register with an e-mail to mediatizedtime@uni-bremen.de <mailto:mediatizedtime@uni-bremen.de>, providing your full name, your affiliation and postal address as well as your status: (1) undergraduate/doctoral student or (2) postdoc/professor/other. The registration fee for status group (1) is 20 euro and for status group (2) 40 euro, not including the conference dinner. The registration is only valid with a written confirmation by the conference team.

Participants can book hotel rooms for special conference rates at the Hotel Bremer Haus <https://www.google.de/maps/place/Novum+Hotel+Bremer+Haus/@53.080269,8.816544,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xa6937aadfdd13625?sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwikr-aQ0NvWAhVDBsAKHY5yBZcQ_BIImwEwCg> (code: “Mediatized Time”) and Star Inn Bremen <https://www.google.de/maps/place/Star+Inn+Hotel+Premium+Bremen+Columbus,+by+Quality/@53.0822375,8.8093874,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x47b1281208a44ec3:0x65076cdb209c6922!8m2!3d53.0822375!4d8.8115761> (code: “Mediatized Time”) by the end of October 2017.

Conference programme

December 6, 2017

20:00
Get Together (www.canova-bremen.de)

December 7, 2017

09:00
Welcome – Convenors

09:30
KEYNOTE I:
*Helge Jordheim (Oslo U, Norway)

*Response: Emily Keightley (Loughborough U, UK)
*Response: Staffan Ericson (Södertörn U, Sweden)

11:00
Coffee & Tea

11:30
PANEL I: TEMPORAL (DIS-)CONTINUITIES
*Karin Deckner (U of the Arts, Berlin, Germany): Eigenzeit and media-based Eigenzeit as „Heterochronie“
*Tim Markham (Birkbeck, U of London, UK): Subjective engagement in an age of distraction: In defence of temporal discontinuity and ambivalence
*Christian Schwarzenegger (Augsburg U, Germany): Reclaiming Time from the Media – Disconnection and temporal autonomy in times of digital perma-connectivity
*Martin Hand (Queen’s U, Canada): iTimes? emerging practices of negotiation, synchronization, and coordination

13:30
Lunch

14:30
PANEL II: PLATFORM TIME
*Tim Highfield (Queensland Tech, Australia): Socially mediated moments and memories: Now, then, and the tangled temporality of digital media
*Manuel Menke (Augsburg U, Germany): Time as Contrast: Constructing Temporalities of the “Before” and the “After” Online
*Kenzie Burchell (U of Toronto, Canada): Managing the Platform Communication Environment: Observable Social Practices as Time Regulators and Time Meters

16:00
Coffee & Tea

16:30
PANEL III: MULTIPLE CHRONOLOGIES
*Maria Rikitianskaia & Gabriele Balbi (Lugano U, Switzerland): Wireless Around The Clock: Introducing Time Signals By Wireless Telegraphy in the 1910s
*Oliver Görland (Rostock U, Germany): Media Use In Situ: Dead Time and the Acceleration of Life
*Jean-Claude Domenget (U de Franche Comté, France) & Carsten Wilhelm (U of Haute Alsace, France): Recent French perspectives on temporalities in media and communication research
*Sabine Bosler (U of Haute Alsace, France & Olivier Thevenin (Paris New Sorbonne U, France): The Paris Series Mania Festival and the Attention Economy”

18:00
Roundtable: New Perspectives on Media, Data and Temporality (Andreas Hepp (Bremen U, Germany), Espen Ytreberg (Oslo U, Norway), Elizabeth Prommer (Rostock U, Germany), Lee Humphreys (Cornell U, USA), Paddy Scannell (U Michigan, USA)

20:00
Dinner (https://www.tenduere.de)

December 8, 2017

09:00
KEYNOTE II:
*Motti Neiger (The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew U. & Netanya Academic College, Israel) “”On Collective Vision: The Mediatization of Shared Social Future”
KEYNOTE III:
*Mike Ananny (Annenberg School for Communication, USC, USA)

* Response: Lee Humphreys (Cornell U, USA)

10:30
Coffee & Tea
PANEL VI: TIME IN/OF THE MEDIA
*C.W. Anderson (Leeds U, UK) & Henrik Bodker (Aarhus U, Denmark): Deep, Shallow, and Ecstatic Time in an Age of Data and Mediatization
* Wiebke Loosen (Bredow Hamburg) & Andreas Hepp (U Bremen): Where the future is already the present. How pioneer journalists construct the future(s) of journalism
*Sarah Kohler (Klagenfurt U, Austria): The Adaptation of Temporal Structures in Times of Mediatization: the Two Approaches of SPIEGEL Online
*Sarah Bishop (City U, NYC, USA): Finding the Time: Digital Storytelling and Narrative Fatigue

13:00
Lunch and Farewell

14:00
INTO THE FUTURE with comments from Peter Lunt (Leicester U, UK), Irene Neverla (Hamburg U, Germany), Johan Fornäs (Södertörn U, Sweden)

15:00
Departure

Conference website:
http://www.zemki.uni-bremen.de/en/events/conferences/the-mediatization-of-time.html  <http://www.zemki.uni-bremen.de/en/events/conferences/the-mediatization-of-time.html>

There’s a section in this 1997 chapter by Roger Burrows which my thoughts have been intermittently turning to since reading it last week. On pg 235 he writes:

It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world. The speed at which new theoretical discourses emerge, are disseminated and then become passé is now absurd. It is almost as if the second that one begins to engage with some new conceptual development it becomes unfashionable. The recent literature on things ‘cyber’ is a case in point. Reading it makes the latest pile of books on the postmodern, globalisation, reflexive modernisation (last year’s model?) and the like appear mellow and quaint. Never mind who now reads Marx? or even Foucault? Who now reads Baudrillard?

This process of sociological passéification is, of course, not unconnected with ‘fin-demillennium’ pessimism and our general loss of visions of utopian transcendence and hope in a better future. Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target. In the recent conceptual scramble some analysts have begun to turn to sources of inspiration beyond traditional social scientific and political discourses in order to try and make some sort of sense of our contemporary condition. In particular the fictional world of cyberpunk has been seized on by some as a resource of analytic insights into the new dimensions of human, or even post-human existence, which are supposedly now upon us.

It suggests that intellectual faddishness is something explained by the character of reality itself, as a “constantly moving target” provokes “ever more frantic attempts” to “provide some sort of sociological frame”. It struck me when reading this how clearly the themes of the coming crisis of empirical sociology are prefigured here: is a descriptive turn something which facilitates an escape from this acceleration of theory? I’ve always  found this unsatisfying, aspiring instead to a social theory able to handle the pace of social change.

However the normalisation of intellectual change taking place at this pace makes this increasingly difficult, establishing career strategies predicated on capturing the intellectual attention space through the production of novelty. Though such novelty always rests on a relative judgement, inevitably compared to what immediately preceded it rather than the full stock of theoretical propositions which are in principle available.

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.