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:

 

From In The Plex pg 185:

Sergey Brin even put a label on his cofounder’s frustration at the tendency of developers to load more and more features into programs, making them run way too slowly. Page’s Law , according to Brin, was the observation that every eighteen months, software becomes twice as slow. Google was determined to avoid this problem. “We want to actually break Page’s law and make our software increasingly fast over time,” says Brin.

Acceleration is often framed as a problem. Things are speeding up. We never have enough time. We’re always falling behind. These will be familiar experiences to most. While the problem is more complex than may initially appear to be the case, with little quantitative time squeeze actually registering, it nonetheless leaves us with a sense of late modernity as a ‘runaway world’ in which things are accelerating beyond our capacity to cope with them. This diagnosis tends to identify the causality at the systemic level and occludes the role of agency: it’s ‘modern life’ which is running away from us while we’re left merely struggling to catch up.

The difficulty here is that the role of agency is crucial if we are to understand the time-pressure paradox. If we have roughly the same amount of time, what is it about how we orientate ourselves towards temporality that accounts for the pervasive sense that we are perpetually running out of time? It’s important that we resist the urge to do what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘pomo flip’ and respond to the systemic bias of the acceleration thesis with a corresponding bias towards agency. The motor of acceleration cannot be seen as straightforwardly arising from the social system, in the sense that it produces changing circumstances to which agents can do nothing but adapt or fail. But nor should it be seen as something that arises from people ‘using time badly’ (whatever that would mean) or any other account of (implicitly pathological) responses by agents leaving them feeling more harried while the objective availability of time remains constant.

Instead we need to understand acceleration in terms of the interface between the social system & agency. Crucially, this doesn’t mean ‘agency’ in a schematic sense: we need to understand how embodied people, with capacities & liabilities, live through the temporal horizons obtaining within the system and, through doing so, contribute to the transformation or reproduction of those (temporal) structures. One useful concept I’m thinking about at the moment which helps in this respect is that of the pleasures of acceleration. For all that people complain about time pressure – particularly, it should be noted, when responding to researchers studying the time-pressure paradox – there are also pleasures to be found within it:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

We need to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of acceleration. Through doing so, it becomes possible to flesh out the rather anaemic conception of agency usually found within the acceleration literature and instead look at speed as something which matters to people, in ways that are complex and often contradictory. We don’t just have first-order responses to our circumstances (whims and desires) but also second-order responses (concerns and commitments) which are themselves shaped by our cumulative experience of circumstances past. Understanding how people cope with acceleration requires that we attend to the former and the latter. We can’t treat agency as a cypher in the analysis of acceleration.

Nonetheless my point isn’t that people are embracing acceleration because they (secretly) like it. I’m only suggesting that there are pleasures to be found in it, alongside the many pains, which need to be recognised before we can even begin to grasp the agential dimension of social acceleration.