Human beings have always been obsessed with the concept of time.
Indeed, the petrifying notion of each second, minute, and hour of the clock passing with increasing fury and speed — as the inevitable journey of death looms closer — appears to be as old as humanity itself. The British poet, W.H. Auden, summed up this ongoing existential crisis humans have with time in his 1937 poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’, when he wrote:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
The certainty of death coming closer and into focus as each season passes, is an age-old human conundrum. However, the way most of us in the west presently think of time and how it affects our basic awareness of the conscious mind on a day-to-day basis, is actually a very modern phenomenon. The automation of work during the 19th century was crucial to this enormous sea change. The phrase ‘time is money’ may be a popular cliché that has made its way into our collective consciousness, but in feudal times, almost nobody would have understood this concept. To put it more directly: technological changes brought about by the rise of global capitalism and the industrial revolution have drastically altered how human beings actively think about using their time over the duration of their short life spans.
This is just one of the subjects that Judy Wajcman investigates with great insight, tenacity, and depth of research in her latest book: Pressed for Time, The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. Her previous books include titles such as Technofeminism and Feminism Confronts Technology. The basic premise of Wajcman’s current tome is that human beings are not — as is often argued by technophobes — hostages surrendering themselves to the silicon communication devices that have drastically sped up the pace of modern living. It may certainly appear as if technology is propelling the human brain into unprecedented levels of fantastic speed; particularly as we become increasingly dependent on machines for social interaction and the exchanging of data in the information economy. However, this speed-driven technological agenda, Wajcman believes, is one that humans have purposely set for themselves. After all, it’s humans who design machines, not the other way around, she stresses.
“The conversation we tend to have about technology is usually twofold,” says Wajcman. “Either it’s seen as utopian. Or, that it’s getting out of control, and people won’t be able to think independently anymore.”
Having studied technology in tandem with sociology over the last three decades— while witnessing various tech revolutions and epochs that promised to finally deliver the future —Wajcman says she is constantly perplexed by the lack of nuance there is when this subject gets brought up in public discourse: especially between academics.
“We know from history that people said electricity or the telegraph would be extremely disruptive to society,” says Wajcman. “Well the discussion about technology today tends to fall into that same simple dichotomy. I’m trying to get away from those extremes. We shouldn’t think of technology as having a life of its own. Nor should we ask: is it good or bad. What we do need to ask, though, is who is designing these technologies, and what purposes do they serve?”
Time as a commodity
Wajcman’s spacious office at The London School of Economics is closer in appearance to a psychiatrist’s practice than the usual cluttered academic hovel one is likely to find in central London, where space is a rare commodity. The several shelves of books which line the wall, most of which are of a Marxian persuasion, give away Wajcman’s political and cultural leanings fairly quickly. It’s clear that the German philosopher and economist has an enormous influence on Wajcman’s world view: acting as a fundamental base for thinking critically about technology, labour, and the control of human minds. Wajcman has no qualms about the fact that her central thesis is deeply rooted in the socialist tradition.
“In today’s world, I’m very concerned about the fact that we are now living in a society where inequality is increasing phenomenally,” she warns. “A lot of poor people are constantly doing hard labour— for very low wages— so that wealthy people can be fast, efficient, and do pleasurable activities.”
And what does this have to do with machines, you may ask? A lot actually. But first, we need to rewind the clock back a couple of centuries to get a greater perspective on the subject. To fully understand the complexity of Wajcman’s argument, it’s worth giving a very brief introduction to Marx’s analysis of the commodification of time. The central premise can be summarised thus: Marx saw an empty, abstract, quantifiable time, applicable anywhere, anytime, as something that was a precondition for its use as an abstract exchange value on the one hand, and for the commodification of labour and nature, on the other. Sociologists tend to put a huge emphasis on this inseparable link between time— as we now know it— and the commodification of time in industrial capitalism.
“It’s simple really,” Wajcman explains. “It’s quite a modern notion to think about not wasting time in society. The discussion originates from a period when time becomes money,” she says. “Marx was very clear about this. Labour time is paid. And the way to extract more production from workers, he argued, was to either intensify the work, and get people to work harder. Or, you lengthen the working day. Today, there is still a lot of truth in both of these things,” she says. “Really, it’s all about that what is bought from labour is paid by the hour, by time. That is essentially what is at the core of Marx’s analysis [about time and labour].”
Marxism. Dialectics. Socialism. The conversation is starting to sound like a rally at the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference. So where exactly does technological progress in the 21st century fit into all of this Marxian jargon? Well, as a student of sociology in the 1970s, Wajcman became deeply interested in the relationship between technology and the speed of work. This then led her to become an active participant in a discussion that became known as the labour process debate, which essentially argues that technology is central to the control of work in a capitalist economy. Since that time, Wajcman has dedicated most of her life in academia to studying the particulars around design in technology. Such critical thinking led her to co-author the book The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator got its Hum. Rather than conceiving technology as an autonomous force determining the organisation of work, the book argues that the antagonistic class relations of production affect technology itself. The Social Shaping of Technology was hugely influential and has, since its release in 1985, become mandatory reading for students of Science and Technology studies. Forensic studies of the evolution of technologies, Wajcman’s work points out, reveal that, actually, patterns of power and cultural values tend to shape the process of technological development. Or, to put it more technically: technologies of production are a reflection of the social relations of production. The conversation, again, I feel, is all getting rather academic, abstract, and dialectical. So I ask Wajcman to try and give me a concrete example of the social relations of production in practice. She cites a current discussion about robots caring for old people as a perfect example.
“The reason for producing robots to care for old people, in a capitalist society, is because we can automate the work and shorten labour costs. But a socialist way of dealing with this would be to redistribute the labour out to people in a communal and collective manner. Here, the state would take a big role,” Wajcman stresses. “We really are now in a period of history where society is basically saying: let’s try and get machines to do all this stuff.”
Steering clear of determinism
In Pressed For Time, Wajcman spends much of the narrative urging readers to exercise caution when making direct links between technological innovation and time saving. Technology, she believes, is predominately used by individuals, most of the time, to achieve a higher status in society. In fact, it’s best to think about the digital devices we use on a daily basis as socio-material practices, that co-evolve with lives as lived in interaction with technologies, Wajcman believes.
“What we are constantly trying to do with science and technology studies is to argue against technological determinism,” Wajcman stresses. “We need to remember that humans make technology, it doesn’t exist on its own: therefore we can choose whether we develop, say, drones, or certain genetic technologies, for example.”
Moreover, once certain technologies are actually out on the market, it’s often the case that the purpose they were originally intended for can change drastically. Wajcman cites the mobile phone as a typical example of this.
“Mobile phones, when first designed, were very much thought of as a business tool. Then suddenly teenage girls in Japan figured out that texting was cheap. Fast-forward a few years: we now live in this constant world of texting. The mobile phone was not initially designed for this specific purpose, but technologies have the capacity to do different things than they originally set out to when they were designed.”
Another topic that Wajcman spends considerable ink discussing in her book is the blurring of boundaries between public and private spaces: particularly as technology has become more compact and mobile. Before the silicon age, the old industrial clock tended to regulate our lives into discrete blocks of time and space. Back then, says Wajcman, there was a marked distinction between public and private life, and between work and home. However, because our lives are now constantly plugged into a global reach of mobile and digital technologies, those traditional barriers have disappeared. Typically, technophobes argue that this constant connectivity means we are all now slaves to our smart phones, tablets and laptops. And that, even if we wanted to, we are now incapable of switching off from cyberspace entirely. Wajcman believes, however, that those very same machines that make us feel hurried and rushed, also free up an enormous amount of our time on a day-to-day basis. Crucially, they also give us far more autonomy, flexibility and versatility in how we organise our everyday lives. That doesn’t always mean being hooked up to a machine, or staring in front of a computer screen for 14 hours a day. But what about the idea that we have all become cyber-serfs, or technologically tethered workers, with little control over our own lives?
“Much of these arguments are hyperbolic,” says Wajcman. “We do now, of course, live a life completely embedded with technology,” she admits. “But when technologies are old, we don’t even think about them as technologies anymore. Over time, old technologies— such as lights, electricity, the landline phone, for example— all become completely integrated with our lives. We tend to talk about new technologies as if they radically alter life. Certainly they’ve radically altered some things. But if you look over a period of, say, 50 years, you can see people are not actually living these incredibly different lives.”
Wajcman also believes we need to be careful about buying into the idea that just because the technology itself is getting exponentially faster, the physical activity humans are partaking in will always speed up too.
“In our everyday lives, the pace of life doesn’t always increase because of technological innovation,” Wajcman stresses.
She cites the work of the French philosopher Paul Virilio who describes the cult around speed in modernity as “propaganda of progress.” Virilio also posits that humans are really only capable of administering and managing the inevitable fear and anxiety that comes with an increasingly accelerated world. Virilio’s analysis principally looks into the contradictory nature of so-called technological progress. Transport is one example that Virilio uses to explain this notable contradiction. As technology has gotten more advanced since the motorcar was first invented, cars have progressively become capable of achieving far greater speeds. Inevitably, one would think this might lead to an increase in the pace humans move around cities, for example.
“As machines, cars are supposed to speed up the pace of life,” says Wajcman, fleshing out the idea in some detail. But look outside the window, what’s happening in central London, you can hardly move in a car because you are stuck in traffic compared to a century ago, when people were on horses. So there is an in-built problem: once everybody is getting speed [as technology advances], then you eventually start to slow down.”
Perhaps the most crucial point about Virilio’s analysis is his recognition that people at the level of everyday life— in the so-called network society— are increasingly sedentary: most of the time just sitting in front of a screen.
“So Virilio points out that with the internet you are everywhere in cyberspace, but your body is more static than it has every been. As human beings we sit now more than we ever have before,” says Wajcman. “When we talk about technology [in debates in the public sphere, ed.], we really need to be aware that there are always these contradictions at work. And we need to keep in mind the enormous tensions between those contradictions.”
It appears, then, that no matter how advanced the machines we build become, trying to overcome the mysterious concept of time— and its everlasting existential crisis— is, for humans, an almost impossible task.
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