An eloquent commentator once declared that the new communications technology “[had], as it were, assembled all of mankind upon one great plane, where they can see everything that is done and hear everything that is said, and judge of every policy that is pursued at the very moment those events take place.”
A trifle overblown, yes, but it’s held up better than many other rhapsodies and prophecies inspired by new media over the years. Nowadays we have too much perspective to believe that “mankind” can really “see everything that is done and hear everything that is said.” (Only people with access to the NSA servers enjoy that privilege.) But there is no denying the commentator’s clear sense of human experience speeding up -- with news and information moving faster than ever before, so that people would have to adapt, somehow, or else be crushed by the juggernaut of progress.
It happens that the far-sighted analyst here was Lord Salisbury, three-time prime minister of Britain, addressing the founding meeting of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1889; the technology in question was the telegraph. Judy Wajcman cites his remark in Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (University of Chicago Press), while criticizing the common idea “that our current ambivalence toward technological change has no precedent.” Wajcman, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, gives the date as 1899, which is perhaps as much an echo as a typo: Salisbury’s comment sounds a bit like the techno-boosterism and globalization-speak common during the late ‘90s of the more recent century.
But for Wajcman, it’s the overtone of uneasiness that counts -- and she’s undoubtedly right to emphasize it, given the speaker. His Lordship was a rock-ribbed conservative who, it seems, once boiled his principles down to a pithy formula: “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” As a political strategy, that, too, sounds curiously familiar and contemporary.
Pressed for Time has at its core a paradox that will have occurred to most readers at some point: On the one hand, the technological innovations that come our way are designed to be efficient; they promise to save time and energy. In principle, the savings should add up, so that we’d have more of each. But scarcely anyone feels that they do add up. If anything, people seem to feel ever more harried.
The situation is genuinely paradoxical, since the technology really does tend to become faster and more efficient, and more Swiss Army Knife-like in near-universal applicability. By rights, we should all be enjoying what Wajcman calls “temporal sovereignty and sufficient leisure time,” and little more of each all the time. Yet the gizmos and apps are part of the problem, somehow. Indeed it often seems that they are the problem itself -- as if their speed and power set the pace, like a treadmill that accelerates when you walk faster, without ever slowing down if you can’t keep up.
Wajcman cites a study of Blackberry use among “corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, and investment bankers” who said, in interviews, that mobile email “enhance[d] their flexibility, control, and competence as professional workers.” But the seeming increase in personal autonomy canceled itself out through “the unintended consequences of collective use.” In other words, the advantage to an individual of being able to work and communicate whenever and wherever it was possible or convenient “also heightens expectations of availability and responsiveness” from colleagues, who also have continuous connectivity, thereby “reducing [one’s] personal downtime and increasing stress” by “escalating engagement with work at all hours of day and night.”
The “autonomy paradox” (as the researchers called it in a journal article) isn’t just for corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, or investment bankers anymore – or even for Blackberry users, that dwindling breed. It is the way we live now.
But as Wajcman digs into the conundrum, Pressed for Time questions some routine assumptions about technology and culture made by sociologists as well as everyday citizens of modernity. One is the tendency to think that technical innovation induces social change in a fairly linear and one-directional way: a relationship of cause and effect, if not of technological determinism.
Lord Salisbury’s thumbnail assessment of the telegraph is one example. The new communication system allows information to move across vast distances instantaneously, or close enough for the Victorian era. Its social impact (the whole world becoming aware of breaking events in real time) was the direct and almost self-evident realization of the potentials inherent in the technology. The difference between Salisbury’s remark to the engineers and what Wajcman calls “grand, totalizing narratives of postindustrial, information, postmodern, network society” is often one of idiom more than of substance.
The science and technology studies (STS) research informing Pressed for Time, by contrast, focuses on the system of relays and feedback loops through which technological innovation and social life influence each other. Understanding the impact of the telegraph on people’s sense of space and time means also considering another development of that era, long-distance railway travel. In the pre-railroad era, time was set locally: the same moment showing as noon on the clocks in one town or city might be several minutes earlier or later on timepieces a few miles away.
The variation had not been much of a problem until the advent of a regular railway schedule. (Note that nothing in the technology itself made timetables inevitable. But they were essential if the railroad was to serve as a reliable way to get products to market.) The telegraph was an important tool for synchronizing places separated by long distances, with Greenwich mean time eventually bringing “the world within one grid of time,” writes Wajcman, “uprooting older, local ways of marking [its] passage of time.”
We make use of tools, and they return the compliment. The chains of cause and effect are knottier than we habitually assume. But the author’s analysis of the time-pressure paradox also challenges the supposition that technological developments impinge on us all equally, or at least in uniform ways. But there are pretty tangible grounds for arguing that they don’t.
It's possible to sit through many a discussion of time-and-labor-saving devices without more than a passing reference to the washing machine. Somehow a device operating mainly in the domestic sphere – traditionally the responsibility of women, who studies indicate still do two-thirds of the (unpaid) work -- counts as having less social significance than, say, transportation or communications technology. “To most commentators,” Wajcman writes, “the history of housework is the story of its elimination.” But while the washing machine does remove most of the drudgery of cleaning clothes, its effect has been less to reduce the total amount of domestic labor than to change its nature and priorities: less time spent on laundry, more time driving the family vehicle.
The technological developments of the past couple of decades are usually lumped together as “the digital revolution,” though that’s starting to sound quaint. At some point the cumulative effect will make it very difficult to imagine that things could be otherwise. Wajcman delivers one sharp tap after another at the calcified interpretations that surround those changes. It leaves the reader with a clear sense that paradox of becoming trapped by devices that promise to free us follows, not from the technology itself, but from habits and attitudes that go unchallenged.
The tools we now have probably could be used to shorten the workday for everyone, for example -- but we’d have to want that and make some effort to realize it. Instead, being constantly “on the grid,” overstressed from work, and emotionally available to other people only during designated (and calibrated) “quality time” has become a kind of status symbol. Pressed for Time helps elucidate how things shaped up as they have. It seems less paradoxical than pathological, but Wajcman suggests, rather quietly, that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Our devices grow ever more efficient, but our lives only more hectic. Scott McLemee reviews a book on the paradox of digital temporality.
Like a t-shirt that used to say something you can’t quite read anymore, a piece of terminology will sometimes grow so faded, or be worn so thin, that retiring it seems long overdue. The threadbare expression “socially constructed” is one of them. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t disintegrated already.
In its protypical form -- as formulated in the late 1920s, in the aphorism known as the Thomas theorem – the idea was bright and shapely enough: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In a culture that regards the ghosts of dead ancestors as full members of the family, it’s necessary to take appropriate actions not to offend them; they will have a place at the table. Arguments about the socially constructed nature of reality generalize the Thomas theorem more broadly: we have access to the world only through the beliefs, concepts, categories, and patterns of behavior established by the society in which we live.
The idea lends itself to caricature, of course, particularly when it comes to discussion of the socially constructed nature of something brute and immune to argumentation like, say, the force of gravity. “Social constructivists think it’s just an idea in your head,” say the wits. “Maybe they should prove it by stepping off a tall building!”
Fortunately the experiment is not often performed. The counterargument from gravity is hardly so airtight as its makers like to think, however. The Thomas theorem holds that imaginary causes can have real effects, But that hardly implies that reality is just a product of the imagination.
And as for gravity -- yes, of course it is “constructed.” The observation that things fall to the ground is several orders of abstraction less than a scientific concept. Newton’s development of the inverse square law of attraction, its confirmation by experiment, and the idea’s diffusion among the non-scientific public – these all involved institutions and processes that are ultimately social in nature.
Isn’t that obvious? So it seems to me. But it also means that everything counts as socially constructed, if seen from a certain angle, which may not count as a contribution to knowledge.
A new book from Temple University Press, Darin Weinberg’s Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes, struggles valiantly to defend the idea from its sillier manifestations and its more inane caricatures. The author is a reader in sociology and fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. “While it is certainly true that a handful of the more extravagant and intellectually careless writers associated with constructionism have abandoned the idea of using empirical evidence to resolve debates,” he writes, not naming any names but manifestly glaring at people over in the humanities, “they are a small and shrinking minority.”
Good social constructionist work, he insists, “is best understood as a variety of empirically grounded social scientific research,” which by “turn[ing] from putatively universal standards to the systematic scrutiny of the local standards undergirding specific research agendas” enables the forcing of “the tools necessary for discerning and fostering epistemic progress.”
The due epistemic diligence of the social scientists renders them utterly distinct from the postmodernists and deconstructionists, who, by Weinberg's reckoning, have done great damage to social constructionism’s credit rating. “While they may encourage more historically and politically sensitive intuitions regarding the production of literature,” he allows, “they are considerably less helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.”
And that is being nice about it. A few pages later, Weinberg pronounces anathema upon the non-social scientific social-constructionists. They are “at best pseudo-empirical and, at worst, overtly opposed to the notion that empirical evidence might be used to improve our understanding of the world or resolve disputes about worldly events.”
Such hearty enthusiasm for throwing his humanistic colleagues under the bus is difficult to gainsay, even when one doubts that a theoretical approach to art or literature also needs to be “helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.” Such criticisms are not meant to be definitive of Weinberg’s project. A sentence like “Derrida sought to use ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate how specific readings of texts require specific contextualizations of them” is evidence chiefly of the author’s willingness to hazard a guess.
The book’s central concern, rather, is to defend what Weinberg calls “the social constructionist ethos” as the truest and most forthright contemporary manifestation of sociology’s confidence in its own disciplinary status. As such, it stresses “the crucially important emphases” that Weinberg sees as implicit in the concept of the social – emphases “on shared human endeavor, on relation over isolation, on process over stasis, and on collective over individual, as well as the monumental epistemic value of showing just how deeply influenced we are by the various sociohistorical contexts in which we live and are sustained.”
But this positive program is rarely in evidence so much as Weinberg’s effort to close off “the social” as something that must not and cannot be determined by anything outside itself – the biological, psychological, economic, or ecological domains, for example. “The social” becomes a kind of demiurge: constituting the world, then somehow transcending its manifestations.
It left this reader with the sense of witnessing a disciplinary turf war, extended to almost cosmological dimensions. The idea of social construction is a big one, for sure. But even an XXL can only be stretched just so far before it turns baggy and formless -- and stays that way for good.
Two people who died at a San Francisco nursing home on Monday night appear to have been victims of a murder-suicide; they were mother and daughter, though few other details have yet been released. A police officer and "self-confessed gun nut" in Dallas extolled the qualities of his new shotgun in a video posted online a few days before using it to kill his wife and then himself last week. It's reported that his jealousy was stoked by her Facebook socializing. The lack of evident motive makes even more horrific the scene in a Chicago suburb, also last week. After killing his parents and his 5 year old nephew, a man set the house on fire, then shot himself.
These events all occurred during the short time it took me to read The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide by Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, just published by Oxford University Press. The author estimates that around 2 percent of suicides in the United States are accompanied by the murder of at least one other person. It averages out to slightly more than two murder-suicides per day.
Nearly 90 percent of "ordinary" murders are committed by men, who also make up most (at least 75 percent) of the body count. With murder-suicide, the figures are significantly different: the perpetrators are male more than 90 percent of time, while 75 percent of the victims are female. "Both murder per se and suicide per se involve firearms between 55 percent and 70 percent of the time," the author indicates. "The rate in murder-suicide is considerably higher, with some studies returning rates approaching 100 percent."
But there is the very rare exception, such as the man who killed his wife with an injection cyanide before swallowing some himself. In this case, it was a matter of convenience: "He was a jeweler, and jewelers frequently use cyanide for their wares." Firearms and poison alike can be used in both stages of murder-suicide, while the man who killed his wife and son with a baseball bat three years ago couldn't exactly turn the weapon back on himself. Yet he "did nevertheless arrange that he be bludgeoned to death," Joyner writes; "he placed himself in front of an oncoming passenger train."
An article about the apparent murder-suicide of a man and woman in Cleveland last month reported: "Police have not said which of the two victims they believe was murdered. They also have not revealed why they believe the deaths are the result of a murder-suicide." I have not been able to find more recent news about the case, but Joiner's book makes a confident guess possible on both points.
The author is a prominent specialist in the study of suicidal behavior, and his goal in The Perversion of Virtue is to create "a comprehensive yet parsimonious typology" for what he calls "true murder-suicide." He excludes cases in which a murderer commits suicide to avoid punishment after the attempt to escape has failed, or still rarer instances of the suicide causing someone else's death by accident (say, a pedestrian killed by a building-jumper). In murder-suicide proper, the perpetrator's decision to kill himself is the primary factor. All else follows from it, through a morbid logic in which the thought of the victim(s) continuing to live is "the final barrier to suicide ... in the perpetrator's mind." The resolution to kill himself "necessitates, through an appeal to virtue, the death of at least one other person."
Virtue seems a peculiar word to find in this context, but it is the key to the book's four-compartment typology, defined by the venerable higher goods of mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The perpetrator of murder-suicide considers the death of the other(s) as required by at least one, and possibly two, of the four virtues. The act entails "a perverted and horribly distorted version of [virtue] to be sure," say Joiner, who also indicates that that the decision is always a product of mental illness. From the perspective of anyone but the killer, a murder-suicide compelled by the demands of justice is simply a matter of revenge: the abusive parent or the ex-spouse's infidelity damaged the suicidal person so badly that life is unbearable, but even more unbearable is the idea of them getting away with it.
Conversely, the murder may be committed as an act of violent mercy: a way to spare the victim (or victims) suffering in the wake of the suicide, as when parents in a suicide pact also kill their children. Not altogether distinct from such mercy killings are cases in which the perpetrator feels responsible for a severely ill or otherwise incapacitated person, so that killing them is a duty to be performed before committing suicide.
Finally, and the hardest of the four to regard with sympathy, is murder-suicide as a quest for glory. The primary example Joiner considers is the Columbine killers, who hoped to exceed Timothy McVeigh's death toll, and might have, had their bombs worked. The carnage of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate might also be relevant examples of murder-suicide pursued in the interest of their leaders' heroic self-concept, which to anyone else just looks like grandiosity. Orchestrating mass death was as close to glory as they ever got.
Parsimony, too, is a virtue, though more of the intellectual than moral variety. Having narrowed the scope of the term "murder-suicide," with stress on the suicidal impulse as its driving force, Joiner takes an inductive leap by suggesting a four-part typology of the rationales perpetrators create for their violent actions. Near the end of the book, he points out that the virtues of mercy, justice, duty, and glory can be further reduced to two categories: "one, combining mercy and duty, in which feelings of care and empathy for others are high (if distorting) and another, combining justice and glory, in which callousness and carelessness predominate." But he stops short of pushing any further toward schematism. And a good thing too. Like any virtue, parsimony gone wrong becomes a vice.
Just what value does the taxonomy itself have? Joiner suggests that it could be useful in talking to patients considered potentially violent. People with plans for suicide can be extremely reticent to reveal much about themselves, but a carefully delivered question about some aspect of the four virtues might be useful in assessing their state of mind.
For the lay reader, there's a certain relief at learning some kind of order or intelligibility can be found amidst all the mayhem. If, in addition, the book prevents even one more horror of the kind it describes, it will have served its purpose.