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.
In 2009, the Cornell Law Review published an article called “The Anti-Corruption Principle” by Zephyr Teachout, then a visiting assistant professor of law at Duke University. In it she maintained that that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were “obsessed” (that was Teachout’s word) with the dangers of political corruption – bribery, cronyism, patronage, the making of laws designed to benefit a few at the expense of public well-being, and so on.
Such practices, and the attitudes going with them, had eaten away, termite-like, at the ethos of the ancient Roman republic and done untold damage to the spirit of liberty in Britain as well. The one collapsed; the other spawned “rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know / but leech-like to their fainting country cling,” as Shelley in a poem about George III’s reign wrote some years later. But in Teachout’s reading, the framers were obsessed with corruption without being fatalistic about it. The best way to reduce the chances of corruption was by reducing the opportunities for temptation – for example, by preventing any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust” from “accepting any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without explicit permission from Congress. Likewise, a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches was, in part, an expression of the anti-corruption principle.
Teachout indicated in a footnote that her argument would be expanded in a forthcoming book, called The Meaning of Corruption, due out the following year. It was delayed. For one thing, Teachout moved to Fordham University, where she is now an associate professor of law. And for another, her law-review article gained the unusual eminence of being cited by two Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia and John Paul Roberts, in their opinions concerning the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision.
Now Teachout’s book has appeared as Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, from Harvard University Press – an appreciably livelier title, increasing the likelihood (now pretty much a certainty) that it will inform the thinking of many rank-and-file Democratic Party supporters and activists.
Whether it will resonate with their leaders beyond the level of campaign rhetoric is another matter. Each of the two parties has a revolving door between elected office and the lobbying sector. While discussing the book here last week, I mentioned that suspicion and hostility toward lobbying were conspicuous in American political attitudes until fairly recently. They still are, of course, but with nothing like the intensity exhibited when the state of Georgia adopted a constitution outlawing the practice in 1877: “Lobbying is declared to be a crime, and the General Assembly shall influence this provision by suitable penalties,” including a prison sentence of up to five years. Other efforts to curtail lobbying were less severe, though nonetheless sharper than today’s statutes requiring lobbyists to register and disclose their sources of funding.
“[T]he practice of paying someone else to make one’s arguments to people in authority,” writes Teachout, “threatened to undermine the moral fabric of civil society…. In a lobbyist-client relationship, the lobbyist, by virtue of being a citizen, has a distinct relationship to what he himself might believe. He is selling his own citizenship, or one of the obligations of his own citizenship, for a fee.”
The lobbyist’s activity is “more akin to selling the personal right to vote than selling legal skills,” as a lawyer does. Nor is that the only damage lobbying does to the delicate ecology of mutual confidence between state and citizen. It “legitimates a kind of routine sophistry and a casual approach towards public argument. It leads people to distrust the sincerity of public arguments and weakens their own sense of obligation to the public good” – thereby creating “the danger of a cynical political culture.” (So that’s how we got here.)
Clearly something went wrong. The anti-corruption principle, as Teachout formulates it, entails more than the prevention of certain kinds of acts – say, bribery. It’s also supposed to strengthen the individual citizen’s faith in and respect for authority while also promoting the general welfare. But private interest has a way of seeing itself as public interest, as exemplified in a railroad lobbyist’s remarks to Congress during the Gilded Age: If someone “won’t do right unless he’s bribed to do it,” he said, “…I think it’s a man’s duty to go up and bribe him.”
Teachout refers to an erosion of the anti-corruption principle over time, but much of her narrative documents a recurring failure to give anti-corruption laws teeth. “Criminal anticorruption laws were particularly hard to prosecute” during the 19th century, she writes, because “the wrongdoers – the briber and the bribed – had no incentive to complain,” while “the defrauded public was dispersed, with no identifiable victim who would drive the charge.” The concept of corruption has dwindled to that bribery defined as quid pro quo in the narrowest possible terms: “openly asking for a deal in exchange for a specific government action.”
In a colloquy appearing in the Northwestern University Law Review, Seth Barrett Tillman, a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, suggests that a core problem with Teachout’s argument is that it overstates how single-mindedly anti-corruption the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually were. The Articles of Confederation made broader anti-corruption provisions on some points, for example.
And “if the Framers believed that corruption posed the chief danger to the new Republic,” he writes, “one wonders why corrupt Senate-convicted and disqualified former federal officials were still eligible to hold state offices—offices which could indirectly affect significant operations of the new national government—and were also (arguably) eligible to hold congressional seats, thereby injecting corrupt officials directly into national policy-making.”
Concerned about corruption? Definitely. “Obsessed” with it? Not so much. There is much to like about Teachout’s book, but treating the framers of the Constitution as possessing the keys to resolving 21st-century problems seems extremely idealistic, and not in a good way.