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.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading