söndag 8 april 2018

Social acceleration and time compression

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I had a eye-opening and mind-blowing conversation with a student at a seminar years and years ago. It made a big impression on me despite (or because of) the fact that I was mystified and just Could Not Grok her point of view. What that student said made little sense to me at the time, but I finally feel that I now have better tools to understand her strange behaviour. I got the tools with which to analyse her behaviour by reading Hartmut Rosa's book "Social Acceleration", a book that was published in German in 2005 and translated to English in 2013. I will eventually get around to writing a blog post about that book but I am currently more than one year behind in writing about books that I have read "recently". I hope to write about Rosa's book on the blog before the end of the year.

The student in question (I remember it was a woman but have no idea who it was) watched a lot of television series. I guess she might have kept up with one or several dozen series on a weekly basis. The behaviour of hers that I just could not understand was the fact that she watched television on her computer at a 25% higher-than-normal speed. So the actors' movements would be a bit jerky and they talked quicker and at a higher pitch, but she was OK with that as she said she had become accustomed to listening to high-speed speech. I, on the other hand, was dumbstruck and I still am to some extent. "But why?" I asked. The big gain for her was that she could now watch four television episodes instead of "only three" in a two-hour viewing block. I wasn't satisfied with her answer and prodded her; "you will not get the viewing experience the director intended" and "why not just choose your three favourite show and watch them at normal speed?" I asked, but she wouldn't budge. "But doesn't that make watching television a chore rather than a pleasure?" I asked. But I was led to understand that this worked for her, although I still didn't really understand (e.g. empathise with) her way of reasoning. Now on to Hartmut Rosa's analysis of social acceleration. Rosa is very interested in time, space, speed, pace and acceleration. From the back cover of his book:

"He identifies ... three categories of change in the tempo of modern social life: technological acceleration, evident in transportation, communication, and production; the acceleration of social change, reflected in cultural knowledge, social institutions, and personal relationships; and acceleration in the pace of social life" (my emphasis).

Acceleration in the pace of life means cramming more activities into each unit of time (each hour, day, month, year etc.) through four different forms of acceleration: "the speeding up of individual actions, the elimination of breaks, the temporal overlapping of activities (multitasking), and the replacement of temporally costly with time-saving activities" (p.129).

The student primarily "sped up the individual action" of watching television by 25% and this can be compared to walking faster, eating faster or reading faster. Although it's not the focus of this analysis, she might also have eliminated breaks for example by bringing the computer to kitchen so she could continue to watch the show while she prepared a snack or by skipping the opening and the ending credits. It might also be the case that she did something else while she watched television like ironing, like pumping iron or by simultaneously surfing on her smartphone. It could also be the case that she had replaced visits to the cinema by the more "efficient" habit of watching movies at home. It's probably possible to watch two movies at home in the time it takes to travel to the cinema and watch a movie there (especially if movies at home are sped up by 25%).

If you are stressed and feel you don't have enough time to do all you want to do, it might seem like a good idea to speed up the pace of life by cramming more activities into each hour. As apart from watching a movie in the cinema or watching broadcast television - where you can't control the speed - you don't have to settle for pining for a way that those sirup-slow dialogues could be sped up on your personal computer. There is thus a demand for a nifty movie player that allows you to speed up television-watching by 25% (e.g. technological acceleration). But still, why the need to do this in the first place? This is where the last type of acceleration, acceleration of social change enters the picture.

While today's proliferation of great television series might mean that you watch more and better television than ever before, the number of shows you manage to watch is still dwarfed by the supply of great shows you would like to watch. So despite watching more television than ever, the enormous supply still makes you feel like you are "falling behind". Perhaps you have a friend who watches show A, other friends who watch B and others again who watch show C. And then you've heard a lot about the new show D and you can't wait for the televised version of book series X to hit the screen. So you'd like to watch them all - and then some more. Which means you get stressed because it feels like you don't have time to watch everything you'd like to watch. Which you then "solve" by cramming more television into each hour (e.g. acceleration of the pace of life) by speeding up you television watching by 25% (e.g. technological acceleration). But then your friends do the same, and some of the people in the Facebook groups and the discussion boards you frequent seem to do nothing but watch television. Which exerts pressure on your expectation so that you would like to watch still more series (e.g. acceleration of social change). And so on. There is, in other words, a self-reinforcing feedback system in place - and not just when it comes to watching television but also in many other spheres of life. Do note that the increased pace of other people's (television viewing) habits also exert pressure on you to increase your pace so that you can keep up. That means it can be hard to unilaterally decrease your own pace when you live in a society where the general pace instead is turned up over time.

I haven't finished reading the book yet but it seems Rosa is not very optimistic about the possibilities of breaking this pattern (feedback loop) and of slowing down. But a possible slow-down might be the topic of another blog post (though to be honest, that blog post will probably never be written).

While preparing this blog post, I found two videos of Rosa that might work as shortcuts for learning more about his theories. Here's a 48 minutes long YouTube talk of his - but for those who are in hurry, here's the compressed 18 minute long TedTalk. I can't vouch for any of them as I haven't had time to listen to them yet, but I might after I have finished reading the book.
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