March 29, 2015

Summary "Pressed for time" by Judy Wajcman

Pressed for time by Judy Wajcman
The acceleration of life in digital capitalism

The first and most measurable form of acceleration is the speeding up of transport, communication and production, which can be defined as technological acceleration. The second is the acceleration of social change, meaning that the rate of societal change is itself accelerating. The central idea here is that institutional stability (in the realms of the family and occupations, for example) is generally on the decline in the late modern societies. The third process is the acceleration of the pace of life. It is the focus of much discussion about cultural acceleration and the alleged need for deceleration. The pace of social life refers to the speed and compression of actions and experience in everyday life.

It only makes sense to apply the term acceleration society to a society if ‘technological acceleration and the growing scarcity of time (that is, an acceleration of the pace of life) occur simultaneously. Interrogating this time pressure, paradox is the central quest of my book.

As per Geographer David Harvey, the history of capitalism has been characterized by speedup in the pace of life, while space appears to shrink to a global village. For him, the driving forces behind social acceleration are globalization and innovation in ICT that facilitates the fast turnover of capital across the globe.  Fast capitalism annihilates space and time. Time becomes beyond control as distance disappears in a world of  instantaneous and simultaneous events.

Such discussion of acceleration typically invoke Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism and the constant need to speed up the circulation of capital. The faster that money can be turned into production of goods and services, the greater the power of capital to expand or valorize itself. With capitalism, time is money and when time is money, then faster means better. Technological innovations play a key role in that improvement in the conveyance of communication, commodities and bodies reduce the cost and time of capital circulation across the globe (what Marx called the annihilation of space by time). The extent to which such time-space compression would be fulfilled, however was unforeseen by Marx.

Electronic communication has increased this speed in exponential ways. The velocity of automated financial trading, which is now moving from milliseconds to microseconds (millionths of a second), has become emblematic. This is faster than human reaction times, which typically range from around 140 milliseconds for auditory stimuli to 200 milliseconds of visual stimuli. In this context, even a 5 second pause can seem like a very long time. Indeed, the exponential growth in Internet transmission speed over the last 100 years is accelerating to the point where data can be transferred at a sustained rate of 186 Gbps, a rate equivalent of moving 2 million GB in a single day.

Trading centers are large warehouses, consuming vast amounts of electric power to dissipate the heat generated by fast computing. There are relatively few staff, but rows and rows of computer servers and digital switches and miles of cabling connect those servers to the matching engines and the outside world. By today’s standards, a very large data center might be  a five hundred thousand square foot building demanding fifty megawatts of power, which is about how much it takes to light up a small city.

Moreover, contrary to perceived wisdom, the ultra-fast reaction time actually increases the importance of spatial distance,. It turns out that high-frequency trading firm's rent space for their computer servers in the same building as an exchange engineer precisely because the obdurate physical reality of collection is still important. For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone systems ever was.

French philosopher Paul Virilio, for whom issues of speed and technology are pivotal. For Virilio, speed, the cult of speed is the propaganda of progress and its consequences are devastating. Refreshingly, although Virilio is known as the ‘high priest of speed, he argues that speeding up is not unique to the digital age. Rather, he suggests that we can read the history of modernity as a series of innovations in ever increasing time compression. His analysis of speed encompasses 19th century transport (trains, cars, and airline) that dramatically shortened travel time, 20th century transmission (the telegraph, telephone, radio and computer & satellite communication) that have replaced succession and duration with simultaneity and instantiation that compress time by providing xenotransplantation and nanotechnology. Each of these technological innovation enhances the independence of the social relations of time from space and the body.

Virilio’s dromological law, which states that increase in speed increases the potential for gridlock, seems more and more apt. He is also aware that political conflict may ensue, because acceleration affects different individuals, groups, and classes in uneven ways. For instance, traffic jams and waiting time do not have the same impact on everyone as they money rich but time poor can use their wealth to purchase speed.

The more we become connected and dependent upon inter-connectivity in our jobs and other aspects of our lives, the more we will live in an accelerated mode. The most influential commonsense assumption about the relationship between technology and society is technological determinism. The key here is the idea that technology impinges on society from the outside that technical change is autonomous and itself causes social change.

We tend to overrate the impact of new technologies in part because older technologies have become absorbed into the furniture of our lives, so as to be almost invisible. Take the baby bottle. This technology might be thought of a classic time-shifting device as it enabled mothers to exercise more control over the timing of feeding. It also functions to save time as bottle feeding allows for someone else to substitute for the mother’s time.

The paths opened by the Internet are determined not by technological capabilities alone, but through a multitude of intricate social process in which a diverse array of actors with various goals participate in a rapidly evolving ecology of games. For example, search engines like Google, predispose uses to access well-linked and highly connected website and exclude poorly linked and less connected websites.

According to Carey, the telegraph was the critical instrument in making time the new frontier for commerce. Before the telegraph, markets were relatively independent of one another and the principle method of trading was arbitrage: buying cheap and selling dear by physically moving goods around. When the prices of commodities were equalized n space as a result of the telegraph, however, commodity trading moved from trading between places to trade between times, shifting speculation from space of time, from arbitrage to futures.

In order to develop futures markets required three conditions: that information moved faster than products, that prices were uniform in space and decontextualized and that commodities be separated from the receipts that represent them and be reduced to uniform grades. The shift of market activity from certain space to uncertain time was the first practical attempt to make time a new frontier, a newly defined zone of uncertainty and to penetrate it with the price system. In a sense the telegraph invented the future.

Economic historians Tim Leunig and Hans-Joachim Voth argue that mechanizing the production process of the car was a as valuable in terms of consumer welfare as inventing the internet and much more valuable than inventing mobile phone.

The popular promise of automobile speed was to be short lived as more and more car hit the road. The automobile and its infrastructure dominate most North American cities in the literal sense that vast tracts of land are required to accommodate it. Not only for the roads, but also for bridges, service stations and parking spaces. Half of all urban space is dedicated to the automobile. Rather like the experience of surfing the internet at a computer screen, the driver is both stationary and mobile at the same time.

As David Morley notes, despite all the talk of global flows, fluidity and hybridity and mobility, it is worth observing that in the UK at least, there is evidence that points to continued geographical sedentarism on the half majority of the population. Over half of British adults live within five miles of where they were born. Even in the more geographically mobile USA, two out of three people do not have a passport.

“The time we have to spend each day is elastic: it is stretched by the passions we feel; it is shrunk by those we inspire and all of it filled by habit.” - Marcel Proust, In search of Lost Time.

When we say that someone has more time than someone else, we mean to say that she has fewer constraints and more choices in how she can choose to spend her time,. She has more autonomous control over her time. Temporal autonomy is a matter of having discretionary control over your time.

Flexible working hours, 24/7 working time and contract work create coordination problems, as working times and locations are increasingly deregulated and scattered. Middle class tends to meet more by prearrangement, the working classes use public spaces to meet where there is a strong likelihood of meeting network members by chance. The widespread use of partially and totally prepared food reflects the desire to save time, as those with more money and less time buy more of it.  While family meals retail their symbolic scheduling problems in getting people together in the same place at the same time. For a significant proportion of people, planning to meet people becomes a major preoccupation.. While the market for convenience foods has increased exponentially, so too has the practice of eating out, even though it requires temporal and spatial coordination, Today half of the money used to buy food in the USA is spent in restaurants.

The pew internet survey describes most working Americans as networked workers because they use the three basic tools of the information age: internet, email and cell phone. Networked workers' jobs have also become more complex and demanding as they are continually required to update their skills to keep up with the latest technology.

Electronic technologies are integral to our experience of space, time, communication and consciousness, crystalline new ways of being, known and doing. They as much reflect our high speed culture as shape it. There is a disjunction between the cultural allure of speed and the common experience of always feeling rushed, but this can be a source of creative tension,. Smart, fast, technologies provide an unparalleled opportunity for realizing a more humane and just society, only we need to keep in mind that busyness is not a function of gadgetry but of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set. Now is the moment to contest the euphoria of speed and the technological impulse to achieve it, harnessing our inventiveness to take control of our time more of the time.

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