You can summon a car on your phone, watch it spin unreasonably on the map, and before arriving home, you have the option to pre-order dinner. News briefings are 24/7. To get your undivided attention, Red Bull prefers micro-videos for content that is already compelling. Smart cities vacuum up data in real time. Express shipping for socks. “Order now, pick up in store”. “Tired of Being Tired” tablets and faster broadband. This is the age of speed. ‘A dashing from one impression to the other, an impatience of enjoyment, a fixation on cramming in, in the shortest possible time, as many excitements, interests and pleasures as possible’. ‘With every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life’, modern man has learned to cope with ‘the continuous shift of external and internal stimuli’.
That was Georg Simmel, in 1903. In The Metropolis & Mental Life, he described the pace of modern cities and was one of the first to talk about the blasé attitude of urban dwellers today. Because it was relevant then. To deal with countless stimuli and the city rhythms of industrial capitalism, he said, the individual has no choice but to develop a level of indifference. A resistance to being overstimulated. Simply put, ours is probably not the age of speed the way we single it out to be. It is an age of speed, for sure, but we are more adapted than we like to admit. Smartphones are blamed for our attention span. “The articles of our newspapers must be chopped up into little spicy bits for consumption”. Our current discontent with long reads was also a late 19th century discontent, when Clifford Allbutt noted this in his 1895 essay. He talked about ‘neurotic traffic’. The sense of being rushed, of an attention span that becomes shorter and shorter and of fast living has a long history. Finding parallels does not mean reducing one period to another, but if history often runs on analogies, we have never really been the only ones running.
I took these observations out of context because it becomes funny to argue that acceleration is exclusive to the digital era. I used to play the PC version of Need for Speed after school (days of glory). If you take all the titles in the EA series, you have an adequate vocabulary to talk like a sociologist. “Hot Pursuit”, “High Stakes”, “Nitro”, “Unleashed”, “The Run”, “No Limits”. It is not an exaggeration to say that these have been buzzwords in seminal texts from early sociology to postmodern philosophy. We have been contemplating speed for a while now. How do innovations in mobile technology of the last two decades compare to hopping on the first electric passenger train in the late 1870s? From the telegraph to the telephone, time became literally compressed. If today ‘anytime, anywhere’ is not surprising, advances in transmission technology feel radical because time is as imagined as it is real. Speed is both objective and perceived. Before anything else then, “high-speed living” is a mode of experience; and for long enough for us to have agency over it. How hurried are we really?
With time scarcity being a commonly treated topic in social scientific papers, press articles tend to pick out the darker arguments as usual. Are we addicted to speed? Can we slow down? How do you downshift? Here’s a list of self-help guides to time management. Here’s another one. Clearly,much of our discontent is based on valid concerns. A survey by mobile management provider Good Technology (of working adults in the US) found that more than 80% of respondents continued work after leaving the office. Half of them routinely checked the work email inbox in bed. “Before the emergence of wireless telephony, the boundary between work and home life was reflected in the separation of business and home phone lines (with separate numbers). This was one of the principal ways that many people controlled their time. The most widely noted feature of the mobile phone is that it affords the possibility of ‘perpetual contact’” (For an academic perspective that is very pleasant to read, see Judy Wajcman). ‘Perpetual contact’ then creates a sense of speeding up. In other words, the tempo of daily life is not so much based on the measurable speed of live streaming or the Eurostar as on the pressure we feel we are under.
Somerset House has a new exhibition of immersive installations called 24/7: A wake-up call for our non-stop world. Their promotional content is night-time photos sampling Douglas Coupland’s “Slogans for the 21st Century”. “It’s not an illusion. Time is moving faster”, “I miss my pre-internet brain”, “I want my time back”. So do I after the double-chinned, 30-minute scroll in a puffer jacket, having come home late and ready to shower. I tell myself I’ll sit down for a minute and half an hour later, I am still zipped up to the neck like a stranger in my own house. Second-hand embarrassment but I am both the observer and the fool. I stand up humbled. Other than that, I do ask where time went. I haven’t been to the Somerset House exhibition for one thing (and art criticism is out of my league), but it sounds determinist. The trouble with phrases like “I want my time back” and then-and-now dichotomies is their assumption that time practices are out of our control.
The problem is our inherent ambivalence. We switch off to slow down and turn back to technology to save time. We like mobile wallets as much as counting coins and holding the queue. Feeling hurried is draining but telling someone you are busy is a good ego boost. The post-industrial tempo is irritating, but also comforting. When we get the chance to slow down, we dread boredom. Our “always on”, “up-to-the-minute” digital content, meant to excite, thrill or rapidly inform, is at the same time sedative. Although we associate speed with intensity and strong experience, after a long day, we knowingly run through a stream of news and pick action-packed films to unwind. Nothing is inevitable about the way we adapt to and appropriate technology and its paces. If it has changed banking, global patterns of consumption and how frequently your mum supervises your cooking, it’s because of parameters we set ourselves.
In the 1980s, Paul Virilio coined the term dromocracy [Ancient Greek: δρόμος, dromos ‘racetrack’] because he believed, among other critical theorists, that the essence of speed is power. Who can move faster? Speed and politics have been inseparable since antiquity and socioeconomic imbalances are reflected in this dynamic. Sometimes only symbolically, sometimes more tangibly. Time is money and money buys speed. Once a Concorde flight, now fast-track airport security. From and to London Heathrow, you can be ahead of the game and get the Heathrow Express! (A small note here and I quote their website: “Heathrow Express is the business class airport transfer service.” The average number of passengers is 17,000 a day. Standard tickets, you see, sell well but you can always upgrade to Business First. A little louder for the beekeepers in the back: Business First tickets for a 15-minute trip already classified as a premium means of transport. “Extra leg room”. For a 15-minute trip. I’ll leave this here.)
Fast living is more often than not celebrated. When we say that phenomena are culturally located or constructed, when we speak of any sort of culture (labour culture, machismo culture, Silicon Valley culture etc.), the first thought is that there is something problematic to unpack. And for valid reasons usually. The same goes for what we may call time culture. Yet how we value, allocate, prioritize and waste time, from hours to years, in bed and in airports, alone or together, is too complex to fit in one category of meaning. In what ways, for example, is the sense of being rushed convenient? Running around, booked and active from morning to night, we think well of ourselves. Busyness, hustle and noise are distractions we start to seek after a while in stillness. Stillness gives way to thoughts. The Sunday night blues, the summer blues – they are proof that we have not learned to be comfortable in slowed time. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry knew better.
“Good morning” said the little prince.
“Good morning” said the merchant.
He was a merchant selling sophisticated pills intended to quench one’s thirst.
If a single pill was swallowed once a week, the need to drink disappeared.
“Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince.
“Because it saves a lot of time” said the merchant.
“Experts have worked it all out. You save fifty-three minutes a week.”
“And what does one do with those fifty-three minutes?”
“Whatever one wishes.”
“If I had fifty-three minutes to spend,” said the little prince,
“I would walk very slowly towards a spring of fresh water…”
As Wajcman put it: the question should not always be how do we save time, but what do we want to save time for?
A good read: