Why do we feel more harried and rushed these days than we did in the not-too-distant past, say ten or 20 years ago? The common perception is that technology is largely to blame for our current “acceleration society”. We’re tuned into computerized devices for large portions of our day, if not constantly, and daily life has largely become a desire for instant gratification coupled with the feeling that we can’t keep up. But is technology really solely responsible for our current perceptions of time, and the lack of it? Author and London School of Economics sociology professor Judy Wajcman attempts to answer these questions and more in her new book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism.
There have been numerous studies and books written about the perceived evils of technology, and it’s easy to use technology as a convenient scapegoat for the social and psychological ills of modern times. Wajcman sees things a bit differently, though; to her, it’s really more of a gray area. Even though in some ways we live in a world where technological advancements don’t always provide the time saving benefits they were purportedly designed for, historic shifts going back 50 years or more in work patterns and family dynamics (including gender roles), as well as changing patterns of consumption are equally to blame for our present feelings of time pressure.
A major focus of the book is the juxtaposition of technology’s impacts. For every negative, there’s a positive, and vice-versa. For example, in many cases, technological advancements have indeed freed up more of our time, yet we feel the need to fill this extra time. Multi-tasking and busyness are valued and encouraged in today’s work and social spheres, while single-task focus or idleness is not. In fact, with the proliferation of electronic devices the line between work and leisure time is increasingly blurred. In addition, our electronics-based consumer society has reached the point where time seems scarce because, as Wajcman says, “it is impossible to consume the vast array of products and services on offer.”
On the other hand, mobile devices and online tools can have positive aspects in relation to time and social connections. Writing about teens, Wajcman notes that instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter can provide a “full-time intimate community”, and provide the ability to “extend, enhance, and hang out with people they already know in their offline lives.” These tools change the parameters of time, “making possible new kinds of emotional proximity that are less anchored in shared time and geography.” Partially quoting the words of sociologist Richard Harper, Wajcman reminds us that “teenagers don’t bewail the fact that they have too many messages. They communicate the most and yet delight in it.” Growing up with an all-pervasive technological realm allows one better skills for integrating it into daily life and not feel overwhelmed.
She closes her study with a chapter titled “Finding Time in a Digital Age”. It’s less of a “how-to” than a summarizing of her main points and an argument that to feel less harried, we need to readjust our relationships with time. The digital age is not going to go away, so rather than approach it as if we’re in a “crisis”, Wajcman says a more balanced way to live is to use the latest technologies as “a resource in our quest for discretionary time”, keeping in mind that “busyness is not a function of gadgetry but of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set.”
Though the book is being targeted at a general audience, as “accessible and engaging” (according to the dust jacket), unfortunately the writing style has a tendency to read like a thesis in parts (in fact, she even starts one sentence, “My thesis is that…”.) Most chapters are constructed in a format that starts with a run-through describing what she will attempt to describe and explain, and how she will do it and when she will do it, with a separate conclusion section at the end of the chapter. This approach, as if it were an academic text, occasionally interrupts the flow.
On the plus side, Wajcman’s academic method results in a thorough examination of prior and contemporary literature on the topic and draws on a large background of research. Technology and society are not mutually exclusive, and their relationship remains the underlying theme of the book, as summarized early on in the first chapter:
Rather than simply compressing time, information technologies change the very nature and meaning of tasks and work activities. Moreover, like the mobile phone, the Internet generates new kinds of material and cultural practices, reconfiguring the temporal and spatial basis of social interaction. It makes sense, then, to think about the relationship between technology and time as one of ongoing mutual shaping.
Pressed for Time contains a wealth of thought-provoking ideas and suggests new ways of looking at how we fit in as individuals, and as a culture, with the rapid evolution of the time and technology relationship. And as such, it’s a very timely book.