Home / About / Lectures / Catalogue / Education / Italian
Artists: Tamy Ben-Tor / Marnix de Nijs / Mark Formanek / Marzia Migliora / Julius Popp / Reynold Reynolds / Jens Risch / Michael Sailstorfer / Arcangelo Sassolino / Fiete Stolte
Zygmunt Bauman
Sandra Bonfiglioli
James Bradburne

Andrea Ferrara
Antonio Glessi
Alessandro Ludovico
Franziska Nori
Hartmut Rosa
 
Reflections on time as a raw material
Or why modernity is a history of acceleration



If we consider time as a 'raw material' in modern society, we are immediately struck by a perception of its ever-increasing scarcity. The feeling that everything of any duration lasts too long and that we need to go faster and faster just to stay in place or to keep up is part of the very essence of the modern sensibility. Not that this concept was just discovered in this early 21st century: on the contrary, it has been denounced by generation after generation since the mid-1700s.
Observations to this effect can be found in Goethe (as in Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin), who stressed the urgent need to put on the emergency break. The lack of time seems to increase hand in hand with the acceleration of countless processes of daily life; means of transportation move faster, information is transmitted faster, merchandise produced faster, and fashions become outdated faster. A pinnacle within this acceleration process is unquestionably Internet. Representing in a certain sense the realization of a utopia, Internet is a place-less structure through which all information is exchanged in 'real time'; in other words, it is transferred without the delay caused by spatial distance which means that social contacts can be established instantly.
Nonetheless it is not immediately obvious why this multidimensional process of acceleration provokes the sensation of a lack of time. From a strictly logical point of view, if we need less time to cover a given distance or to produce a given item, we should be in less of a rush, given that we should thus have more free time. So where does our impression of the scarcity of time come from?
To understand the real change in the perceived characteristics of time in the modern age, we need to analyze the nature of the acceleration process typical of modernity. One notion, which is often expressed rather superficially (even in scientific writings) and with the weight of a cultural critique, claims that 'everything' progresses faster in modern society because of a 'universal acceleration' of social processes.
This claim, however, is both misleading and false. First, it is misleading because it suggests that the phenomenon of acceleration is the manifestation of a single, unvarying process (whose causes remain obscure, although the capitalist economy, the secularized culture of the modern era, advances in technology and means of mass communication, the nation state and the military are generally cited as the driving forces behind this process of acceleration). Anyway, the possibility to move from place to place more quickly, trends such as fast food and speed dating, and the ever-faster succession from one fad or fashion to the next are in fact quite distinct phenomena. Secondly, the claim is false given that it is completely obvious that there are many aspects that cannot be accelerated, regardless of our intentions. In fact, some phenomena have even slowed down in the process of modernization.
Therefore, to better understand the relationship between modernity and time, it is crucial to systematically distinguish the social spheres in which such acceleration processes actually occur from those in which the inverse process of deceleration occurs, or at least in which there is a sort of 'stiffening' of time. As for whether or not it is suitable to describe the history of the modern age as a history of acceleration, we must determine quite exactly the relationship between deceleration and acceleration, between movement and stasis. In the pages that follow, I will try to do just that. First I will identify three distinct 'dimensions' of social acceleration, which will be countered with five categories of immobility. In the last section, I will outline how, in the modern age, forces of acceleration have systematically prevailed over tendencies towards immobility and slowing down.

1) Three dimensions of social acceleration

a)    Technical acceleration
The most visible and influential form of acceleration is the intentional, technical and especially technological (that is mechanical) acceleration of procedures working towards a particular purpose. This phenomenon is most evident in transportation, communication and the production of goods and services. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution-which could reasonably be called an acceleration revolution-the phenomenon has evolved extraordinarily; speed of movement multiplied at least a hundredfold, the speed of data processing a thousandfold, and the transfer of information exponentially-with an exponent seven to ten figures long. This increase in the speed of transportation and communication is at the root of the experience of the 'contraction of space', so typical of the modern age. The more easily and rapidly we can traverse distances, the more they seem to shrink.

b)    Acceleration of social changes
The increase in technical velocity, however, is not the only cause of the overall acceleration of modern existence. Our ways of living together-models of relationships and social practices-have also undergone increasingly rapid changes. The fact that old neighbors move out and new ones move in more frequently, that the duration of our jobs and of our relationships with life partners (or anyway, part of our lives) have a shorter and shorter lifespan, and that fashions, automobile models and musical styles bloom and wither at a more and more feverish pace are not logical consequences of technological acceleration. Instead they are part of a social phenomenon that can be defined in terms of the acceleration of social change. This also implies a decrease in the average lifespan of our knowledge not only in scientific fields but also in the routines of our daily lives: our knowledge of our friends' addresses and telephone numbers, the use of computer programmes, cell phones and microwave ovens, political platforms, sports champions, investments and training programmes must be updated more and more frequently. In every sphere of our lives, we run the risk of not 'keeping up with the times'. Hermann Lübbe describes this phenomenon as a continual "contraction of the present". If the present, that is today, stands for what is valid, yesterday-that is, what is no longer valid-and tomorrow, what is not yet valid-begin to merge more and more. This applies equally to politics, art and culture, and to family life and professional life. The acceleration of social changes can be convincingly highlighted by contrasting the speed of diffusion of certain innovations: the radio, invented at the end of the 1800s, took thirty-eight years to reach fifty million listeners; television, introduced a quarter of a century later, reached the same number in only thirteen years, while Internet reached its 50 millionth connection in a mere four years.

c)    Acceleration of the pace of life
The third category of social acceleration is represented by the fact that we are all literally trying to live in a greater rush, increasing the number of actions and experiences per unit of time and thus doing more things in less time. Underlying this desire to accelerate is our sensation of a lack of time since the number of things we want or have to do increases so rapidly that the time saved thanks to technical acceleration is no longer sufficient. This acute 'need for time' is the permanent condition of modern society. There are three ways to increase our pace. The first is to finish more things in a given period of time (whether that be a day or a week). When 'we do things in more of a rush', we increase the speed of our actions, taking less time to chew or to pray, for example. Fast food, speed dating (that is, meeting the greatest number of potential partners in the least possible time), the power nap (a most efficient short sleep) or quality time with one's children (dedicating the least possible time to the children without leaving them feeling neglected or unloved) are all examples of this model. The second way is to shorten or completely avoid pauses and downtime through a wise use of time and the elimination of waiting periods. Everything must proceed seamlessly. The third and most thriving and promising way to increase the pace of life is multitasking. The more things I manage to do simultaneously, the more actions I can pack into a given period of time. We all experience such possibilities of acceleration.

2) Five categories of immobility

a)    Natural speed limits
Not everything has gained speed in the modern age, however. Our attempts at acceleration come up against natural speed limits, especially in the (geo)physical, biological and anthropological spheres, which involve processes whose duration and velocity are difficult, if not impossible, to manipulate. This holds for the speed limits of the mind (for example, as regards perception, information processing, reactions, and regeneration) as well as those of the body (for example, the processes of growth or recovery from a disease). It is likewise true of the time needed for the reproduction of natural raw materials, such as the transformation of marine sediment into oil. Perhaps one of the most serious speed limits is the capacity of the earth's ecosystem to dispose of toxic waste. Nor can the rhythm of the days and the years be accelerated. Certain secondary effects, however, can be manipulated or simulated, for example by modifying the temperature with heating and cooling systems or transforming night into day with artificial light. In agriculture, certain efforts to increase the natural speed of biological processes have been successful.
For example, the egg production of hens increases in speed when their day is shortened to twenty-three hours by adjusting the artificial light. Plant growth can also be stimulated through special techniques. Fruit trees have been cultivated in such a way as to reach maximum fruit production after only four or five years, although they turn sterile rather quickly thereafter; they are, one could say, 'disposible' trees.
In all cases in which the acceleration of social processes is blocked by natural speed limits, efforts are made to overcome it, often with surprising results. Thus we must be cautious about postulating the existence of absolute speed limits. Above all, we must not be too quick to regard the insecurity and stress caused by the formidable pressure towards acceleration as insurmountable obstacles. In the past, automobile and train passengers travelling at the speed of twenty kilometers per hour thought they had reached the limits that could be borne by the human mind and body; even doctors warned of the dire consequences of exceeding a speed of twenty-five or thirty kilometers per hour. Similar risks associated with the 'experience of the limit' were confirmed by the fact that travelers felt ill when they stared out of the car window. In fact, they had not yet acquired a 'panoramic' vision; they had not learned to sweep over space with their eyes. Today we can hardly bear to travel at these 'speeds'.
Meanwhile, doctors and psychologists claim to have found evidence that shows that children and young people adapt much better to the new dimension of multitasking than adults. Cognitive processes seem able to override anthropological time limits. This does not rule out the possibility, however, that the human organism has an absolute operational limit, which however can be bypassed through the use of new biotechnologies.


b)    Islands of deceleration
Independently of external speed limits, we also find some 'oases of deceleration', whether geographical, cultural or social, which have remained entirely or partially beyond the pale of the acceleration processes of modernity. In these places, (such as the renowned South Pacific Islands), groups (for example, communities such as the Amish in Ohio), or practical contexts (such as certain university administrative offices with their weighty bureaucracy or in the widely-seen Jack Daniel's commercial from Tennessee), time seems to literally 'stand still'. This banal expression applies to a social form that manages to resist temporal acceleration, becoming increasingly anachronistic within its social context. Here the hands of the clock move at the same speed as they did one hundred years ago.
In the era of globalization, such 'oases of deceleration' are being incessantly eroded. The time gap separating them from the surrounding world, with its capacity for and will to acceleration, becomes increasingly large and costly, while at the same time their 'breaking power' grows when they come into contact with the accelerated world. Of course this erosion does not affect places and activities created intentionally as islands of deceleration (such as 'oases of well-being'), which thus form part of the third category of deceleration discussed below. As they become increasingly rare, these islands of deceleration acquire a 'nostalgic' value, representing a kind of promise.

c)    Slowing down as an involuntary secondary consequence
In modern society, a slowing down or complete stopping of movement often occurs as an involuntary secondary consequence of the processes of acceleration. The classic example is the traffic jam; indeed due to ever-increasing congestion, the average speed of traffi c in densely populated areas has been declining for years. A form of pathological deceleration can be seen in depression syndromes: evidence increasingly suggests that these disturbances can be interpreted as dysfunctional reactions to the social pressure to accelerate. People suffering from depression often have the impression that time has stopped or transformed into a tough, solid mass.
This slowing down, however, does not only occur as a secondary consequence caused by the processes of acceleration, but also-and actually even more-as a consequence of phenomena of desynchronization (conditioned by acceleration) in the form of waiting times. If various different processes must adapt to each other in terms of time, acceleration produces friction in the points of synchronization. This can be easily perceived in daily life whenever fast processes encounter 'straggling' ones. A faster system is inevitably held back by a slower one.
In these situations, the (transitory) desynchronization produces a significant, actual slowdown, for example when complex productive chains lose their pace to such an extent that they are effectively brought to a standstill. The sensation of the lag arises especially where different speeds come into contact, even if there are no actual moments of full paralysis. An interesting example is a PC user's impatience and exasperation when the Internet search engine works too slowly. This case too is a problem of synchronization: the computer simulates a dialogue and answers the questions, but at a speed that would be intolerable in a real dialogue. This induces the feeling of being 'held back' by the computer when in fact it is saving us enormous amounts of time.

d)    Two forms of intentional deceleration
Clearly distinct from the phenomena of involuntary deceleration are various deliberate attempts and often ideologically motivated movements to decelerate society. These can in turn be divided into those deceleration pressures whose goal is to maintain or even increase functional, accelerative capacity (which in the final analysis are actually acceleration strategies), and genuine slowdown movements, which often identify themselves as an opposition with anti-modern characteristics and values. Let us examine this category first.

(1) Deceleration as ideology
In the history of the modern age, the various waves of acceleration have always been accompanied by an opposing call for a radical deceleration, as witnessed by, for example, resistance movements against power looms, railways or radio antennae. The appeal of and for deceleration often fuses with a profound critique of modernity and a protest against (any further) modernization. This phenomenon should hardly surprise us, however, if it is true that the modernization process can be more or less accurately defined as an acceleration process. Nostalgia for a lost world-a more stable, tranquil world- is supported by a fantasy image of pre-modernity, which in social protest mentality is intertwined with fantasies of a post-modernity or of a decelerated counter-modernity.
In effect, the most radical political positions of the twenty-first century seem to be increasingly take a stand against progressive development and for the conservation of what exists now. According to Peter Glotz, deceleration is an 'aggressive ideology' disseminated by a rapidly rising social class which feels victimized by a modernity that has renounced socialism as a guiding revolutionary ideal. The deceleration movement promises a "new well-being thanks to a generalized slowing down." It is organized in intellectual or people's associations, such as the 'union for slow time' or the 'happily unemployed'.
While these fantasies of radical deceleration are quite widespread on the level of ideas, debates, conferences and writings, only rarely do they translate into concrete action. This is partially because the cost of individual deceleration is growing all the time; those who attempt to exempt themselves from the pressures of a relentless pace (by joining a sect, setting up an ecological farm, plunging into a drug culture where time is forgotten, etc.) risk losing all contact and the possibility of return. On the other hand, many of our daily needs to slow down the pace are so selective that they end up getting in each other's way. In our desire to dedicate time to ourselves, we require that everyone else hurry up, from the cashier in the supermarket to the clerk in the tax office.

(2) Deceleration as a strategy of acceleration
Processes and institutions seeking temporal deceleration, not to be confused with ideological movements, are of enormous importance for the functional capacity of modern society. At times, slowdown strategies put into practice by individuals or social organizations in fact provide the conditions for the acceleration of other processes.
On an individual level, staying in a monastery, attending meditation courses or practicing yoga are all activities that fit within this category insofar as they ultimately serve the goal of handling better-that is, more quickly-one's professional, personal and daily life. Thus they represent artificial oases of deceleration that serve to 'charge the batteries' and 'pick up speed'. The strategies of acceleration through deceleration also include attempts to master a greater number of 'bits' of knowledge in a short time by intentionally slowing down certain learning processes or efforts to increase one's capacity for innovation and creativity by conscious pauses.
On the collective level, especially in politics, various forms of delay are applied in an analogous manner in order to gain time for the solution of technical, legal or environmental problems which are thought to obstruct modernization. Acceleration itself has become possible in crucial sectors of social life thanks to the fact that key institutions and topics, such as the law, mechanisms of political control and the organization of labour and working hours, being utterly exempt from change, have provided a sense of predictability, security in expectations, and stability in planning -all factors forming the very foundations of economic, technical and scientific acceleration. The present neo-liberal attempts to eradicate all barriers to the 'global market' could actually have the opposite effect, resulting in the collapse of the dynamics of development and economic recession or depression. Perhaps the greatest threat to the modern acceleration project of modern times comes not from its ideological enemies, who have lost every battle up until now, but from within, from its own excessive growth.

e)    Structural and cultural stiffening
One of the most unambiguous forms of deceleration is the phenomenon of cultural and structural stiffening, which, in a paradox of the modern age, is inextricably linked to manifestations of acceleration. Here we are referring especially to those trends that have propounded theories of 'the end of history', the 'depletion of utopian energies', or the insoluble 'cultural crystallization'. These theories share the diagnosis of a paralyzing standstill in the evolution of modern societies. This diagnosis is nourished by the suspicion that these societies' seemingly infinite openness and rapid transformation are simply screens of the 'user interface', while in reality the underlying structure is undergoing an imperceptible stiffening process.
Even though nothing stays as it is, nothing essential changes. Behind the colourful screen is nothing more than the return of the eternal sameness. This is the verdict of proponents of the 'stiffening theory', who are most eloquently represented by the metaphor of frenzied standstill and who in the end swell the ranks of the opposing, complementary side of the dynamics of acceleration. This form of deceleration does not clash with social acceleration nor does it constitute a dysfunctional secondary consequence; it is an internal element, a principle that complements the acceleration process. Apparently, the more this process advances, the more oppressive is the tendency towards crystallization.

3) The relationship between movement and immobility in the modern age

All that has been said so far clearly demonstrates the unsustainability of the widespread opinion that everything has speeded up with the advent of modernity. In fact, many things have stayed the same, whether fast or slow, and others have actually slowed down. This obsessively repeated formula reflects a deep conviction of the modern age that there is a continual shifting in the balance between the pressure to immobility and the pressure to movement. Having identified the forms of social acceleration and deceleration, we are now in a position to specify their relationship and determine the validity of this modern belief. There are two possibilities in this regard. The first is that, over a given period of time, the forces of immobility and those of movement are largely in equilibrium; that is, acceleration and deceleration processes are equally represented in the society's temporal structures so that no dominant tendency can be established in the long run. The second possibility is that movement and acceleration predominate. This diagnosis is justified when the manifest elements of slowdown and immobility can be recognized as residual or reactive.
At this point, I would claim that this condition is in fact satisfied in modern society because none of the deceleration phenomena mentioned so far represent a counter-tendency equal in force to the accelerative dynamics of modernity. The phenomena within the natural speed limits and islands of deceleration categories involve current (in regression) limits of social acceleration, but in no way can they represent a counter-force. The slowing down described by the third category, involuntary secondary consequences, are by definition consequences of acceleration and as such, dependent on and secondary to the processes of acceleration. Ideological resistance to social acceleration discussed in d.1) are reactions to the pressures of acceleration. Even leaving aside the failure of this resistance to date, it still cannot be considered an autonomous social force; on the contrary, it could be considered 'parasitic'. Finally, the processes classified in category d.2), deceleration as strategies of acceleration, are crucial for the process of acceleration. In fact, they must be counted among its requisite conditions and clearly then do not represent a counter-tendency.
The only processes that cannot be interpreted simply as reactive or residual phenomena are the processes of cultural and structural stiffening classified in the fifth category. These seem to be fundamental to the process of acceleration and thus inextricably linked to modernity. They represent the paradoxical, opposite side of the process of modernization, and will assumedly proliferate or fade away along with the forces of acceleration. Thus the history of the modern era is indeed a history of acceleration, even if in the end it may lead to a condition in which frenzied change is indistinguishable from complete immobility.  


 
top
 
CCCS
Palazzo Strozzi