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Do Digital Technologies Enhance the Speed of Our Lives?

A conversation with Judy Wajcman

Judy Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism and the editor of The Sociology of Speed: Digital, Organisational and Social Temporalities. In the following interview, she talks to Public Seminar about her work on our experience of time in the digital age, and gives an exclusive insight into her current research on tech culture and electronic calendars/scheduling software.

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Public Seminar (PS): Thank you for taking the time to do an interview with us, Judy. I would like to start this interview by asking what made you decide to write a book on our experience of time in the digital age?

Judy Wajcman (JW): I’m a sociologist of work, and I have always been interested in the relationship between technology and time. I was influenced by historians (such as E.P. Thompson) who wrote about how integral the spread of the mechanical clock was to the rise of the factory system and the commodification of labor under industrial capitalism. As Lewis Mumford famously said, it was the clock, not the steam engine, which was the key invention of the Industrial Revolution. It institutionalized our modern time consciousness as linear, chronological, clock time.

It was against this background that I became intrigued by the fact that everywhere nowadays we hear that time is speeding up: that the pace of everyday life is accelerating; everyone complains about how time pressed and busy they are. And I was struck by how many social theorists, such as Bauman, Castells, Giddens, Rosa and Virilio, were all arguing that digitalization was spawning a new temporality of acceleration. While such theories are ostensibly concerned with how information and communication technologies are reshaping our experience of time, too often they take the form of grand, totalizing narratives, with little substantive interest in the specific, located settings in which temporality is made together with devices and instruments.

So I wanted to look at the empirical evidence for these grand universalizing claims about speed and time. I know a lot about time-use surveys and it is clear from them that it is mothers, especially single working mothers, who are most pressed for time. These male theorists never mention this or housework time or affective labor. So, at the very least, as a feminist, I wanted to draw attention to these neglected aspects of the experience of hurriedness.

PS: The thesis at the heart of your book is that temporal demands are not inherent to technologies, but built into our devices by all-too-human schemes and desires. You claim that it is our own concrete social practices that generate those qualities of technologies we usually consider as intrinsic and permanent. Could you explain to us why you think a “social shaping approach to technology” is important?

JW: The most influential commonsense assumption about the relationship between technology and society is still “technological determinism”. Few would explicitly subscribe to this theory but it is pervasive. It has several versions, but in its strongest version, it is the claim that technological innovation is the most important cause of change in society. Key here is the idea that technology impinges on society from the outside, that technical change is autonomous, and itself causes social change. By contrast, the founding principle of the social shaping approach is that all technologies are inherently social in that they are designed, produced, used and governed by people.

Perhaps it is worth saying that my objection to technological determinism was and is political as well as intellectual. Many of us who got involved in the development of the field in the 1980s, what is now known as science and technology studies (STS), had a simple polemical purpose, to shake the stranglehold that a naïve determinism had on the dominant understanding of the intertwining of society and technology. We were concerned that this view presents a limited set of options for democratic engagement: uncritical embracing of technological change, defensive adaptation to it, or simple rejection of it. Against this, STS had its origins in a belief that the content and direction of technological innovation are amenable to sociological analysis and to political intervention.

The social shaping approach, then, emphasizes that artifacts are socially shaped, not only in their usage, but also in their design and technical content. Crucially, such an analysis rejects the notion that technology is solely the product of rational technical imperatives. A range of social factors affect which of the technical options are selected, and these choices shape technologies and their social implications. In this way, technology can be thought of as a sociotechnical product, patterned by the conditions of its creation and use. In other words, technologies are crystallizations of society; they bear the imprint of the people and social context in which they develop. Our societies, our identities and our experience of time are shaped together with technologies.

PS: Another important point you make in your book is that there is no single story about the way in which digital technologies affect the tempo of people’s life. Could you give us an example of how digital technologies affect people’s experience of time differently? What is the role of capitalism in the different ways in which digital technologies affect our experience of time?

JW: I mentioned above how gender blind these theoretical debates about acceleration tend to be. But they also reflect the habitat of these academic writers – that is, knowledge workers who have an affluent, busy lifestyle. What is entirely hidden in the discussion about acceleration is the human foundation that supports and services this fast lifestyle. For example, we tend think about the most powerful companies in the world today – like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – as comprising young, passionate engineers, not the cleaners who arrive early or late, and who are on the minimum wage. The armies of workers who travel to Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Francisco but cannot afford to live there.

Moreover, the speed, convenience and flexibility of the well-off is only possible because of the human labor who drive the Uber taxis, who deliver the pizzas for Deliveroo, who clean your clothes when you use a laundry app, who do the DIY when you use TaskRabbit. While the user saves time, the time of the service providers is constrained by zero hour contracts that requires them to adhere to precise timing schedules, leaving them with little control over their own time. Much of their time is spent waiting in between jobs, time that cannot easily be experienced as purposeful. If you are self-employed, freelance, or work in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency is essential to your survival.

So time is lived at the intersection of an array of social differences in which some people’s time and labor is valued more highly than others, and where some groups gain speed and efficiency at the expense of others. In other words, speed is a discourse, not a reality, for many.

As the rise of precarious workers show, speed and insecurity are two sides of the same coin. The quest for the hyper productive lifestyle of the affluent– for making the best possible use of one’s time – depends directly on the labor time of those who are less well off. The digital devices and software systems can only garner time because of the starkly polarized social arrangements in which they are embedded.

PS: While recognizing that devices are designed with particular capacities and affordances, you say that there is nothing inevitable about the way they evolve and are used. If we intended to challenge the way in which digital technologies currently shape our experience of time, where should we begin?

JW: I need to make two points here that might seem contradictory to begin with. The first is that, as I have already said, there is too much focus on digital devices as the cause of time pressure. The fact that working mothers experience the shortage of time is because of their hours of market work, family and caring responsibilities, and the uneven allocation of housework. It is not due to devices per se. Indeed, the mobile phone is an important coordination tool, helping with work/life balance, especially as working hours are now so unpredictable. Indeed, as I have written, mobiles can even be thought of as tools of intimacy – helping people, including family members, stay in touch with each other.

Secondly, although people can and do appropriate technologies and use them for their own purposes, the design and material affordances of digital technologies do matter. That is why I do STS, because I believe in the constitutive power of technology. For example, there is growing awareness that social media are designed to capture our attention and that the business model of Facebook, YouTube, etc. is built on precisely this model. The best behavioral psychologists is the world are involved in working out ways to persuade us to stay online with all sorts of seductive features. To counter this trend, the Center for Humane Technology has recently formed to promote technological design that enhances our wellbeing, rather than simply delivering profit. This is a promising development and a good place to begin.

Ultimately these problems, which seem private, are public problems. People practically cheer when I mention how Volkswagen and Daimler, the German car companies, had a policy of banning email at weekends, and even automatically deleting emails sent during holidays. This was made possible by the existence of strong works councils in these companies. Without collective action, it is hard to resist the pressure of always being available, especially at work.

PS: Has your thinking about our experience of time in the digital age changed since the publication of your book? What are you currently working on?

JW: My ideas haven’t changed significantly; so let me tell you about what I’m working on. I’ve been lucky enough to spend this year as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. So I’ve taken this opportunity, of living in Silicon Valley, to immerse myself in the tech culture. It is hard to convey just how dense this network of high-tech professionals (who make up 30% of the workforce) is here. One typical anecdote: when I got stuck one evening in a Palo Alto supermarket with shopping and dead Wi-Fi (no access to Lyft), I was offered a lift home by an Indian couple: he worked on AI for Google Brain and she was a scientist at NASA.

I am interested in how this iconic culture shapes technology, as so much of it has its origins here. So I decided to do some research on electronic calendars/scheduling software, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are ubiquitous among professionals and managers and are becoming one of the main instruments for time keeping, setting the rhythm of everyday life. Secondly, calendars are also a kind of infrastructure, a logistical media that have the job of ordering and arranging relationships among people and things, fitting bodies to artificial time grids. Finally, my interest was piqued by the buzz about how artificial intelligence, algorithms and machine learning will turn them into personal digital assistants.

I have been interviewing designers and software engineers who are involved in developing calendar products. I’m exploring how these makers of a calendar think about its purpose, the target user and scenarios of use, and how they expect users to receive and integrate the calendar into their technology usage practices. In sum, my focus is on how designers conceptualize the properties and affordances of calendars, and whether this is framed by a particular ideal of managing and optimizing time?

Judy Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can find an excerpt of Judy Wajcman’s book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism here.

Bettine Josties is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. Working at social theory’s points of intersection with media theory, affect theory, and queer theory, her research focuses on developing interdisciplinary tools for analyzing and challenging contemporary relations of power and forms of governance.

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