Social acceleration and the need for speed

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In Western turbo-capitalism, people move faster and faster, but still feel stuck in the same place. Hartmut Rosa, professor of Sociology at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, explains such a paradox in his studies on “social acceleration”. Among his other books are Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality and High Speed Society, Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity and, most recently by Verso, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique, co-authored with Klaus Dörre and Stephan LessenichThe following interview was originally published by the LA Review of Books. June 28th, 2015.



CLAUDIO GALLO: In Western society, everyone feels that time is running faster. How does your sociology of time explain this feeling?

HARTMUT ROSA: Of course, chronological time, or clock-time, does not change. It runs neither faster nor slower: every day has 24 hours, every year 365 days. So, the feeling that time is running faster must be explained by psychological reasons—it is a psychological phenomenon. But this phenomenon has social causes. The explanation goes like this: whether or not we feel that we are short on time depends on the relationship between the time we have at our hands, or at our disposal, and the time we would need to fulfill our “to-do” list. Now the problem of our society is that there is an ever-increasing mismatch between the two. In order to do all the things we must do or want to do properly, we would need 48 hours or so per day. Hence, we are always short on time and we feel that time is running fast.

But there is a second reason for the impression that time runs fast: when we have a really exciting day with a lot of powerful and memorable events and impressions, then time flies during the day, but when we look back, in the evening, it feels like it was a very long day. Conversely, when we have a totally boring day which we spend waiting in some meaningless waiting room, time goes by very slowly, but when we go to bed in the evening, it seems like we had a very short day, like we just got up. This is called the subjective paradox of time. We feel that the day—or the year—was long, when it leaves a lot of traces in our memory and on our identity. We remember the things that truly impress us, the moments which we really appropriate. Therefore, if we have lots of experiences that resonate with us deeply, the year—or a life—seems long in hindsight. But in late-modern lives, we lose the capacity to “appropriate” our experiences: we do many, many things, but they do not really touch or affect us. At the end of the day, we have forgotten them. This is part of what I call alienation. Because most of what we do does not leave any traces in our memory, biography, or identity, we feel time is flying by quickly. This is the twofold explanation for the subjectivist side of social acceleration.

Was there a historical time when social acceleration began?

It is always a bit difficult to pinpoint historical origins, because a lot of processes converge in the phenomenon of social acceleration. But there can be little doubt that the 18th century was crucial for this. In fact, we can see that the change was not caused or initiated by new technologies, but to the contrary: the new technologies, the steam-engine, the railway, and the industrial revolutions were answers to a changed awareness of time, to a new need for speed. Thus, people tried to move faster, for example, by [alternating] the horses attached to the horse-carts more often before there was improved technology. What happened in the 18th century is a shift in society’s mode of stabilization: from then on, society could only maintain stability through increases—through economic growth, through technological acceleration, through cultural innovation. In other words: after the 18th century, acceleration is necessary for social stability. In fact, it is inevitable if we want to preserve social order.

Can you explain the modern paradox of time, that the velocity in our lives is often experienced as immobility?

It is true that many people feel that the frantic speed and the changes around us are only surface-phenomena, that there is total inertia underneath. It feels like we are going nowhere, but faster!—to use the title of a music record. This, in fact, is not surprising at all: in the 18th century and for a long time afterwards, until very recently, acceleration, growth, and innovation were perceived as progress. Therefore, social acceleration was perceived as historical motion. The idea—or more than that, the experience—was that life got better though growth and acceleration: we can overcome material scarcity through economic growth, scarcity of time through faster technologies, and a better, free life through changes in science and politics. Therefore, for about 250 years, parents were convinced that their kids would and should have a better life than they had.

In the 21st century, however, the cultural background has changed completely: now, acceleration has become a structural necessity. It does not serve progress anymore, it is needed to prevent us from going down the drain. If Italy, or Germany, or the European Union, or Greece, or any other country in the world, does not speed up, grow, and innovate, it cannot maintain social stability—we lose the status quo. People become unemployed, factories close down, revenue decreases, the political system is de-legitimated, et cetera.: we can see all of this now in Greece, for example. Therefore, all over the West, and for the first time in modern history, the vast majority of parents say and feel that they need to do all they can, to work as hard as they can, for their kids to have lives not significantly worse than theirs. We need to be innovative, creative, hard-working, and fast just to maintain the status quo.

This is a very dangerous and frustrating situation: people feel that each year we have to run faster and faster just to stay in place. No matter how efficient and fast we are this year, next year we have to run a bit faster, otherwise, we lose out. We no longer believe that life gets better, that scarcity will be overcome, that the struggle will ease through improvement. On the contrary: we know that it will get harder and harder. This, for me, is the sign of the postmodern condition: we are no longer running towards a bright horizon in the future, we are running away from the dark abyss behind our backs.  

Reading your book one may recall the concept of technology in Heidegger, but the German philosopher is never quoted.

Oh, well, it is a strange thing with Heidegger: I actually live in the Black Forest, just 20 miles away from his place. And it seems that all my concerns are very close to his concerns. But the truth is that he is not a cardinal source of inspiration for me. Yes, there are a lot of similarities, and of course his ideas on time and being are very insightful. But he is far more pessimistic with respect to technology than I am. I do not think that technology per se is the problem—it is our way of using it. Heidegger lacks a real understanding of social and economic processes, and of the power of institutional framings.

While many critics point the finger at capitalism, you write that the forces that are leading social acceleration are beyond capitalism.

Well, yes, it is true that I do not put the blame on capitalism alone, but that does not mean that capitalism does not play a crucial role in acceleration. In fact, I do identify capitalism as one of the prime motors of social acceleration: time becomes a scarce commodity—it is “money” in Benjamin Franklin’s sense, in capitalist forms of competition. In fact, being faster than the others is a structural necessity in capitalist production, distribution, and innovation. Therefore, I am convinced that we will never get out of the acceleration cycle as long as we leave the economy unchanged. Markets and competition, in my view, need to be “re-embedded” in our social and cultural way of life, not the other way round. Hence, they need to be severely restricted through new forms of economic democracy. In a capitalist economy, fear is the driving motor for all activities. Therefore, I believe an unconditional basic income, possibly based on a global hereditary tax-system, could be a solution to the problem.

Nevertheless, you are right, I do argue that capitalism is not the only source or cause of social acceleration. There are other factors, for example, the logic of functional differentiation and the division of labor, and a cultural orientation which takes speed to be an answer to the problem of finitude and death (which, again, resembles a Heideggerian idea): for modern man, speeding up is equivalent to living longer. If we live twice as fast, we can have two lives in one, and if we become indefinitely fast, we no longer need to be afraid of death: we can do an infinite number of things and have an unlimited number of experiences before death. Hence, I believe at the root of the speed-problem is a mistaken, or at the very least, problematic, cultural orientation towards life and the world as such. Capitalism, then, is a consequence of a wrong way of relating to life and to the world. But this consequence, to be sure, has become a very powerful and fateful structural and institutional reality of its own!  

You say that social acceleration produces alienation. Is it possible to escape this impasse without changing our society?

In fact, I am inclined to answer no. This is why I am not really advocating for deceleration or slow-life. It is impossible to leave society as it is and just slow down. If it is true that social acceleration is a deep-rooted structural and institutional feature of our world, then we cannot solve it by just changing our individual attitudes, or even life-styles. I believe that we can only overcome alienation when we develop a new way or form of relating to the world as such.

I call this “resonance.” Resonance, for me, is the opposite and alternative to alienation. We are non-alienated from a group of people (for example, your family) or a social condition (for example, your workplace), when there is a resonating, responsive relationship between you and them. We all know what such moments or relationships of resonance are: when we are freely moved and connected, but also capable of reaching out and connecting ourselves. Resonance, however, is not an emotional state that we can realize on our own. It is a form or a mode of relationship, and therefore, a feature of the social world. Hence, we can only make our world more resonant and less alienating when we change our own attitudes, but also the structures of our social and economic world. Economic democracy, a basic income, and the idea of resonance might be essential components for such a change.

- See more from Hartmut Rosa here.