Modern Society, "Social Acceleration", and the Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise

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Niccolo and Donkey
No Time to Feel Groovy

Asia Times Online

Claudio Gallo

November 2, 2012

Modern society appears as if cursed to be trapped in Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise: in our societies we run faster and faster with the perception of remaining in the same place. Hartmut Rosa , 47, professor of Sociology at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, brilliantly explains such a paradox in his studies on "social acceleration". Among his books translated into English are Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality and High Speed Society, Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, edited with William E Scheuerman. Columbia University Press is about to publish Social Acceleration‬: The Change in Temporal Structures in Modernity‬"‬.


Claudio Gallo: The globalization are eating world's space but in your studies you outlined that post-modern society are eating [​IMG] time as well. Is social acceleration a necessity or is it a "successful" accident across the course of history?

Hartmut Rosa: In fact, this question is not easy to answer. What is evident is the fact that in modernity, social acceleration has become a necessity. Modern societies can only reproduce, they can only maintain the status quo if they grow and innovate and accelerate. You can easily see this in the realm of the economy: if our modern, capitalist economies do not grow, the system is in crisis and decline. We lose jobs, companies close down, tax-revenues decline, welfare systems are strained and this puts pressure on the political system as well. Thus, acceleration and growth are necessities for modern societies, for they can only stabilize dynamically: no stability without acceleration.

But it has not always been this way. Most pre-modern societies followed a more static form of stabilization: they reproduced and maintained the status quo by keeping things as they are. This does not mean that they never accelerated or innovated, but they only did so accidentally or due to circumstantial pressures or changes. They did not have an inherent need for acceleration.

CG: We live in a speed society, everything is going faster leaving the individuals with a feeling to have to cope with completely inhuman rhythms. Is this acceleration in your opinion an inherent consequence of modern technik or the "philosophy" of technology is only one face of turbo-capitalism for which "time is money" as Benjamin Franklin put it?

HR: In my view, technology clearly is not the cause of social acceleration. Rather, it is the other way round: modern technology arose - it was invented - because of the time-famine of modernity. You can make this point historically as well as logically: most technologies help us to save time. More than this: it is the purpose of almost all modern technologies to save time. Thus, cars, hair-dryers, microwave-ovens or telephones are all machines built for the purpose of speeding-up "natural" processes.

Logically, this should create free time-resources for us. Take the email: to write and send an email only takes half the time of writing and sending a letter. Thus, if you have to write 10 messages and 10 letters take one hour, while 10 emails take half an hour, you gain 30 minutes. But where are they? Why is it that you have even less time now than before the email age?

The answer is easy: because you do not read and write 10 emails instead of 10 letters, but 20, 30 or 40. But this is not the fault of technology, it is not inherent in the logic of technology. Rather, it is the general logic of increase and growth that speeds up social life and creates the hunger for technological speed-up. This logic of increase itself is not driven by technology, but by social competition and economic capitalism.

Historically, you can observe the same connection. In the 17th century, people tried to speed-up social processes BEFORE the invention of new technologies like the steam-engine. They tried, for example, to build straight instead of curved roads or to exchange the horses before the carts more often in order to reduce traveling time, or they tried to use mirrors to speed-up communication. It was this hunger for time-resources that eventually triggered the industrial revolution.

CG: So, our strained perception is due to the fact that the growth of opportunities exceeds the rate of acceleration ...

HR: Actually, with each new round of technological innovation, we can observe the same "acceleration cycle". If 10 email messages take half the time of 10 old-fashioned letters, 20 emails written (and read) take the same amount of time as 10 letters, except for the fact that now you have to think about 20 different recipients and subject matters.

This by itself is a stress-causing factor: even though you still need one hour to do your communication, you now have to deal with twice as many "episodes of action". But things are worse: on average, we now read or write 30 or 40 emails (or even more), while we only read and wrote 10 letters in the past. Hence, we either need to spend more time for communication or we have to speed up our thinking and writing. The rate of augmentation and growth is above the acceleration-rate, and this creates stress.

It is the same with transport. Of course, the car is much faster than the horse or the pedestrian, say, three times as fast. However, in the time since we introduced the car as a regular means of transport, the distances we need to cross for schooling, work, family life and leisure have increased by the same factor at least, and they tend to increase even more. Or take the washing-machine: of course it helps us to save time. But since we have got it, we change our clothes on a daily basis. Thus, growth-rates regularly exceed acceleration-rates, and this is why time becomes more and more scarce despite technological acceleration.

CG: The acceleration of social change in Western societies is indissolubly linked to the dominant cultural ideals of modernity in which every change is always a progress and every change is made for the sake of change. Which is the importance in this context of what you call the "Cultural Motor"?

HR: "The cultural motor is what I call the "promise of acceleration". For quite obviously we are not just the victims of speed; we also enjoy speed. Speed is linked to our innermost conceptions of freedom, of self-determination and of happiness. It is essentially linked to the aspiration to overcome barriers and boundaries. In addition, I think modern secular societies have come to measure the quality of life by its richness and wealth of experiences: a life, in this perspective, can be defined as the sum of experiences made and potentialities explored and developed.

Now, once you adopt this cultural perspective, it seems that you can increase your life by speeding up: since we can double the number of experiences and potentialities explored by doubling the speed of life or action, acceleration becomes a permanent temptation and an essential promise. In the end, acceleration might be Western culture's secular answer to the problem of finitude and death: if we live fast enough, or, more accurately, infinitely fast, we can have an "eternal life before death". There are immeasurable options and experiences in front of us before we die. (It is a different matter that this perspective, of course, is based on a number of confusions and self-deceptions).

I am not so sure whether this element of the cultural motor holds for Asia, too. But what is important indeed is the linkage between acceleration and progress: modernity creates the experiences of permanent change and motion, and it is absolutely vital for individuals to be able to interpret this change, or this motion, as directed - as connected to progress. For then, acceleration means that life gets better.

But at least in so-called "developed" Western societies, this perspective is almost completely lost: people here are convinced that our economies will keep growing, technologies will keep accelerating, and markets will keep innovating, but they no longer think that this will make life any better - there will always be fierce competition, scarcity of time, scarcity of resources and so forth. Thus, the overwhelming sense is this: we will have to run faster and faster - just to stay in place. The "race" is no longer about reaching a goal or improving our position, it is only about not falling back, not regressing into chaos and crisis.

Thus, for the first time in the history of modernity, parents no longer believe their kids will have a better life - rather, they fear it will be worse, despite acceleration. This is a vital change in perspective. For me this is the moment when modernity turns into late-modernity.

CG: We can no longer do as Machiavelli did in his use of Romans as a mirror of his own society because our fast-changing present is too different from our past: is velocity destroying history?

HR: Well, I think in the first place velocity created history. We only developed a sense of history as a moving, singular subject when we noticed that there were not just random events and stories in the world, but that society a such seemed to move and change in a direction. This sense could only grow when social change was fast enough to become noticeable for the three generations who lived together in one world. This moment arose when the grandmother, while talking to her grandson, noticed that "her world" was different from "his world". "In my time", she might say, "it was not right to miss Sunday service in church. But in your world, this is all right".

I call this the pace of generational change, when social change was linked to the exchange of generations. As the historian Reinhart Koselleck has pointed out, this sense of directed history arose in the 18th century. However, from my own analysis, it appears that "history" in this sense is now, in the 21st century, about to die. We have now reached a pace of intra-generational change, when generations can no longer speak about "their" respective worlds. Instead the world changes every decade, or rather, every couple of years.

We have to adopt to ever-changing circumstances. In this process, we lose the sense of direction: there is frantic, but non-directed change. History is standing still amidst frantic change, there are changing episodes of individual and collective life without an inherent continuity or direction.

CG: May we say that you are skeptical about the "ideologies of deceleration" and rather you prefer to point out that deceleration is a dialectical consequence of acceleration?

HR: Well, in fact, every wave of social and technological acceleration has been met by a lot of cultural and political skepticism and protest. People fiercely protested, for example, the introduction of the steam-train and the railway system. They claimed that this would kill not just our culture and politics but it would literally make us sick and corrupt our brains. Exactly the same story repeated itself, for example, with the invention of the TV or, later on, with the advent of the computer and now the smartphone. There are always groups who call to resistance and refusal - and they always lose out.

In the late 19th century, some dandies in Paris walked their turtles on a leash to protest against the high speed of urban life. Similarly, today, there are movements like "slow food" or "slow science" etc. They are well-meaning, no doubt. But very often, these movements only play a compensatory role: It becomes a luxurious pleasure to cook and dine slowly once a week or once a month on a Sunday, while the rest of life speeds up. So yes, I am skeptical of many decelerator movements.

Nevertheless, in my view, there are at least two contemporary social movements that I am inclined to take more seriously: on the one hand, significant parts of the so-called "de-growth" movement are much more serious and theoretically ambitious than the simple "folkloristic" oppositions. They realize that the speed game comes at a high price for the ecology of the Earth and for our psychic health, and they try to develop sustainable forms of "post-growth" society.

On the other hand, it appears that there is a growing number of "elite youngsters" who are equipped with an enormous amount of social and cultural capital and who refuse to take the elite positions. They refuse to become CEOs or bankers or professors or politicians because they realize that their rat-race life is not worth it. This, I think, is the most serious challenge to the current capitalist speed game.

CG: The global economy is pushing on very effectively with its concept of space and time, but don't you think that in the East there still persists a different conception of time?

HR: It is obvious that Asian cultures can draw on experiences and conceptions of time that are very different from the linear, acceleratory logic of Western, capitalist time. These divergent conceptions of time, of course, are very often related to religious traditions. Confucian, Daoist, Hinduist or Buddhist perspectives of time are free from the acceleratory logic of increase that is characteristic of Western time.

Nevertheless, what one can observe at present is a "colonization" of these traditional perspectives. It appears that they do not so much provide viable alternatives or oppositions to the logic of acceleration, but rather individual and collective resources that can be used in the global speed-game. It might give Asian cultures even a competitive edge in the drive towards speed - but in the end, I am afraid, Eastern cultures and perspectives will probably also be sucked up in the acceleration-cycle.

You can already see this from the speed of Asian cities, from the race towards acceleration in production, circulation, communication and consumption. Obviously, the speed-up is even higher in Eastern countries than in Western ones: developments that have taken centuries in the West are made and overtaken within a couple of years in Eastern countries. Thus, I think, the Eastern traditions will help them to overtake the West in most realms of life and to become the leaders in speed - but I doubt it will help them to turn the tide and decelerate the world.

Claudio Gallo is world news editor of Italian daily La Stampa.
Niccolo and Donkey
Stars Down To Earth

Interesting stuff about different conceptions of time. It makes sense, seeing as how the Chinese were at a stagnant technological stand-still for many centuries, before coming into contact with European colonialists and rapidly copying their technology. For us Western observers, this seems totally bizarre, but for them it's not that way - they just have a different idea of history, very distinct from the linear idea of "all history is a constant forward progress" that we have over here.