Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, by Judy Wajcman

It’s not machines but rather man that makes us dread the clock’s tick, Stina Lyon discovers

January 22, 2015

Occasionally a book comes around that you feel certain will make a difference to how social scientists think about the age we live in and its impact on our daily lives. Not necessarily because of its theoretical depth, or the solidity of its evidence base, or even its originality, but because of the way its author so ably pulls together a set of focused questions in need of better researched answers if we are to advance our understanding of contemporary life.

Pressed for Time – Judy Wajcman’s clearly, interestingly and highly accessibly written investigation into the many facets of the acceleration of time in our increasingly digital society – is just such a book. If, in this rapidly changing world, one may dare to make a prediction, it is that this work will soon shoot to the top of citation index scores as a core text that goes on to spur numerous research projects in a range of fields, as well as establishing the sociology of time, its diverse structure and differential distribution, as a major research field in its own right.

Wajcman’s core argument is that we need to think about digital devices as socio-material practices that co-evolve with the lives lived in interaction with them. We are not all equally “pressed for time”; we do not all feel the pressures in a uniform way; and we all have different relationships to the technology that is blamed for the pressure. She exposes as poorly researched and argued the common deterministic assumptions about the relationship between time, technology and daily life. Drawing on science and technology studies, she focuses instead on a series of feedback loops of mutual influence.

Lest we be seduced by grand fear-mongering concepts such as “globalisation”, the “timeless time” of the “instant network society”, “liquid intimacies” or a world in total “metamorphosis”, where “instantaneous” short-term and fractured time replaces the linearity of clock time with irreversible effects, Wajcman offers plenty of empirical counter-evidence of “lived time”. She shows that despite our new digital behaviour, pressured or otherwise, around the world we remain, on the whole, both in and committed to our locality in daily activities of working, sharing and caring. It takes destitution, violence or war for humanity to uproot itself en masse – and when it does, it is to seek new localities to feel attached to. And although external time pressures are undoubtedly increasing for those in work, with greater productivity demands and lower pay typical of times of economic depression, these changes are not brought on by digital technology as such.

In earlier periods of rapid change such as those that followed the spread of the telegraph and the telephone, Wajcman points out, similar pronouncements were made about the stress of speed and its negative effects on human relationships. In retrospect, such claims look highly exaggerated. Social behaviour is not determined by technology. Rather, human beings “do” daily activities such as family, work, leisure and friendships with culturally different uses of digital technologies, some positive and some negative. To understand the causes of change in the human experience of time, we need to connect new technology to the world as actually experienced, as opposed to focusing on abstract ideas about the “technology of our age” that tend to foreground engines and computers over the washing machine and the condom. Each set of new tools brings its own impact on individual priorities, but each also offers paradoxical unanticipated consequences for collective time.

Rather than siding with the anti-digital scaremongers who insist that we all need to switch off, immediately, or else, Wajcman favours a more positive view of what we can gain from new technologies. Her occasional asides on how, despite the traffic jams, she so loved the freedom of her little MG, and how, despite a bulging email in-box, she enjoys and profits from the ability to keep personal and professional relationships “connected” at home and across the globe, all ring true. She is right to note that denying our joys in various machine and digital innovations smacks of pompous moralising, and is unhelpful in understanding their actual use and consequences for work, personal identity and family life.

Her most significant message, however, relates to gender. Earlier work on the relationship between modernity, technology and time pressures engendered by the commodification of labour focused largely on men, as employers, capitalists and worker-employees, and thus on the labour process in the public domain of production, and not on the interrelated difficulties in “doing domestic time” in care, child-rearing and home maintenance. Wajcman – who has published significant work on the sociology of the interface between culture, technology and gender – effectively integrates women as a social category in their own right into each of the areas she discusses here by breaking down both theoretical and empirical generalisations into gender differences.

This fruitful approach uncovers paradoxes, not only in who gains from digital technology but also in how they gain, and with what consequences for time pressures. We are only slowly coming to understand the social and deskilling costs, for instance, of applying “time and motion” models aimed at creating feeding and bed-changing robots to the mainly female pressures of care. Families use technologies of “constant connectivity” to more effectively juggle and synchronise time, but overall there is little evidence of parents spending less time with children than in the past, or of working adults spending longer at work. To use a more recent concept from social history, we are most of us “reluctant modernisers” despite commercial propaganda to the contrary. We may shop via the web, but we do our best to replace the village or the high street with food outlets and coffee shops where we can work online, socialise and bring up our children. We are also developing strategies to switch off, lean back and slow down to improve both our quality time and our well-being. In daily activities, digital equipment is used more to coordinate activities in the public and the private sphere than as a tool that causes boundary confusions between the two.

What is not examined here, however, and which also has a gendered component, is the darker side of globally and personally pervasive high-speed technologies. Rapid computations, communications and image manipulations enable the instant gratification of power fantasies through gambling, pornography, illicit weapon sales and the more efficient coordination of crime and warfare. These may all be an expression of male technological fantasies and game-playing, but they are frighteningly fast and effective in real time.

The powerless worker’s fight against the industrial machine and its clock-driven speed in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times became, as Wajcman notes, a cultural icon for the oppressive, exploitative time pressures of modernity.

But it was Chaplin’s little barber in a later film, The Great Dictator (1940), who faced the full horror of what the combination of military technology and intrusive mass propaganda, concentrated in the wrong hands, could deliver in violence and destruction. In the barber’s final speech over far-reaching radio loudspeakers, he pleaded: “More than machinery, we need humanity.” In Pressed for Time, Wajcman brings us closer to a conception of what a more equally shared, “humane” digital technology might look like, were we to organise society and its institutions as to make it possible. And therein lies the rub.

Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism

By Judy Wajcman
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £17.00
ISBN 9780226196473 and 6503 (e-book)
Published 5 January 2015

The author

Sociologist Judy Wajcman wears “a very old, reliable Swiss watch”, and is not, she says, on Facebook. (“My family endlessly threaten to expose me as a technophobe!”).

She was raised in Melbourne, “a very cosmopolitan city with beautiful gardens, wonderful food and cafes combined with a beach culture. I spent my youth at movies and on surf beaches and certainly did not feel pressed for time. My parents were
Eastern European Jewish refugees, and political discussions and books were integral to everyday life.”

As a child, Wajcman adds, “I was nicknamed the professor at primary school because I was terrible at sport (not good for an Aussie), played chess and was a library monitor. We had the most wonderful librarian at my school who reinforced my love of books.”

Her undergraduate degree in politics at Monash University came “at the height of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, so I read a lot of Marx and went to many an anti-war protest”. Her postgraduate study was undertaken in England: a master’s degree at the University of Sussex and a doctorate at the University of Cambridge.

Wajcman has held academic posts at Cambridge, the University of Oxford and Warwick University, at London Business School, at in institutions in Manchester, Tokyo, Vienna, Zurich, Edinburgh, Sydney, and is now at the London School of Economics.

Happily ensconced in Bloomsbury in London with her family, she nevertheless remains fond of Sydney. “I still adore the light, harbour and scenery. I love sea swimming, and the sea pools there are hard to beat. But equally I love living in central London – so I am always torn.”

Is writing about our perception of time, and its connection with emotional labour and work-life balance, inherently political? “Absolutely. In fact, my early interest in time use was the time women spent doing housework and the absence of this topic from mainstream sociology. At the core of my research is a concern with the nature of work, both paid and unpaid, and the way digital technologies are reconfiguring the boundaries between work and family life.”

It is a reconfiguration that concerns many of us, as this book’s title acknowledges. If social media, mobile phones and websites are all designed to be sticky, is it hopeless for us to try to set down our phones, tablets and laptops and rely on willpower to stop feeling “pressed for time”? Is agency going to be “designed out”?

“In short, no,” responds Wajcman. “I am arguing against the idea that we are simply victims of machines: technologies only work at all because we give them life and meaning by using them. The claims about singularity being around the corner are hugely exaggerated.”

Asked whose work Wajcman recommends most highly, of the many scholars researching the impact of the internet, social media and new technologies on our lives, she names Sherry Turkle.

Turkle, she says, “captures better than anyone else the quality of technologies that enables them to become ‘evocative objects’ – for example, howsmartphones are now an intimate part of us, our very identity.”

In her present role at the LSE, Wajcman finds herself in the somewhat unusual position of holding a chair named for a person who is not only someone whose work she has written on, but who remains an active scholar at the same institution. The Anthony Giddens professor of sociology, in other words, not infrequently passes Anthony Giddens in the LSE corridors.

The chair “is a privilege and an honour. Anthony Giddens is the greatest sociologist of his generation and his social theory still sets the contours of contemporary debates. He is a wonderful role model…and great fun to be around.”

What gives Wajcman hope? “I was very much part of and formed by second wave feminism, so I am delighted with the resurgence of feminist activism among young women.”

Karen Shook

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Reader's comments (1)

"All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". People are switching off and leaning back? Really? The reviewer is absolutely right that Wajcman fails to explore the dark side of digital technology and human relations in late capitalism. This book is cupcake liberal-feminist sociology at its very worst - little wonder from an author influenced by Giddens, Blairite apologist and the most over-optimistic and fundamentally wrong sociologist of modern times. The idea of inexhaustible resistance and endlessly inventive coping strategies out there in civil society is the most pernicious of all the myths propagated by liberal sociologists who "once read Marx". I work in Mental Health and I see the casualties of our accelerated dromological culture every day. People like Giddens and Wajcman, the establishment's overpaid pet mouthpieces, handsomely rewarded for producing a constant stream of sub-intellectual lullabies, have nothing to teach us. How does this get featured in the THE when there are books out there like Jonathan Cray's 24/7 or Winlow and Hall's Rethinking Social Exclusion? The London connection? Sociology needs a complete clear-out at the top - it has been fully incorporated.