A Faster World … for some
Discussion of Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime (2014)
Is the world speeding up? For whom? In what ways?
This book offers a strongly worded rejoinder to those who say that the everything is faster now, hinging mostly on social inequality between those whose lives are going slower than ever and those few who get to sit in the passenger seat of new technologies of speed.
I’m certainly frustrated to see a very weak conversation of the meaning of speed as a technical concept (rate = units/time) or psychological experience and resent how this work comes off as an NPR-ready diatribe about how some people have all the things and should count their lucky stars.
However, the book is effective at presenting a key point in an easy to digest form.
The claim that the “world” is “faster” is often made by those in a position of privilege to an audience that shares that privilege. Sharma doesn’t mention it, but the coming of passenger rail travel had a similar effect, with the rich amazed to see the countryside blowing by at high speed, and assuming it was an apt characterization of the world writ large I notice a similar effect working in tech in the Bay Area, where the implicit assumption is that everyone on the web is using Chrome on a Mac or else an iPhone, when this is actually not a common experience. This effect once earned a lovely shorthand, “ivory tower,” that has now been associated entirely with academics who, I believe, are no longer a good example of a professional class well insulated from the brutishness of everyday life. But we ought to say that those in an ivory tower of speed think everything is hasty, while others outside that tower may not be feeling that way at all.
So, who says the world is going faster? Sharma points to specific (formerly modish) continental theorists such as Paul Virilio (who is not known for strong empirical work, but for provocative ideas that are challenging to understand at all, let alone apply). She ignores, for some reason, Marxist materialists such as Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey who argue that rhythms (units of action distributed over time) can be found everywhere and may be accelerating in certain contexts. Most notably, Harvey’s concept of “time-space compression” explains speed as an increase in rate of many particular parts of the economy, such as high turnover of CEOs, short tenure of workers at jobs, fast fashion, shorter shipping times, and other concrete economic metrics. Others in this vein, such as Robert Hassan, point to new temporal dynamics besides simple speed, such as instantaneity, but Sharma focuses on speed.
The best evidence of her claim could probably be found in James Gleick and other authors of nonfiction airport books who are clear cases where the author (of great privilege) spouts conjectures of the zeitgeist for a similarly privileged audience who is happy to hear their experience is universal and meaningful.
Still, I wholeheartedly agree that most people agree the world is “moving faster than ever” and have found that most will defend the claim quite seriously.
How fast should we be going? Sharma makes the excellent point that those worrying about an over-speedy world have a very quaint and probably wrong notion that there is a legitimate need for slow, deliberative thought and action. Indeed, she points out, they very often act as if this ever existed and that, in some lost past, there were more hours in the day or less mundane this-and-that to delay or compress quality time of whatever kind.
She doesn’t play the history card here, but I imagine the case could easily be made that the past was quite busy as all kinds of normal challenges everyone faced thenhave been solved or simplified tremendously by modern conveniences. In a world before cars, just getting somewhere took a while, forcing people to put in more time to get anything done at all. In my experience living off the grid, the biggest time-saver out there is that you simply give up on doing a lot of the things. Going to the doctor? Getting insurance? Filing for a passport? Booking travel? In the absence of the conveniences of the “accelerated” modern world, these are all luxuries hardly worth the effort. Back on the grid, people try to squeeze in more good things into less time and so call themselves busy. But this is the result of the vast wealth of opportunities that they have and framing these tasks as time-sucks ignores that they are chosen luxuries, relative to historical standards or those deprived of such opportunities. By enjoying the benefit of “fast” things people actually have the free time to take on new pursuits which they then complain occupy their time too completely. This is Jevons paradox is quite similar to the problem of housework explained More Work for Mother: conveniences such as vacuum cleaners did not reduce the amount housework, it just raised everyone’s standards so they worked the same length of time with better tools to yield better outputs.
Cases where the World is Slower or Faster
The substance of the book is a series of ethnographic portraits of cases where activities are faster or slower in obvious ways.
Things that are Slower
Sharma’s chapter on taxi drivers is certainly the best part of the book, exploring how immigrants and refugees arrive in a new country only to have their educational background and work experience ignored. They become drivers, of one kind or another, and as competition increases the time spent waiting for fares has increased, giving them a rather slow day at work and a slower process of saving enough money to move onto the next thing in life. The chapter is strong because it explores a topic that doesn’t get much attention and because it shows a very clear counterexample to the claim that the world is accelerating. For these folks, it is not! And the causes of their slowdown stem from the very forces that make fast times for others: globalization, more people fighting for the same hustle, more things done remotely rather than in person, etc.
Sharma also gives a whole chapter to a case study on office yoga. In this case, workers who are trapped at their desks (a slower life physically) are trying to add some motion to their lives (particularly restorative stretching) and some calm (to counteract the harried pace of their work). However, this chapter feels less substantial as the topic is not so critical or interesting as cabbies.
In a third exploration of slowness, Sharma examines the slow food movement and related slow lifers who advocate for slowness in some things to balance out the speed they experience too much of elsewhere. Her take is basically that these people are privileged and indulging in a deliberately antiquarian activity that does not have a lot of economic force to it. Slowness is a desired alternative, but the only structural motive is that some people (mostly privileged people in the developed world) are looking for a break from the haste of their normal lives.
Things that Only Look Slow
Because the thesis here is that only some things are speeding up for some people, Sharma also takes some time pointing out things that appear slow but are not. Her argument here grows from the office yoga ethnography, where she here argues that the slowness of office yoga is about creating an impression of calm supported by employers that really only serves to support a faster pace of work among the workers. If you want to keep the workers plugging along at full speed, give them perks that help! Yoga is one.
I wish that the book explored the historical speed of different peoples lives. Sharma might have pointed out that only a hundred years ago the predominant occupation was farming and that farmers are really grinding quite hard all day. The roots of this hard work can probably be traced back to the industrial revolution, which some historians have characterized as primarily an “industriousness” revolution. People wanted to buy the newly available goods at market such as tea and textiles. To do this, they needed cash, which otherwise had only limited value to farmers, and they earned this cash by working after dark, as a night shift after their farming work, where they did what they could at home to make things that could be sold at market. This is the cottage industry phase concomitant with mass manufacturing where lots of people started making things of good quality. (As soon as possible, these manufacturing efforts were copied and improved upon in manufacturing facilities, but for any particular effort, this took a while and many people kept brewing and sewing and building at home.
Things that Really Are Faster
Of course there are many aspects of contemporary life that are clearly much faster than before. Sharma focuses on business travelers in a compelling chapter showing how such people go faster, work during their breaks, and do everything they can to close deals faster, travel faster, and get more done each week than they ever did before. Laudably, she emphasizes how and where the infrastructures of speed rely on huge amounts of invisible labor to staff the airports, throw the baggage, sell fast food, entice business travelers, and make it possible for some people to live at high speed.
Sharma does not explore digital technology much in this book, but her argument resembles the classic concept of a “digital divide,” wherein some people have all the toys and think it’s normal while others have few or none and are left out of major parts of modern life.
Other authors provide clear examples of increased rate in the economy, and the book’s thesis could easily have included just in time manufacturing, disposable goods, and the general transition from big, heavy, tools of wood and iron to light, plastic or digital, disposable tools that can be used without training.
A final category of modern “speed” could be imagined as illusionary speed. The “faster” news cycle of Twitter, for example, shows more new stories with less depth to them, often focusing on human interest pieces rather than bigger stories and always promising that this one case is going to matter. The “faster” cycle is an illusion insofar as it presents the world as changing more quickly than usual, but really just gives greater breadth of coverage to the same old world which really does not change that fast in most respects.
Similarly, one might ask that, if the fashion cycle is now faster, how quickly do people buy new clothes and change their preferences? If there is more music and books produced each year now than ever before, can we also say that the way people consume these has accelerated? Or are there just less readers for books? Is there less significance to individual pieces of music as they all blend into genre preferences maintained by recommendation algorithms?
I would also imagine there’s something to be said of office workers putting in more hours, but wasting more of them in the infinite depths of leisure found on the web. Stagnating wages ought to correlate with increased work, though decreased hourly earnings have left many feeling as if they are being left behind while some benefit from a faster pace of industry. As a teacher, I found it very clear that college students working full time jobs to pay for rising tuition had less hours available for their studies and more focus on graduating as soon as possible, but usually learned less in their classes and forced the standard of education down with their inability to make time for academic topics outside of class.
In a different vein, one might also consider the content of entertainment and how it has shifted from the 1960’s appreciation of nuance, sophistication, and subtlety to a joy in dumb, obvious silliness that really communicates much less. You seem to be getting more, but as its density drops, you may be taking in less total.
Sharma’s book is a relatively accessible introduction to the idea that the world is not simply “speeding up.” There is a lot going on in life, and just because some privileged first world subject positions are replete with “fast” things and “instant” satisfactions does not really mean that the world itself is speeding up.