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Pressed for Time, book review: Don't blame the technology

According to Judy Wajcman, we're pressed for time not because of technology but because of our priorities, and the policies and principles we choose. If we want to, we can take more control.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor
Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism • By Judy Wajcman • University of Chicago Press • 215 pages • ISBN: 9780226196473 • $24/£17
As you check your phone for one last work email at night, or try to keep up with Twitter and Facebook while you wait for yet another version of the spreadsheet containing the numbers for a presentation, it can seem as though computers do more to ruin your life than to improve it, and that they're the reason you never have any time to yourself any more. Now we're buying wearable devices that tell us whether we fit enough sleep into our work/life balance, while nagging us to make time for a run. No wonder many people are taking a Twitter break or doing the full digital detox.

'Digital capitalism', as author Judy Wajcman calls today's technology-driven world, hasn't brought us the leisure revolution we were promised.

The need for speed isn't inherent in technology: the fibre optic cable from Chicago to New York that drills through a mountain to cut 1.3ms off the transmission time, for example, does that because for financial traders time is, quite literally, money. We celebrate, and possibly fetishise, speed.

It's we humans who design technology to make it demand we go faster and faster, says Wajcman -- and we always have. The telegraph, the railways and the factory clock changed how we thought about time and the pressures of time -- although factory clocks were often tampered with to make people work longer hours and schoolchildren were counting out the hours in the 1500s. Either way, technology has been turning time into tyranny for generations, so why are we blaming the iPhone? Is change really getting faster in our speed-obsessed society? And should we actually be looking more at how we use technology and why what we say we want is so different from what we actually do?

What we say is that we "feel more rushed, harried, anxious and pressed for time than ever before". Yet when you measure it, leisure time has increased. Official working hours are still eight hours a day, as they have been for 50 years -- but we live longer. The difference is that we care as much about the quality of our free time as the quantity of it, and it's certainly more fragmented than it used to be. The real question might be how much control we have over our time, and whether we're surrendering more of that to technology that we actually have to.

If time hasn't really sped up, nor has place stopped mattering, Wajcman points out. High-frequency trading systems have to be located inside the stock exchange to be close enough to be fast enough. But all this 'virtual' technology comes down to physical systems in the end, and the data centres that power the cloud can be as polluting as the cars where we spend time stuck in traffic moving little faster than a horse and carriage.

Judy Wajcman is an academic -- currently a professor of sociology at the LSE -- and Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism is densely written and peppered with jargon in places. It also spends a lot of time referring to other academic works, but that's interleaved with her own theories and research, which is particularly interesting when it looks at what people actually do, as opposed to what they say they do. As Wajcman notes, the book concentrates on the working Western world, so it may not explain different cultures and approaches. The footnotes are worth glancing at, because they often include fascinating details and discussions as well references to sources: for example, the average length of a shower in the UK is eight minutes, while men in the US do a hundred minutes a day less 'domestic work' than women.

Time shifting

That difference is one of the key arguments in the book. Why don't we think of the washing machine or the baby bottle as having changed the world more than the internet? The ability to feed babies from a bottle has revolutionized child raising, but it turns out that domestic technology hasn't freed up hours of time any more than technology has at work, because we've ended up thinking as much about the quality of our time -- be it work or leisure -- as the quantity of it.

What we have got out of technology is time shifting. Speed is only one part of the equation: some things are speeding up, but others are slowing down, and the 'spillover' we complain about in our work/life balance can be family spilling into work time as well as work spilling into family time (and it tends to be women getting stressed by the former and men getting stressed by the latter).

Mobile technology was supposed to be for business, but it turns out we actually use it far more for personal things: we use phones for sending texts to friends and for following news sites, for example. And for every report saying that internet use makes us lonely, there's another saying it keeps us more in touch with friends and family. What technology really does, Wajcman believes, is open up possibilities beyond the rigid division we make between work and family life -- but it's up to us to make the most of that. Often, it's not so much a shortage of time as the difficulty of managing our time.

Being busy can become something to be proud about, she points out, and while we complain about email interrupting us, what we actually do at work doesn't bear that out. Give people the chance to hot-desk and communicate by email and voicemail, and they use it as much to arrange face-to-face meetings as to get work done -- yet we complain about email more than we complain about meetings. Interruptions are usually down to our colleagues or to ourselves rather than the technology itself: "People overloaded with work reach for their electronic gadgets in an attempt to relieve the pressure that the devices magnify but do not in themselves cause," Wajcman notes dryly.

The same people who complain about having to keep up with work email in their time off and worry about falling behind also praise the flexibility they get from carrying a smartphone. We're not passive victims of technology, we're just buying in to the cultural notions that speed is inherently good. Technology, Wajcman claims, expresses our views about the world as much as it creates them.

Even our leisure is becoming hectic, thanks to our consumer culture that celebrates having more music than we can ever listen to on tap from streaming services (although she doesn't see digital detoxing or things like the slow food movement as inherently better -- eating at McDonalds could be just as good if that's what works for you, she suggests).

Some of this pressure we put on ourselves, but a lot of it she blames on the technology industry that wants to sell us more technology. We're always looking for the next smartphone to upgrade to, even though much of what we see as innovation is trivial and a way of locking us into planned obsolescence with gadgets becoming less and less repairable. Learning how to use a new phone or computer is as much unpaid work as doing the laundry or cooking dinner.

Wajcman takes a rather reductionist view, blaming Silicon Valley for a lack of diversity that results in thinking about technology solutions first rather than the problems people have that need solving. That's true of much of our industrial society, though. Still, she raises plenty of fascinating points from the imbalances in work -- paid and unpaid -- between men and women, to the huge paradoxes in what we say about technology and how we use it. You might disagree with some of her arguments and examples, but her conclusion is refreshing: we're pressed for time not because of technology but because of our priorities, and the policies and principles we choose. If we want to, we can take more control.

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