The Tyranny of the Moment

June 16, 2012

Thomas Eriksen concludes his 2001 treatise on acceleration with these words, “We are not facing a choice between, on the one hand, the hyperactive, overfilled, accelerated temporatility of the moment and, on the other hand, a serene, cumulative, ‘organic’ temporality. Information technology will for the foreseeable future have a dominant place in our kind of society … The project which has been sketched … in these final pages, must consist in finding a balance, that is creating a world which is spacious enough to give room for [both].” He then parodies the commonplace reflection regarding deathbed wishes: what do people on their deathbed wish they had done differently. Eriksen confidently asserts that no one will “regret having spent too little time talking in the mobile phone, writing e-mails.” Had he been writing today, he might have added “watching YouTube, looking for text messages, clicking on web links, or scrolling through FaceBook or Google.” So why do we spend so much time doing these things?

The Tyranny of the Moment, a short (160 small pages) and mostly accessible book, is a scholarly treatise that belongs to an expanding literature on the culture of ‘time’. Eriksen, an anthropologist, says there are two types of time in 21st century industrial society, fast and slow, and the battle between them is heavily lopsided, “When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins. This is why one never gets the important things done because there is always something else one has to do first. Naturally, we will always tend to do the most urgent tasks first. In this way, the slow and long-term activities lose out. In an age when the distinctions between work and leisure are being erased, and efficiency seems to be the only value in economics, politics and research, this is really bad news for things like thorough, far-sighted work, play and long-term relationships.”

Driving this urgency is the glut of electronically transferred information. Eriksen points out that not so long ago one of the chief problems facing individuals was insufficient information. I can see this in my own life. I grew up in a middle-class suburban family in the 1960’s and 70’s that owned only a few books, an inexpensive encyclopedia and a dictionary. At times we received a weekly magazine and a daily newspaper and at other times we didn’t. We had several stations to choose from on TV and radio, but the variety of offerings was limited. So if one wanted more information, one had to go to the public library. For entertainment, the kids on my street roved through the neighborhood and surrounding fields and streets, constructing activities to amuse ourselves.

But that has mostly changed. Eriksen says we are afflicted by an accelerating glut of information and now we have to choose what we will pay attention to and how much time we will devote to it. Slow time, and the uses to which slow time can be put, are being erased, sometimes for good. As he puts it, “When there is a surplus, and no scarcity, of information, the degree of comprehension falls in proportion with the growth in amount of information. One has to limit one’s information out of consideration for one’s knowledge. … The main scarce resource for suppliers of any commodity in the information society is the attention of others. Whether it is advertisements, talks, scientific articles, knowledge or simply physical commodities that we offer the outside world, there is an intensified competition for the vacant slots in the time budgets of the target groups. These vacant moments become fewer and shorter, since the people in question are subjected to powerful expectations that they should squeeze ever more impressions, commodities, experiences and pieces of information into their lives. The next impression kills the previous one at an accelerating speed. … The main scarce resource for inhabitants of the information society is well-functioning filters. This point is identical with the previous point, differing only in that it sees the situation from the recipient’s perspective. E-mail is a blessing for senders, a nightmare for recipients.”

The Tyranny of the Moment contains so many ideas that it is impossible to survey them properly so I will just sketch two that struck deep chords. Eriksen writes,

  • [referring to Staffan Linder’s The Harried Leisure Class] “… the inbuilt demands for growth in capitalism made it necessary for each inhabitant to produce more efficiently and to consume more intensively. Both were necessary to maintain a ‘healthy growth rate’. A high level of consumption is necessary to stimulate production, and increased production is necessary to reach the overarching goal of economic growth. As a result it becomes necessary, [Linder] says to consume more and more in less and less time. Leisure time is increasingly turned into a mad rush for intensified consumption. … Leisure time begins to resemble the work situation …” [and a bit further on referring to Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism] “capitalism contradicts itself through a combination of the puritan work ethic and a hedonistic ethic of consumption.”

All this sounds a bit like Huxley’s Brave New World, doesn’t it? I’ve read articles in the financial pages recently that talk about the demographic problem in European countries: declining birthrates require each worker to be more and more productive, i.e., efficient, in order to pay for the expanding needs of the burgeoning retired class. But, as Eriksen-Linder-Bell point out, rising production is only half the story. Eriksen also writes,

  • [referring to his experiences as a university professor] “The range of activities that compete with studying grows every semester. … When [students] appear in the lecture room, they are on their way from one place to another; they have a wide spectrum of activities to fill their days with … If they want to be abreast with their surroundings … they simply cannot disengage themselves for years of a slow, monk-like existence.”

Amazingly, this was written in Norway many years before the glut of iPhones, 3G and 4G networks, and Facebook. If information glut and acceleration were a problem before 2001, try to imagine what a student’s life looks like today!

Eriksen and I agree that what should be fast should indeed be fast. But fast time is addicting. If we are not careful, the values and characteristics of face time spread to every other sphere. It becomes essential to recognize things that cannot be made “fast” so that they can be protected. Here is the start of a much longer list of questions about possible “slow” activities. I hope you will make your own.

  • Should parenting be fast? If you schedule ‘quality time’ with your family, you have already replied in the affirmative.
  • Should learning be fast? Perhaps some innovator will discover a way to help kids learn to read or calculate more quickly (this may be possible, but I expect there are physical limits defined by the way human brains develop during childhood), but can we accelerate the learning of creative, cultural, and moral lessons? Don’t these require time and experience for their full flowering? Can one quickly learn to be (play, work, support, understand) others?
  • Should the experience of food or sleep or music (art, laughter, a walk in the park, love, …) be fast?
  • Should experiences like sympathy, empathy, generosity, compassion, consideration, deliberation, understanding, …, be made faster?

3 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Moment”

  1. burlwhitman said

    I once took a class with Russian business and tech people who lived through the fall of the Soviet Union. They said the main change was the acceleration of lifestyle and referred to the time we live in now as “the speedy time.” I asked them if they would go back if they could. Every one of them said yes if they were free to travel.

    • Alan said

      What a terrific story. From the mouths of non-native speakers…

      In the years since I read Ericksen things have only gotten worse. “Speedy time” rules on my campus. Skepticism about the direction, or the value of a life lived in “speedy time” is rarely appreciated, and one must always preface her critique with, “I know I’m a dinosaur, but…”.

      So, speaking as a dead reptile: Think of an emotionally-neutral task (like waiting for a bus). Imagine performing this task without multi-tasking (no phone checking, no exercising, no conversation as I wait; I just wait). Am I less or more likely to undertake this single task today than I would have been 5, 10 years ago? Less likely, right? I either want to multi-task, or shave some time off this mono-task if I can. Conclusion: “speedy time” has taught me to devalue everything I do (it might be worth it to mono-task waiting for the bus if it only takes 3 minutes, but not if it takes 10 minutes).

      Speedy time: the failure to appreciate the life we are living.

      • burlwhitman said

        It cost a lot to send me to that class in Zurich and the only thing I really leaned was from side conversations with the Russians. The thing they seemed to treasure most were personal relationships.

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