Why technology makes us feel like our lives are speeding up

People are saying that time has sped up—and that digital technology is to blame

March 06, 2019
Why does technology make us feel that our life is speeding up? Photo: Prospect composite
Why does technology make us feel that our life is speeding up? Photo: Prospect composite

We are first taught that time is something reliable and constant. We expect it to run indefinitely and assume it won’t change—with the exception of perhaps a leap year, daylight savings or a natural disaster tipping the earth on its axis.

Einsteinian world theory showed this to be a simplification; rather, time is a dimension, just like space, where everything exists all at once. This is perhaps truer to how the passage of time feels. We don’t experience equal increments: we live lingering moments of embarrassment, drawn-out silences, whirlwind romances and tragedies that cause time to stop altogether. We seem to live on our own time, all at once.

These distortions in time are generally taken to be natural and personal, but something has recently changed: people are saying that time has sped up—and that digital technology is to blame.

It is easy to relate the pace of our lives to the pace of technological innovation. It is also easy to think that technology is hijacking our time, like a digital casino, keeping us in with infinite scrolling and cookies rather than tinted windows and free alcohol.  In her 2014 book Pressed for Time, Judy Wajcman showed that these impulses are simultaneously intuitive and hubristic. This is because they rely on the idea of the newest technologies being the most revolutionary.

When we think of fast-living we tend to draw on the futuristic: contactless, touch IDs and virtual assistants. In spite of being sold to us as time-saving, these technologies relieve mere minutes, if not seconds, on the day-to-day—seconds we probably waste looking for our phones or remembering our passwords. This comes at the expense of older technologies, which are obscured into the backdrops of our lives in spite of their usefulness. Wajcman, for instance, gives the example of the baby-bottle. Consisting of little more than plastic and rubber, it truly transformed how women spent their time, changing both who could feed children and when they could do it.

More than a product of technology, our hurriedness seems to be symptomatic of a cultural shift towards acceleration where progress is conflated with productivity. It often feels like every moment unused is a wasted opportunity and it is this very thinking that has us, as Wajcman puts it, “running just to stand still.” It feels like we are constantly marketed ways to streamline our lives and where we haven’t, “we’ve got an app for that” hangs in our periphery.

Historian E.P Thompson suggests that the values we link to time may have something to do with the coinciding spread of clocks and Christian guilt. Before the 18th century, communities understood time in terms of their main export. Fisherman looked to the tides and farmers to harvest cycles. This changed with the demand for synchronised labour during the Industrial Revolution: a workforce was needed to man large machinery and employers wanted to put a value on working hours, so clocks were spread and time reduced to currency to be “spent, not passed.” Simultaneously, the popularity of Puritanism burgeoned and with it, the idea of idleness being a sin and labour a virtue, incentivising workers twice-over; first with money and then with God.

As sacred as speed is, it is also subversive. Italian Futurists bought a new understanding to speed in the early 20th century, one that scorched the earth of traditional values and lauded mechanisation and consumerism. They celebrated ammunitions and decried the conventions of social order, a subversiveness we may sooner recognise in Mad Max or Fast or Furious, of strong drugs, fast cars and automatic weapons. If anything, the Fascist politics associated with the movement ought to give us reason to question the unmitigated value of acceleration.

Wajcman’s solution is to change the culture of speed from the inside through better representation in the tech industry, but we could also imagine the change coming externally, in the form of improved workers’ rights and greater regulation of Silicon Valley.

The issue is that when time already feels scarce, these solutions are perhaps further away than we should hope. In the meantime, we ought to find a way of reclaiming laziness from taboo.

Bertrand Russell gets to the heart of this issue in In Praise of Idleness: “the modern man thinks everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.” Doing something for its own sake is to rebel against the usefulness of time. In reconciling ourselves with relaxation, we must simply accept that the beauty of free time is that it is actually free.