Too Fast, Too Furious

In search of time gained

"For the feeling of the present moment, the movie Speed furnishes an incomparable allegory: if we lift our foot off the gas, death comes instantly."

For more than two centuries, time has been felt to be passing more and more quickly. Scholars tell us that since the twin revolutions of the 18th century — industrial and political — a general sense of time speeding up has been recorded with regularity in documents of all kinds. Political and technical progress somehow meant that people were always losing ground, unable to keep up, out of breath. Rousseau spoke in Émile of the encroaching tourbillon social irresistibly overtaking everything, and the enduring popularity of Walden no doubt owes something to its condemnation of the way we squander rather than savor our time. Marx’s bourgeoisie, of course, “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production,” and toward the end of the century, Nietzsche diagnosed the malady of the modern age in “the madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web” — lines that come from the aptly titled Untimely Meditations.

So, naturally, reformers and revolutionaries sought to show how a better future would deliver us from relentless acceleration. In the hands of socialists, utopia became depicted not as beyond time — Thomas More’s was intended to be a timeless idea, not a prediction — but as something located in the definite future. Socialists and reformers of all stripes founded their analyses on citizens’ time and who controlled it, and held out for a paradise in which there would be little to do — in part because machines would do it all. See, for instance, Marx on the fight over the working day; Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, written in 1887 but set in the year 2000, when increased productivity meant everyone could retire at 45; Keynes’s idea, outlined in 1928 but projected into 2028, that technological advances would allow us to work just three hours a day, four days a week (even this, Keynes thought, might be more than we’d need); and, in the last half- century, eclectic Marxist philosopher André Gorz’s program for a “post-work” society, where the smooth humming of automated machines, coupled with basic income for all, would ease the burden of overwork.

Nixon had nailed the central paradox of modernity and its labor-saving, dynamic economy.

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The battle over who could save more time became a central point in the cold war, and the US made a big show of emancipating women from their enslavement to time through technology. In one of the most theatrical skirmishes, the so-called “Kitchen Debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon, the Soviet premier derided the fancy gadgets on display in a model American home — the dishwasher, the electric mixer — and noted that they would be obsolete in a few years. Nixon suavely replied that the American economy was dynamic, “designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques,” and that each new advance eased the burden of work — especially housework for American women. (Khrushchev harrumphed at this, which he called “the capitalist attitude toward women.”)

Without meaning to, Nixon had nailed the central paradox of modernity and its labor-saving, dynamic economy. For the devices did save time in the home, but they did so in an economy that changed with unprecedented speed, rendering obsolete not only products but jobs and the men and women who performed them. Today the era of the Kitchen Debate seems like a dream of slow living — a few television channels, a single telephone for the household, no email, nine-to-five jobs, a delirious paucity of choices. At the time, it felt harried and oversped.

But not (we insist) as harried as our own. Has any era felt that it had less time than ours? And has any had to suffer more polemics and advice on the subject? On the one hand, we have Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed, which reads like an overextended Atlantic piece about how the author barely has time to write about time; on the other, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which literally shows you how to save time by writing checklists. The internet abounds with hectoring tech articles — often, ironically, from Fast Company — on the need to unplug from the internet (so that you can work harder). Meanwhile the fashionable “media diet” article tells you to read certain articles in a certain order rather than dilettantishly click one link after another, so that you can master your day as effortlessly as Malcolm Gladwell. Alongside the proliferating screeds and therapeutic ministrations are the life-hacking apps, the self-Taylorizing programs that shame you into going running (but not for too long), and measure how fast your heart beats afterward — turning life into one more task to be managed.

If one’s leisure time feels like work that one doesn’t have time for, work itself increasingly feels like work one doesn’t have time for. From the Amazon warehouses that track employees’ speed to the call centers that monitor times and keystrokes to the work that follows you home, a sense of speedup has obliterated, as in a lightning war, the time-saving promise of the technologies of the past. Entire industries disappear with uncanny speed: textiles gradually left New York over the course of forty years, starting in the 1950s, but American steel production, the world’s largest, fully collapsed within five years in the 1980s. Even the stock trading floor has been replaced by nanosecond-responsive computerized trading systems, with brokers seeking ever finer time-advantages over competitors, reflective in turn of a corporate world ever more concerned to deliver quick dividends to shareholders. These shareholders enjoy the spectacle of trigger-happy CEOs mowing down workers in mass layoffs. According to one estimate, the white-collar workers in these companies once switched jobs an average of four times over the course of their careers; now they can expect to switch more than a dozen times. These jobs are increasingly self-managed, with workers expected to approach their jobs with a “self-employed mind-set,” in the words of one management theorist. The loosening of the nine-to-five workday and the granting of more “flexibility” has resulted in workers feeling the need to give themselves wholly to their companies.

One’s leisure time feels like work that one doesn’t have time for.

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So the speedup is real. But why do we have it? “Capitalism” is the obvious and grating answer, and there’s no question that the need to increase not only productivity, but also circulation and distribution (what Marx saw as the need to cut down on “turnover time”), have driven ever faster cycles of accumulation. But acceleration at the heart of production doesn’t immediately explain acceleration in society, or the feeling that life itself has accelerated. The need to consume more, and consume better and faster — to be first in line for the bendy iPhone 6 — doesn’t give a human being a competitive advantage the way producing a phone without human beings, and delivering that phone all over the planet, does. And of course most of the cultural presuppositions that girded speedup, such as the “Protestant work ethic” and secularization, which led to emphasis on accumulating “this-worldly” achievements (rather than waiting for the “sacral time” after death), preceded the actual acceleration in production.

Nor does it follow that we should have less time as a result of the speedup of production. In fact, the problem may be that we have finally ended up with more free time — and yet don’t feel that we have more time. The centrality of this feeling to our age, and to the ages that preceded it, has received its most comprehensive treatment in the recent work of German theorist Hartmut Rosa and his concept of an “acceleration society.” For Rosa, the sense of speedup created by labor-saving is one of the major paradoxes of modernity, and one of the exemplary versions of this paradox is that “the dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time” in our epoch has been “accompanied by an equally significant increase in free time.” For nearly every population group, even working women, the amount of time free from remunerated labor, obligatory household activities, and bodily self-care actually rose from the 1960s to the 1990s, with working women (who nonetheless continue to serve the much-despised “second shift”) gaining at least 3.7 hours a week. Though the gains have been unevenly distributed — with declining welfare payments for the poor and stagnant wages for working classes leading people to work several jobs — labor-saving technologies have mostly saved us time. But every surveyed group over that period feels we have lost it.

The key is that a society undergoing acceleration gets caught in a feedback loop it cannot escape, whereby acceleration in production, circulation, and distribution (in Rosa’s terms, “technical acceleration”) drives social change. The institutions of society no longer guarantee stable life paths. If in classical modernity people could imagine their lives in intergenerational terms — say, the same firm passing down through a bourgeois family — in late capitalism, turnover is so accelerated that it becomes hard to imagine one’s life course even within a few years, let alone a few generations. This in turn drives a sense of the acceleration of the “pace of life,” the psychological feeling of always being out of breath — which in turn drives the desire for more labor-saving technology, and technical change. There have been world-historical short-circuits in this loop — the 1930s, which spelled forced leisure for thousands, and the 1970s, when advances in technical change and the rate of profitability they promised seemed to meet a historic limit — but overall the pressure hasn’t slackened. For Rosa, modernity is defined by a continual sense of the present contracting—a feeling that what one is able to do within a given time frame is shrinking. The feeling comes about because the variety of social experiences available is ceaselessly proliferating: the number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large, and expands every day with implacable speed.

The novel was born out of an acceleration society and now appears to be suffering from its success.

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The internet, medium and target of so many laments, exemplifies this perfectly, with its wheedling array of articles and microblogs and other diversions clamoring for your time — among them, the articles on time-saving that waste the time you claim not to have. So, too, do our television habits, even or especially in the medium’s age d’or, exude the paradoxical aspect of having too much time and not nearly enough. To “binge-watch” a show involves continuous viewing of six to twelve hours, an amount of empty time that no one would ever cop to possessing. Studies of TV watchers report their sense that whole eras of their life have been lost to an activity they don’t even like. Rosa writes:

In a countrywide American survey, on a scale of satisfaction running from 1 to 10, TV received an average score of 4.8, in contrast to work at 7.0 (in 1975 even 8.0) or shopping (6.4 in the 1984 survey); in 1995 the female respondents at least actually drew more satisfaction from cleaning work around the house (5.6!) than from time spent in front of the TV, while men said they got more enjoyment from cooking (5.5) than from TV. Yet inhabitants of Western industrial states devote on average almost 40 percent of their free time to just this activity: more than two hours a day and much more than any other free time activity.

And these come even before the current era of endless, ceaseless TV streaming — which has only magnified the possibility of constant watching — and its discontents. The problem of a society undergoing acceleration is that people crave an ever greater variety of social experiences out of the sheer sense that they must “keep up.” The semantics of contemporary life suggest obligation: “I must read the newspaper”; “I ought to play the piano more”; “I really need to keep up to date.” Both TV and the internet deliver a sense of experiencing a lot very quickly, with abandon, in a way that becomes loathed as much as desired. Time spent watching TV feels rich in stimuli — the joy of Game of Thrones is not just that its characters are dispatched with regularity, but that the show is punctuated by the occasional thrilling bloodbath — but poor in its lasting effects. “TV,” writes Rosa, “apparently tends to leave behind tired, hardly recuperated spectators who are in a bad mood.” The internet, too. What they also leave behind are people whose lives are full of frenetic activity, but impoverished of a sense of lasting experience — flat individuals, nodes or nerve endings in a network that stretches out endlessly in a shrinking present.


The cultural consequences of a world in which labor is saved, and at the same time displaced and enlarged, have been registered since the dawn of what we could call modernity. One of these cultural consequences was the novel, which was born out of an acceleration society and now appears to be suffering from its success. In the 18th century, what precipitated the “rise of the novel” was consumption: unlike other types of literature that asked for slower reading, novels began to be purchased and read at great speed. Demand produced supply. The enormous titles of earlier 18th-century novels (The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c., Who Was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent) dwindled to single words (Emma), and the books themselves dealt with a small number of protagonists.

Most of these new novels were despised by cultural critics for their speedy delivery of cheap sensations, barely earned shocks, and maudlin sentimental ideas. Samuel Johnson: “They are the entertainments of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions, not fixed principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.” (China, a country with a strong novelistic tradition, continued to produce long, slow novels at a leisurely pace, whose sinuous narratives, brimming with hundreds of characters, were meant to be enjoyed over years.) Still, by the end of the 19th century, with the enormous changes in the global economy wrought by the railroad and the rise of the modern corporation, the novel was falling behind. In New Grub Street (1891), George Gissing’s novel of fin-de-siècle London literary culture, what is “new” about the old Grub Street is its intense speed. “The evil of the time is the multiplication of ephemerides,” one of the grumpier older characters remarks, “hence a demand for essays, descriptive articles, fragments of criticism, out of all proportion to the supply of even tolerable work.” The main character, Edwin Reardon, slowly labors at a three-volume novel, dooming him to failure, while his contemporary Jasper Milvain, “an alarmingly modern young man,” placidly lets loose a continuous stream of articles and reviews, earning success.

The number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large, and expands every day with implacable speed.

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Out of this confused cultural ferment came the idea that the novel was above all a vehicle of contemplation, meditation, absorption. Today, the primary value of the novel no longer appears to be its capacity to deliver sensations or some sort of meditation on the way we live now; it is instead an object for deceleration, for ceasing time rather than killing it, for therapeutic rather than troubling purposes. One speaks ever more of falling or sinking into a good book (or the failure to do it); or, according to Will Self in a recent lament in the Guardian, “the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyches.” A life-hacking site recommends reading novels to relieve stress. The mode retro in the novel has itself become a way of retrieving and saving time — satirized in the story “Shopping is not Creating” from Douglas Coupland’s classic Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Society, in which a town is stuck blissfully in the year 1974. Just as the novels of the late W. G. Sebald, overwhelmed by belatedness and the trauma of the past, became the favored works of the intelligentsia in the early 2000s, so too has Knausgaard become the ideal writer of the present moment: negotiating the minutiae of his domestic life and his personal demons over several, unremitting volumes, he has redeemed the minutes that all of us waste and become the Martha Stewart of the novel — able to make time for everything, to ensure that nothing is left unwritten or undone.


An era of social acceleration has its political consequences too, in which neoliberalism, the pensée unique, monopolizes the language of inevitability, obligation, fidelity to the one best way. Political actions like wars and drone strikes take place swiftly, free from slow debate, out of a hazy notion that politics must keep up. Too much democracy is seen as gumming up the works; the public sector as immovable and irresponsive to change; labor unions as dinosaurs. Bureaucracy was once, for Max Weber, the very image of modern life’s speediness; today it is a byword for unbearable slowness. A major breakthrough of late capitalism has been to explode the old time boundaries that once secured the acceleration of previous epochs — and thereby accelerate even further. The flexibility in work and life once desired as a form of autonomy by earlier generations is now ours for the taking — but the old rigid boundaries, which have been tossed away, now seem like freedom. Though workplaces once oppressed with their bureaucratic command structures, they now do so by asking us to “manage ourselves”; autonomy, too, is a source of acceleration. Economically, the speedup of production processes has reached such a state that they no longer offer themselves as technological implements for a just society; we have entered an era of capitalism that increasingly feels self-generating and irredeemable. Is there any utopia that would willingly take up “just-in-time” manufacturing, or the neo-Taylorist monitoring of employees’ motions? Under socialism, will there still be life-hacking?

At the same time, one can perceive, faintly, an even deeper, more glacial political stasis underneath the frenzy of the present. Rosa calls this the “frenetic standstill,” the Boethian “nunc stans” in which one has no time, but in which an eternal, unchanging sameness afflicts the age, and the only salvation one can hope for is environmental catastrophe. For the feeling of the present moment, the movie Speed furnishes an incomparable allegory: if we lift our foot off the gas, death comes instantly.

Under socialism, will there still be life-hacking?

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Is it possible, then, to imagine a politics of time? Right now we attack our lack of time by improving our technology, or by integrating it more deeply into our lives — or by establishing an antagonistic stance toward it. An app called “Freedom” really can give you freedom, for a time. But there are other paths. Labor movements have always sought to regulate the hours of work; so, too, did feminists attempt (successfully in some countries) to socialize care work; deep ecologists look to the multigenerational survival of the earth. A little Luddism would go a long way; but so, too, would a society obsessed less with innovation and more with stasis, retrenchment, deceleration. It would be one ruled by immovabilities, by basics: income, care, housing. Can a society desperate for time learn to care for the things that might guarantee it, before it is too late?

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