Speed limits…us all

by Mark Cole and John Higgins

We begin with multiplication: what is seven times nine?

Assuming that you came up with 63, what process did you go through to get to that answer? Did you call on a past rote learning of the times tables, or did you reach for the calculator app on your phone? How did you feel about being asked to undertake this arithmetic? And, if you didn’t arrive at that total, well, the same questions apply.

Meanwhile, in the classroom of Mark’s eight-year-old son, times tables are now being tested in terms of speed, as opposed to just accuracy. As they do their homework online, each sum that pops up is accompanied by a clock ticking down from 10 seconds. At the end, an urgent tone is sounded, just to make sure that the anxiety of a test is compounded.

According to the Year 4 WhatsApp channel, this is adversely impacting a number of children. Some have gone from making good progress in their maths to being derailed by this new focus.

Leaving the classroom behind us for a moment, isn’t it the case that an expectation that everything should happen at pace is now a feature of all of our lives? For example, in commerce, the idea of deferred gratification seems to have completely evaporated. Instead, we end up demanding fulfilment, purchasing items at all hours with a minute flex of our finger or thumb.

While previously capitalism entrained us to want things, now we want them now. So, someone in precarious employment on a minimum wage is forced to race around at pace under technological surveillance to bring things to our door.

Meanwhile, in our workplaces, many of us subsist in a culture of “busyness”, where the expectation is that whatever we are asked to do, we need to do it quickly. In this climate, action is all – and, as a corollary, reflection, consideration, and thought are seen in leadership circles as something that slows us down. Unconsidered action is now part of the relentless hype around change – reminding us of the fridge magnet recommendation: ‘Drink coffee! And do more stupid things faster!’

This is a world of deadlines – a term that seemingly offers an intimation of mortality, a corporate memento mori that forces us to focus on acting but not necessarily acting well, or simply being, in the world.

The emergence of modernity

On 20 February 1909, the French newspaper Le Figaro carried an article entitled The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the declaration of an Italian artistic movement transfixed by the machine age. In it, Marinetti offered 11 key precepts, the third of which was:

‘We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with a hood that glistens with large pipes resembling a serpent with explosive breath…a roaring automobile that seems to ride on grapeshot – that is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’ (pp49-53)

Seven years later, the same author returned to his topic, deploying a style deriving from the Fascism to which many Futurists were drawn: ‘Velocity, its essence being an intuitive synthesis of all forces in movement, is naturally pure. Slowness, its essence being the rational analysis of forms of exhaustion in repose, is naturally unclean. After destroying good and evil, we are creating a new good, speed, and a new evil, slowness.’ (pp224-229)

Giacomo Balla (1913) Abstract Speed

These are exaggerated expressions of the experience of modernity, of industrial mass production, mechanised modes of transport, powered flight, and the sense – in a phrase coined by Marx at the very beginning of this period – that “all that is solid melts into air” (p16).

As an artistic movement – alongside its English variant, Vorticism – the Futurists fetishized speed and sought through their work to capture it. The changed socio-economic context outlined above seemed to be grounded in a sense of everything getting faster, life and time needed to be lived fast-forward, according to the rhythms of the manic second. In his review of time-sense, the historian E P Thompson back in 1967 concluded that: ‘In all these ways – by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports – new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.’ (p90)

The machine age was ultimately made possible and was structured by tiny machines, namely clocks and watches. In the course of industrialisation, human beings became detached from a perspective on time that located itself seasonally and on the basis of events – and instead saw our worlds calibrated into tiny sub-divisions, measured and tracked by timepieces. And, as capitalism developed, those timepieces ended up in the hands of the overseer, the supervisor, and latterly the manager – and employees ended up powerlessly “watching the clock” and the accelerating sweep of its hands.

The modern focus on speed

John was chatting with a friend the other day and the conversation turned to supermarket shopping. She said that she always used the system that allowed you to shop without interacting with a staff member, wandering the store with what looks like a phaser from Star Trek and flashing a red beam over the bar codes.

She declared that she used this method because it was quick, saying it “saved” her 30 minutes. She was also drawn to it because she was able to avoid interacting with anyone. “But aren’t you just making a cashier redundant?” queried John. “Well, yes, I suppose so,” came the reply. “But then they have to employ a security guard to oversee the self-checkout.”

Tucked into this tale are two interesting foundations, the first of which is the presence of that familiar assertion that “time is money”. Only through this lens is it possible to argue that a half-hour has been saved. Saved where and for what purpose? The second is that the 30 minutes saved would be wasted if the shopper was to spend it in conversation with another human being, echoing the focus we experience in our societies on the business of doing rather than connecting at a human, communal level through simple communicative exchange.

The relationship between modernity, capitalism and the clock seems to have further developed in recent times. Jonathan Crary writes persuasively about how a 24/7 culture has emerged, explaining that ’24/7 markets and a global infrastructure for continuous work and consumption have been in place for some time, but now a human subject is in the making to coincide with these more intensively.’ (pp3-4). In practice, he suggests, this can be seen ‘…as a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time.’ (p8) The physical, human experienced event has finally been erased from the ebb and flow of human existence and the clock has asserted its ultimate triumph. We face ‘…a time without time, a time extracted from any material or identifiable demarcations, a time without sequence or recurrence.’ (p29)

Mark Cole (2022) Non-Place

This may partly explain why so many people found remote working so liberating – and why so many try to maintain it in the face of managers looking to march them back to the office. At home, time rediscovers its connection to the fabric of human social existence; in the office, the environment is flooded with the bleaching light of fluorescent tubes and room upon room that look the same as one another, where workplaces fit within spaces designed for rental cost-effectiveness.

It is a place where all events other than work – even down to the basic human hygiene matters – are effaced by the expectation that time in this space belongs not to us but to the organisation. Hence, one finds people lunching “al desko”, not eating for pleasure but merely to refuel, while their food-stained fingers stab at their keyboards. It is here that people lose track of time because time has been banished other than as a resource.

Here is where the “busyness” resides and then extends its strangling tendrils into every aspect of our lives, including shopping. Busyness is now a badge of pride in many corporate settings: back in the day, John recalls an Executive Director of his acquaintance drawing attention to his weekly calendar, which featured back-to-back meetings every working day from around 8.30am through to gone 6pm. But, behind the façade of complaint about this atrocious burden, the act of regularly drawing attention to it – but never actually asserting himself to do anything about it – suggested that this “busyness” was important to his position, status, and authority.

In a global context, there is patently “a geography of busyness”, as Robert Levine describes it: ‘…countries and cultures differ markedly in their overall speed of life and these differences are to at least some degree predictable by the demographic, economic, and environmental characteristics of these places.’ (p357) Levine states that busyness in a western commercial context arises from the existence of fixed schedules and the calibration that is enabled through the existence of clocks (p364). He makes a case that busyness arises out of the interrelatedness in a cultural context of speed and activity, asserting that ‘…activity and speed are not one and the same. Speed is a way of doing more in a fixed amount of time. Activity means simply doing something, at whatever speed. When someone says they are busy, in other words, they may be experiencing a crunch of either speed or activity, or both.’ (p356) And the workplace is the main domain wherein people are incited to do more things at a faster pace, to meet expectations of productivity.

This carries into the realm of the work of the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa and his analysis of what he calls social acceleration, noting that there is an interplay between acceleration and deceleration, because not everything is getting faster. Few motorists snarled up on tiny city streets or trapped in the lanes of the M25 would buy the idea that everything in contemporary life has speeded up, a counterweight to the universal claim that “the world is faster”.

However, it is in three key areas where Rosa (2013) detects the oppressive nature of speed in modernity: technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the overall pace of life (p23). His work explores each of those in rich detail – and elsewhere (2010) he makes the point that, ‘[I]n its present, “totalitarian” form, social acceleration leads to severe and empirically observable forms of social alienation which can be seen as the main obstacle to the realization of the modern conception of a “good life” in late-modern society.’ (p8)

Scream if you want to go faster

This contemporary social obsession with speed seems intimately linked to how we perceive of economic activity. The assumption that our economy is undergirded by a requirement that things should be done at pace prevails in so many ways – with taken-for-granted management practice ceaselessly promoting the notion that things have to be done quickly because that is the way to get ahead. When, if ever, did a manager ever turn to you and say, “Can you pick up this new piece of work? Take your time with it, there’s no rush. Let’s approach it on the basis of doing the best possible job, as opposed to the quickest.”

People unwittingly become transfixed by this in the workplace, even though – elsewhere in their lifeworld – they are likely to relish lingering over a long and sociable lunch, having time to spend with friends and family, sitting with a drink on a terrace in a warm Mediterranean resort and simply watching the world go by.

Meanwhile the fashionable practices of the modern workplace fetishize quickness and establish themselves in the business lexicon so that going fast is presumed to be in some way normal and exemplary. Michael Eby dissects the corporate notion of agility, revealing the ideology of speed that undergirds it: ‘In the Agile firm, the temporal unit of measure is the sprint, so called for its brevity and intensity. A sprint ranges between two and four weeks, instilling a sense of urgency in the sprinter. While the activity that takes place within it is not strictly scheduled, a predetermined chunk of work must be completed by the time one reaches the finish line.’

In the same piece, he notes that, while agile practice is seen to remove some notable elements of hierarchy and management, in fact it merely allows them to reassert themselves is a more veiled fashion. In light of the work team being seen to be the “fiercest manager”, he states that ‘…self-organizing strategies of teams allow for certain workplace disciplinary mechanisms to take the form of normative compulsions rather than explicit instructions.’

As the Velvet Underground instructed on the track White Light/White Heat, “Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak, everybody gonna go and make it every week…” Watch them indeed, because they are the people above you who unthinkingly keep shouting down for everyone below them to go faster.

Running out of time

Mark was talking with his friend and colleague Eren the other day about some of the themes in this piece. Mark is towards the end of his career, while Eren is pretty much at the start of his. In the work Mark is presently doing with an existential therapist, he is mindful of feeling as though everything in terms of his career has come too late, which makes the years passed feel like empty time, a preamble that merely saw time passing rather than being used productively.

Eren offered the obvious corrective, which is that Mark is only now equipped to be as he now is in light of all that time already spent. Over those years, he has chipped away at the social shyness that held him back in his twenties and thirties. He has made his way through a wide range of experiences, all of which have nudged him to be the best version of himself and provided him with insights which have lodged in the thinking that undergirds his presence and practice. And this was not merely the route that led him to where he now recognises he wants to be; it was the wayfinding journey on which we all embark without any real sense of where we might end up. It’s only when we end up somewhere that we allow ourselves to indulge the notion that this is where we were always headed.

Ivo Pannaggi (1922) Speeding Train

Meanwhile, Eren was intrigued by those who seek to move up the career ladder FAST, climbing to as high a point as they can in the quickest possible time. His concern was that such a race to the top means they are susceptible to falling, primarily because they have not paused and paid attention as they shinned up the greasy pole. They have taken the express train, flashing through the countryside and experiencing it as a fleeting blur, rather than the stopping service, where one would get a feel for terrain, landmarks, interconnections, and local knowledge.

It’s only when one comes to a halt – reduces the speed, stops still, and takes a moment to look around – that one realises where one is and what is going on around one, as was the case in 1917 for the poet Edward Thomas:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Stop the clock!

We cannot halt the passage of time…but we can confront the tyranny of the tick-tock of the corporate clock. And, by offering up that challenge, we can also work to displace the dominant and overbearing busyness that exists in the workplace and the Futurist fascination with getting things done quickly.

This is not a matter of idle, academic speculation – our relationship to time is at the heart of our destructive relationships with nature and with each other. And we are not powerless, work time and busyness are social constructs, not objective truths. By paying attention to our habits of mind and how they are active agents in creating the world around us, we can see what other ways of knowing are available to us.

But while we live under the baleful gaze of the god of speed, we shut ourselves off from such knowledge, because it takes time, because it doesn’t happen according to the clock. We talk of dialogue and consultation, but kill their potential by ignoring that we only know how to deploy them through the habit of speed.

Consultation becomes a staff survey, which is quick and generates a mountain of data, while simultaneously being a visceral experience of lack of human connection, compounding the disengagement that is rife across the world of work.

So long as we ignore the shadow of speed, so long as we treat it as an unalloyed good, we do not see what it costs us. Because everything has its shadow and the more we ignore that shadow, the darker it gets – and in the case of our work, the more productive we will become by doing stupid things faster.

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