A Revolution Against Progress

“I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around being him”

– Ödön von Horváth cited in Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration

There is something paradoxical about today’s achievement culture. For example, in most Western countries, we work fewer hours than the generations before us, we can communicate and get information faster and easier than ever, and we can travel farther faster, yet we lack time. We’re stressed.

Time has become the main character in modern life. Like Pierre in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, who was present due to his absence, time is everywhere, because it is nowhere.

The logic goes something like this: Faster = more efficient. More efficient = more money. “Time is money,” as Benjamin Franklin said many years ago. Now, sadly enough, this is common sense.

In Social Acceleration—A New Theory of Modernity, German sociologist Hartmut Rosa explores the concept of acceleration and its influence on our lives. Systematically, he shows the causes and consequences of an acceleration that doesn’t stop for anything. He identifies three categories of change: technological acceleration (e.g., transportation and communication), social change (e.g., knowledge), and pace of life.

Hartmut borrows his underlying thesis from his German colleague Luhmann, “the division of time and value judgment can no longer be separated.” For example, if I spend little time with my kids, although I claim to love them, then I might be living incoherently. The moral that Hartmut outlines is: How we spend our time shows what we value.

Some may object here. Others might mention the awful concept of “quality time,” but as Hartman says, “the quality of ‘our times’, its horizons and structures, its tempo and its rhythm, are not (or only to a very limited degree) at our disposal. Temporal structures have a collective nature and social character.”

A pregnancy still takes nine months. (Is this the reason why some outsources pregnancy to “rent a mum”?). In most societies, people still need to be 16 or 18 years old to vote or drive a car. Still, acceleration also affects us socially. Because I receive your update on Facebook right now, you expect me to “like” it right now (or at least very soon). There is an underlying norm related to acceleration.

Hartmut inscribes himself in a long tradition of German sociologists with a philosophical touch, like Luhmann and Habermas, but most notably Honneth. Like his predecessors, he doesn’t see sociology as pure description but rather as something that can initiate change (which brings him closer to philosophy, where knowledge is transformative). Whether, Hartmut operates with a normative ideal like Habermas and Luhmann will not be debated here.

Social Acceleration presents us with a new lens (i.e., acceleration) through which we can see part of society more clearly. It presents an impressive analysis of acceleration that helps us see how our well-being is not just an individual matter but also a social one. If everything speeds up, it can be difficult to stay calm, offline. Due to the “shrinking of the present,” we can also see different forms of counter movements, such a slow living and mindfulness, that try to convince us that if we pay attention to each moment, then the chance of forgetting something important is less likely, e.g., forgetting to experience the living present.

Hartmut presents us with a new critique of alienation – an acceleration-theoretical one. In the end, he quotes from Horváth saying, “the acceleration society gets people ‘to will what they do not will’, that is, to pursue . . . courses of action that they do not prefer from a temporal stable perspective.”

As my old philosophy professor once said, “It takes time to think.” Ergo, today, few people are thinking. The price we pay for not thinking is stress, burnout, and careless ego trips.

Hartmut adds more fuel to the debate about whether or not “doing nothing,” such as reading and writing, is profitable or a sin. If it’s the latter, then I accept being an almost full-time sinner, trying to revolutionize capital-initiated progress.

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