MAY 24, 2016
WHY DO I NEVER seem to have enough time? What can I do to save time? You hear this asked a lot these days. Busy parents, overscheduled students, pressed workers: everybody, it seems, feels there is never any time left at the end of the day. Such complaints become genuine questions in Mark C. Taylor’s recent book Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left. Indeed, they become pressing ones, and, if Taylor is heard, they press us to question a way of life shaped by an economic and technological order devoted to ever-increasing speeds.
Speed Limits is premised on the notion that the way in which these questions have been asked and answered has contributed to the very problems they indicate. It charts the emergence of a society devoted to saving time and importantly, to doing so in the name of efficiency, productivity, and growth. Toward this end, harnessing and controlling speed through technological advances proves the means to success. It’s something of a truism, but like most that is obvious, its significance is often overlooked: when time is limited, more can get done, more achieved, more produced if I go faster, and nothing enhances speed better than technology. Taylor makes this palpable throughout the book in discussions of trains and telegraph signals, microprocessors that enhance computer speeds, and drugs that enhance brain speeds.
Yet the technologies that were supposed to save time have annihilated it, and the advances that might have given us more free time have made us pay dearly with our time. As Taylor emphasizes, technologically enhanced productivity and the rising affluence it promises have not led to the era of leisure some predicted. John Maynard Keynes, for instance, wrote that in an affluent society, “Man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
While productivity increases present the opportunity to spend less time at work in order to produce the same amount, fewer and fewer people seem to follow the philosophical advice: “choose time over money.” Instead, we seem committed to moving faster and faster, working harder and harder, just to keep up. This has brought about a strange reversal of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class: in 21st-century society, having nothing to do or living a life of leisure signals lower status (or class) than the pressed life lived, without ever having enough time.
Speed thus appears as a cure that poisons: availing ourselves of it, we lost the very thing we tried to save. While one might expect that technologically enhanced speed would yield a margin of free time, the good life that enjoys such time appears ever farther away. This raises the question of what we can do to save time, truly, from such annihilation. Slowing down, and doing so fast, seems obvious, but that paradox is easier said than done. While Taylor documents many of the various slow movements that have arisen in recent years, he indicates his general dissatisfaction with what he perceives as a “retreat from the frenzy of the world” that lacks a sense of urgency in making the large-scale, drastic changes that are called for.
To this extent, Speed Limits is written with the urgency of ethical concern: it asks not just where time went, but tells us we have little left, in every sense of the phrase. The life shaped by the economies, arts, and technologies of speed is proving increasingly unsustainable for individuals, societies, and the planet. All live under the shadow of a constant threat of meltdowns — environmental, first of all, but also financial and, an interesting addition, emotional or psychic.
Socially, it is not the case that everybody participates in the high-speed, high-rolling society of Wall Street and Las Vegas described by Taylor. He recognizes this and accuses the system of efficient markets of systemic inefficiencies that allow those with access to higher speeds and faster lives to benefit disproportionately. Furthermore, the high-speed technologies that were supposed to connect us all and make information equally available have contributed to a vexing social fragmentation. People simply connect with others who are already like themselves. By forming communities of like-minded, like-bodied individuals, the personalized newsfeed and iEverything have thereby contributed to demographic shifts with powerful political and economic impacts. Many are being left behind or destroyed, as transparency and connectivity have resulted in uneven distributions of wealth, power, and status. What Taylor calls “Dividing by Connecting” has proved the rule.
Speed Limits also portrays the psychic and emotional costs paid by individuals. Most salient on this point is the chapter “Reprogramming Life — Deprogramming Minds.” Through a collection of personal stories and qualitative studies, Taylor paints a picture of people who, out of understandable concern to keep up with all the others to whom they are wired, find their attention and focus shattered by hyper-solicitation in a hyper-connected world. The picture painted is especially dark for young people. Taylor fears they find themselves running faster and faster in a mindless pursuit of successes whose meaning escapes them. Lives in the Information Age are constituted by ongoing assessments and examinations (entrance examinations leading to college tests; performance assessments in the workplace; personality tests for successful mating and matching, and so on). And young people have become efficient and successful at passing these tests. Indeed, the ones Taylor met in his classroom at Williams College have proven themselves some of the most successful. But, he reports, they have “no energy, passion, and enthusiasm,” little sense of or even concern to ask “why they are here,” even when where they are is one of the best colleges in the country.
The ethical concern expressed in Speed Limits grows especially urgent in the final chapter, “Meltdowns.” Having annihilated time, the accelerating speeds of technology appear also on the verge of annihilating the earth, or at least reshaping it in ways that will prove disastrous for any life grounded in it. The planet itself is melting, and reality dematerializing. What is nearest to most of us most of the time, Taylor suggests, are no longer material realities with reference to anything earthly, but money that lacks any earthly referent and screens that show images of the image that manufactures manufactured desire. Speed dematerializes and un-earths what was already evident in the railroad, one of its epoch-making technologies. Speed has only accelerated since then, and there is little time left before its dematerializing effects affect the earth as a whole. Some speeds are not sustainable.
Taylor speaks like an ethical prophet from a remote hill far away from the bright lights of the big city, yet he also inhabits its glamour and prestige. Speed Limits includes a photo of him at the opening of Guggenheim Las Vegas and also one of his granddaughter, Selma, on a video ad for Kodak shown in Times Square — images which inclusion I take to indicate that the prophet is one of us, the accuser knowingly implicated in his accusation.
Though I believe the primary impulse of Speed Limits to be ethical, there is also a fair amount of historical material. Like any analyst with a therapeutic intent, Taylor is concerned to diagnose the contemporary addiction to speed and offers something of a genealogy of the technological and economic order devoted to it. His thesis, most simply, is this: For finance capitalism to emerge, currency had to dematerialize and the world had to be wired. This is hardly novel: notable moments or critical points of emergence in this history include the abandonment of the gold standard; revolutions in transportation and telecommunications that shaped the mid-19th century; the implementation of the practices of scientific management of labor in the later 19th century; and the Protestant Reformation. Of these moments, the one that might be surprising to some is the last.
It is perhaps an unusual beginning to the story of our high-speed, dematerialized lives. You don’t find reference to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Reformation in the more commonly known stories told by philosophers such as Paul Virilio, the most well-known theorist of speed. Those who know the early-20th century sociologist Max Weber, however, might not be so surprised, and Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism is a frequent touchstone in Taylor’s history.
As Taylor tells it, the history goes back to the Reformation because Protestantism formed the values, ethic, and minds of the merchants, bankers, and shoppers who would inhabit the marketplaces of capitalism. Reminding us that the expansion of economic markets has again and again required commitments to deregulation, decentralization, and privatization, Taylor claims that these become historically significant values in the Protestant religion of inwardness, which was starkly opposed to the centralized authority of the Catholic Church.
The other significant factor in the emergence of finance capitalism — the dematerialization of reality — also found a notable beginning in the Protestant Reformation insofar as it relocated the Real (the divine) to the invisible inwardness of faith, rather than finding it in the objective externality of the visible sacrament. Taylor’s claim, like Weber’s, is not that Protestantism caused our contemporary addiction to speed, but that it unintentionally contributed something without which our economies and technologies of speed would not have emerged.
Reading the more historically directed sections of Speed Limits, I found myself tempted at times to skim ahead to the accounts of our own times. Those are the pages that grab me the most. Could the historical parts have been eliminated? Perhaps. But the background, the long buildup, serves the important purpose of most genealogies: it shows the critical moments where other options could have been pursued and thereby that our present could have turned out otherwise. It shows that the present is contingent — which means, Taylor says, invoking Søren Kierkegaard and not Michel Foucault, that decisions are possible in the present that could make for changed futures.
In appreciating the historical sections, it must also be remembered that many of the people absorbed by the economies and technologies of speed and dematerialization do not know the history Taylor describes. As Milan Kundera once observed, “the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” This means there has been a lot of forgetting recently and events just one generation away are as if ages ago already. At the elite college where I teach, for instance, students are astonished to learn that 30 years ago I would get cash by walking into the bank on Friday if I wanted any in my pocket over the weekend, since the debit card was not swipeable in most places and some places only accepted cash. They have no acquaintance with days when long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive; when the only people who knew prices on Wall Street were on Wall Street; when you read if you were bored, and video games were only played in a public arcade. The great speed-up has made generations far more than just a generation away, and the history books have not yet made that past present to young people who seem unlikely to inherit it. Though many young people do not know this genealogy of speed, they are the ones who will have to find a suitable pace and tempo of life amid it.
There are of course numerous expert works that offer a history of finance capitalism and a similarly great number that tell the emergence of network society. Speed Limits draws on many of them, but Taylor is not a specialist in economics, technology, or the history of science. He is trained in and teaches theology and religious studies, with comparable expertise in philosophy. What, then, is to be gained by reading Speed Limits in addition to the works of the experts?
The specialists can let us know what these economies and technologies are, how they work, and how they came to be, but thoughtful people also want to know what it is like to live in the history made by them. Speed Limits speaks to such readers. It does not just tell us what is, but conveys a sense of what it means to inhabit economies driven by high-speed technologies serving unquestioned commitments to growth and efficiency. It does this by embracing disparate spheres of individual and social life so as to spot patterns that do not emerge in isolated works of disciplinary experts. Considering art, economics, technology, and religion as both separate and connected spheres, Taylor elicits something like the “spirit of the age” felt in, but not identified with any specific object or discipline.
Conveying the “spirit of the age” is not fashionable among academic experts today, and work suspected of aiming at it is criticized — often accused of a totalizing political project. Preferring particular analyses of historically specific contexts of time and place, our histories, following much of the postmodern critique of Hegel, are not meant to grasp the spirit. They are, to play on words, “dis-spirited” works that might document objectively but do not always counter the dispiriting consequences of the economies and technologies described.
Taylor’s readers discover, by contrast, that he has a particular gift for making us feel how the world history described objectively is also at issue for us. This is perhaps something we owe to his longstanding commitment to the humanities. For, the vocation of the humanities, not unlike that of religion, has been understood to entail addressing present historical structures and systems of life by asking about meaning and meaningfulness. But it is not common today to find intellectuals in the humanities, ones committed to risking an intellectual life on the wager that the meaning of human being can be spoken to in vital ways. Their absence has contributed to a dearth of public discourse addressing what being human means to each of us in a particular historical moment. Taylor has never been afraid to do this, and he does it again in Speed Limits.
Jeffrey L. Kosky is professor of Religion at Washington & Lee University. His most recent book is Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity – Walter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy.