"We have become too fast for nature"
In 2013, you wrote the book “Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity”. When do you think our societies started to accelerate?
Hartmut Rosa : Acceleration is a long ongoing historical process, which more or less started in the 18th century. During the last 300 years there have been periods where acceleration has been more acute, such as the period of industrialization in the late 19th century, or when assembly-line work emerged in the early 20th century. The last big wave of acceleration happened in the 90s’, as three acceleration processes came together. First, the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to an increase in international flows (in tourism, trade, etc…). Second, digitalization with the invention of the Internet. Third, economic change due to market deregulation and the rise of financial capitalism, allowing anyone to transfer money, invest and reinvest incredibly faster than before, in a matter of seconds.
The way most of us experience acceleration is as an explosion of our to do lists.
According to you, what is driving acceleration?
H. R. : The idea behind acceleration is that our Western societies can only maintain their institutional status quo through a permanent increase in speed. It happens when growth rates are above acceleration rates. Let’s take a simple example. Consider that, fifty years ago, I wrote 10 letters per day and it took me two hours. Now, writing 10 emails takes me only one hour: it’s faster. But if I write 20 emails, it takes me two hours. And if I write 30 emails, it takes me one additional hour, so I have to speed up in order to confine the time I spend communicating to two hours. That’s where acceleration emerges. It's the same all over our lives. As soon as cars were invented, the distance between home and the workplace, school, cinemas, and holidays started to increase. As long as the distance covered per week increases at a higher rate than the speed of our vehicles, we are pressed for time. It’s a logic of dynamic stabilization, driven by a quest for permanent optimization of our lives.
How does acceleration affect our daily lives?
H. R. : The way most of us experience acceleration is as an explosion of our to do lists. There are more and more things which we feel we need to do, and therefore we have to run faster and faster. In addition, we approach our lives through “parametric optimization”. We measure and monitor all aspects of our lives : our body weight, the number of steps we make, the quality of our sleep, the calories we spend by doing exercise, the number of our Facebook friends and likes, etc. Our life is about optimizing all of those parameters : being healthier with better intake of calories, sleeping better, getting more shares on Instagram and Snapchat, etc.
Lastly, since we cannot optimize human interactions, we tend to avoid them in many contexts. Consider we are two people working in the same company. I need some information from you. If I stand up and enter your office, it might take quite a long time since I cannot just barge in and bring up with my needs right away. I have to ask “how are you today?” and then maybe you will tell me a story about your grandfather. I just don't have time for this interaction and I prefer avoiding it. I choose instead to send you an email and ask you my question directly. I could as well have called you, but there is the same risk of you telling me stories. Similarly, people no longer want to play soccer because it's difficult to organize. One has to check whether the others are available to play. One day someone is busy with something, the next day someone else has something else to do. So we end up jogging, which we can easily do, as we don’t depend on others. We live in a society where more and more human encounters are avoided. At the supermarket, we have machines instead of cashiers, at the airport, at the bank… it’s everywhere the same. It's fast, more efficient and cheaper.
We have become too fast for nature.
Why do we engage in so many things? Why can’t we stop optimizing our lives?
H. R. : For me, the main driver is fear of losing out against the others. Our to do lists are full because we feel expectations upon us. I really should do more for my health, so I go to the gym. I really should do more for my mind, so I practice mindfulness. I really should care more for my family, so I celebrate their birthday, etc. People feel that they won’t stand their ground in a highly competitive system if they don't keep up with those expectations. The other driver concerns our relationship with death. We know we will die some day and we don't trust that life will be better afterwards. So we want to have as much as possible from our life experience by speeding up. If I speed up, I can basically have twice the share of my life. And if I become infinitely fast, then I can do an indefinite number of things before I die. At the same time, we somehow feel that speeding up our lives is not really giving us what we expected. If we really slowed down and took time, we would have to face ourselves and the world we live in and then we would experience that the world is silent, alienated, not speaking to us and that we are somehow dead already. So I think there's a form of panic in the acceleration of our lives. We run away from a situation where we would otherwise have to face ourselves and our lack of interaction with others and the world.
Today, we can see the limits of this acceleration process…
H. R. : Extractive industries pollute the atmosphere and destroy our nature. We have basically become too fast for nature. We’ve been cutting down trees for millions of years, which is not a problem per se. It becomes a problem when we cut down trees faster than what it takes the forest to regrow. The same happens with fishing. If you fish the ocean at a pace which is too fast for the fish to regrow, then you have a problem.
The other limit to acceleration is psychological. We need more and more psychological energy to sustain this growth in acceleration and innovation. We use our eyes and our backs to be sat and glued to our screens all day long and we need a form of permanent attention and alertness. This leads to a massive burnout crisis. We have clear figures that the psychosocial institutions are incredibly frequented nowadays. When I give a talk, I usually ask the audience “who thought, in the last couple of months, that they should slow down because otherwise, they might suffer from burnout?”. Almost all hands go up. There is a form of overall anxiety of our societies, telling us that we are going too fast.
I believe democracy only works if we encounter each other with resonance and want to be touched and transformed by the others.
What can we do to stop this massive process of acceleration?
H. R. : Resonance may be an answer. It is not something I have in myself, it's not a mental state or a property. It is a form of relationship. Being in resonance with something means being immersed in it. It means opening up to that thing, listening, being touched and answering to it. You have to open yourself, let this thing speak to you from the inside, being affected and transformed. In resonance, you cannot say who is the subject and who is the object. The center of the activity is situated in the interplay between me and you.
You cannot enter in resonance if you control or dominate the other. It has to be fundamentally impossible for you to do so. You cannot engineer or plan this process and its results. It’s like when you read a book which somehow profoundly affects you. You enter in a transformation process but you don't know what the outcome will be. Similar resonance happens when you fall in love with someone. In that sense, resonance is completely opposite to the logic of optimization. You cannot optimize an outcome that you don’t know yet. Embracing resonance comes with welcoming unexpected encounters and transformations.
Do you think we are ready, as a society, to embrace resonance?
H. R. : The logic of optimization is profoundly embedded in our societies, together with individualism. In contemporary democracy, I observe that people are anxious about their voice not being heard but they don't want to listen to the others. We do countless polls but aggregating private opinions does not make a public opinion! I believe democracy only works if we encounter each other with resonance and want to be touched and transformed by the others. Hannah Arrendt tells us that innovation gets born out of discussion and debate. It does not come from me nor from you but rather from the in-between.
Meanwhile, dynamic stabilization has made us aggressive towards nature, the others and ourselves. In the political realm, the amount of anger is increasing everywhere. People think of the political opponent not as a citizen who has a different opinion, but as an enemy to fight or even kill. We have seen this in the United-States where Donald Trump supporters truly hated Hillary Clinton, and the other way round. It's been the same in Britain with Brexit and in France or Germany around vaccination, climate change or the refugee crisis.
Then, how could we move forward?
H. R. : We need a complete paradigm shift. It implies changing the way we interact with the world : going away from control, accumulation and possession towards an inspiring vision like resonance. In the short-term, a few things could be done. First, we need to contain financial markets and capitalism. It should not be the logic of the market that drives the cultural evolution and the political system, but the other way round. Second, we need to cultivate our tolerance towards each other, accepting voices that are different from ours. I’m not referring to passive tolerance in the sense that “I do it my way, you do it your way” but rather to proactive openness : “I want to hear you and be in contact with you”. Citizen assemblies offer a good example of how people, when they have something to decide together, start to listen to the others. This somehow changes their opinion and position. They develop an understanding of the others’ perspective and they strive towards a kind of compromise. The institutional setting of the assembly and putting in place a culture of listening and answering are key to make this space a sphere of resonance.
Could spending time together be a first step towards resonance?
H. R. : Today, we completely underestimate the extent to which we are bodily beings. Resonance starts with reading the other’s face, it's the kind of micro exchange that we have learned over billions of years. In a videoconference, we can see each other's eyes but we cannot look the other in the eye. Physical co-presence also means that we all feel the same heat, smell the same odor, hear the same bird singing outside. Online, I have to completely block this external environment, because it is not shared with the others. So being in a room together is kind of the basic physical situation where you start experimenting with resonance.
Hartmut Rosa is a sociologist and political scientist. He is Professor for Sociology and Sociological Theory at the Institute of Sociology at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. His areas of study include theories of modernity, sociology of time, communitarianism, and social theory. He is the author of Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (2013) and Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (2016).
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