Judy Wajcman is a sociologist of work and author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (2014). She studies how digital devices affect our use and perception of time. Refreshingly, her approach eschews technological determinism, instead positing that social structures shape the way we use digital devices just as much as the technology itself. In a new interview with Public Seminar, Wajcman argues that thinkers who make grand pronouncements about the acceleration of life the digital regime overlook the fact that this acceleration is differentiated along class and gender lines. She also explains why her newest research interest is electronic calendars and scheduling software. Here’s an excerpt:
PS: While recognizing that devices are designed with particular capacities and affordances, you say that there is nothing inevitable about the way they evolve and are used. If we intended to challenge the way in which digital technologies currently shape our experience of time, where should we begin?
JW: I need to make two points here that might seem contradictory to begin with. The first is that, as I have already said, there is too much focus on digital devices as the cause of time pressure. The fact that working mothers experience the shortage of time is because of their hours of market work, family and caring responsibilities, and the uneven allocation of housework. It is not due to devices per se. Indeed, the mobile phone is an important coordination tool, helping with work/life balance, especially as working hours are now so unpredictable. Indeed, as I have written, mobiles can even be thought of as tools of intimacy – helping people, including family members, stay in touch with each other.
Secondly, although people can and do appropriate technologies and use them for their own purposes, the design and material affordances of digital technologies do matter. That is why I do STS [science and technology studies], because I believe in the constitutive power of technology. For example, there is growing awareness that social media are designed to capture our attention and that the business model of Facebook, YouTube, etc. is built on precisely this model. The best behavioral psychologists is the world are involved in working out ways to persuade us to stay online with all sorts of seductive features. To counter this trend, the Center for Humane Technology has recently formed to promote technological design that enhances our wellbeing, rather than simply delivering profit. This is a promising development and a good place to begin.
Ultimately these problems, which seem private, are public problems. People practically cheer when I mention how Volkswagen and Daimler, the German car companies, had a policy of banning email at weekends, and even automatically deleting emails sent during holidays. This was made possible by the existence of strong works councils in these companies. Without collective action, it is hard to resist the pressure of always being available, especially at work.
Image of Judy Wajcman via jotdown.es.