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Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time

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On a recent trip to Milton Keynes on 29 May 2012 I had the opportunity to attend a Society and Information Research Group (SIRG) seminar by Judy Wacjman (LSE).  Judy is a Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.   Judy's presentation, very broadly speaking, was about technology and time and whether one affects the other.  Her seminar was related to research that may feed into a book that she is currently working on.  This post is a personal reflection of some of the themes that struck me as being significant and important in my own work.  Others who attended the seminar are very likely to have picked up on other issues (and I encourage them to add comments below).

Timing

For me, the timing of her seminar couldn't have been better.  My last blog was about an event that shared practice about how lecturers and institutions could most effectively help students to develop software for mobile devices.  During this event mobility was portrayed as an opportunity, but there is also was an implicit assertion that mobile technology will change how we work.  In doing so, mobile technology can affect how we spend our time.

Productive work may not cease the moment that we now leave the office, but instead can now continue for the duration of our commute home.  Work may invade on our personal time too, since we can easily take our devices away on holiday with us.  Important messages that are concluded with a succinct, 'sent from my iPhone', clearly suggests that we are working whilst we are on the move.

Judy mentioned that perhaps some of these concerns mainly relate to 'management or professional types', and this might be the case.  But one way to really understand the issue (of time, and how it is affected by technology) is to carry out studies, particularly ethnographic studies to conduct observations about how people really use technology.

Research methods

Such methods are briefly discussed within a module, such as M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, which is concerned with how to make devices and systems that are usable to people.  Two approaches used for the evaluation of the success of products includes ethnographic studies (observing users), and asking them to complete diary studies.  Judy's presentation emphasised the point that interdisciplinary research is a necessity if we are to understand the way in which technology impacts our lives.

Judy managed to connect my immediate concerns about mobile technology and its impact on our time with earlier debates.  Introductions of devices, such as washing machines and other labour saving devices were touted to 'save time'.  This raised the questions of 'what happens when we get that time back?  How might we spend it?'  Unpicking these questions leads us into further interesting debates, which relate to the different ways in which men and women use the time that they have available, and towards the broader concerns of capitalism.

One point that Judy mentioned in passing (which I've remembered reading or hearing before) is that perhaps we have been 'cheated by capitalism'.  Perhaps the extra time we have gained hasn't been spent on leisure, but instead has been spent on doing even more work, which allows us to buy more stuff (since, perhaps, everyone else is doing the same).  A personal reflection is that mobile devices also act as devices of consumption.  Not only do they facilitate the extension of work into our 'dead time', but also permit us to browse eBay and on-line stores whilst travelling on a train, for instance.

Technology and speed

Returning to the main debate, does technology cause us to work 'faster' or more?  Is the pace of our lives accelerating because we can access so much more information than ever before? Judy urges caution and asks us to consider causality.  On one hand there is technological determinism (wikipedia), but on the other there is social determinism (wikipedia).  Mobility can facilitate new ways of interacting with people, which may then, in turn, give rise to new technologies.  It could be argued that one helps to shape the other mutually.

Judy cautions against having the individual as the focus of our attention.  People live and work with each other.  Perhaps the household should be the focus of our attention when it comes to understanding the influence of technology on our lives.

What was clear from Judy's seminar was that there were many different areas of literature that could be brought to bear on understanding technology, time and how we spend it.  During her talk I made a note of a number of references that might be interesting to some.  The first was an edited book entitled High-speed society: social acceleration, power, and modernity, edited by Hartmut Rosa and William E Scheuerman.  The second was entitled, Shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900, by David Edgerton.  The final book that I have extracted from my notes is that of, Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, by Sherry Turkle (MIT, homepage).

Reflections

An enjoyable and thought provoking seminar which highlighted an important point that when you begin to scratch the surface of a question you then open up a broader set of connected and related issues.  Important subjects include the importance of the wider context in which technology is used and what tools and approaches we might use to understand our environment.  I was reminded of the obvious truth that, given technology firmly exists within the human context, learning from disciplines such as history and sociology is as important as drawing upon lessons from science and engineering.

 

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