Siri, Why Am I So Busy?: An Interview with Judy Wajcman

Smart technologies—phones, tablets, wearables, and time-saving apps—are supposed to lighten our load. So why are we always complaining about overwork? Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School ...

Smart technologies—phones, tablets, wearables, and time-saving apps—are supposed to lighten our load. So why are we always complaining about overwork? Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, tackles that paradox in her recent book, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Neta Alexander talked with her for Public Books about the history of busyness, why we haven’t reached an “End of Work” utopia, and why iPhone meditation apps aren’t the solution.

I | From Marx to Multitasking


Neta Alexander (NA): In 1930, Keynes promised us a three-hour workday and mused about the “end of work.” Almost a century later, many Americans work around the clock in a new “always connected” corporate culture. What went wrong, and is it still possible to resist what you describe as “the cult of speed”?


Judy Wajcman (JW): I think the thing that went wrong is the incredible inequality that we see all around the world. Thomas Piketty’s book [Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013)] is often cited in this regard. We see enormous inequality in the labor market: on the one hand we have professional managers working incredibly long hours, and on the other hand we have unemployment and ever-spreading job insecurity. The main problem is the distribution of work. Our policies about redistribution of work have somehow lost ground and I think we have to return to these issues and share out a lot more of the work. At the moment, the people “enjoying” a three-hour workday are not doing it out of choice. This is very far from the Keynesian utopia.


NA: You begin your book with Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 statement that “time is money,” and end with the Slow Food Movement and other resistance strategies to the cult of acceleration. This focus on time as a political and economic paradigm is quite different from your previous works, which focused more on gender biases in the corporate world and their relation to technology. What led you to write Pressed for Time?


JW: As someone who has been interested in the empirical work on time use in the last 20 years, I started to notice the ever-growing gap between what we empirically know is happening to people’s time and routine, and what the current ideology or narrative about contemporary time tells us. I was struck by the fact that there was so much discussion about everyone being busy and life being more hectic than ever, alongside a parallel discussion about technological acceleration as a utopian, almost messianic, development. I have always been skeptical about the acceleration narrative, and I wanted to really see to what extent this was the case.

I’m also an avid reader of historical romances, which made me aware of the fact that many of these issues and debates tend to emerge whenever a new technology gains prominence. When Virginia Woolf first used an elevator, or Marcel Proust first traveled by train, they described these experiences in similar, paradoxical, terms: as simultaneously awe-inspiring and anxiety-producing. As Georg Simmel famously demonstrated in The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), the invention of “the metropolitan pace of life,” involving immediacy, simultaneity, and presentism, radically changed the modern notion of time and space. The symbolic significance and allure of speed that characterize our present condition has a long lineage.


NA: By theorizing what you call “the time-pressure paradox,” you challenge the notion that the pace of life is indeed faster than it used to be. You use statistics, time-use surveys conducted in the past six decades, and your own fieldwork in Australia and Britain to show that there exists an unrecognizable gap between work hours—which have remained surprisingly constant since the 1960s—and the feeling of constant pressure and lack of time. Why did this gap emerge?


JW: To truly understand this gap we must historicize our conception of “time.” With industrial capitalism, for the first time workers get employed and paid based on their labor time. Franklin’s equation of time with money means that your value is measured by how many hours you are capable of working. In Marxist theory, this is when work becomes commodified.

Marx talks about two ways to extract more work from laborers: one is by lengthening or exceeding the workday and forcing them to work more hours; the other is “the intensification of work”—getting people to work harder during the same period of time to increase productivity. A lot of the new mobile technologies follow this logic of intensification by enabling people to multitask on different projects, and to work during what was once known as “dead time”—while commuting, waiting for the dentist, or flying to a conference. The workplace is now expanded to everywhere, which is why we always feel “pressed” even when we spend fewer hours in the office.

It’s also important to note that different things are going on with different groups of people. Some are working long hours and are under a lot of strain and it has less to do with technology than a new performance regime in which our work is measured in ways it was never measured before. Take universities, for example: there are more students and fewer teachers; more adjuncts and fewer tenure-track positions; more forms of surveillance—a whole set of new managerial practices that intensify the work process.

Meanwhile, our expectations of what the “Good Life” should consist of have radically changed in the past few decades. We now attribute value to “busyness” and multitasking; we feel busy because we want to squeeze as much as possible into as little time as possible. In order to change these feelings we first need to redefine our cultural values. It simply won’t be enough to put the technology aside or develop iPhone applications meant to help us meditate or “slow down.”


II | There’s Always More Laundry to Do


NA: While your research is inspired by and builds on the work of scholars like Paul Virilio and Manuel Castells, you also criticize them for “cultural pessimism” and moments of technological determinism. You specifically call out Castells for assuming that “technologies are used in a uniform way overall and everywhere, revolutionizing work, leisure, education, family relationships, and personal identities.” Why was it so important for you to push back against this idea?


JW: Because I’ve been doing science and technology studies for a long time, I have been skeptical about the story that acceleration is a purely technological phenomenon and that we are passive victims of technology. I wanted to stress the fact that technology is fundamentally social: it only makes sense once we give it meaning and incorporate it into our lives. More importantly, different people use the same technologies in different ways.

Decades ago I wrote a piece about house labor and the fact that domestic appliances and technologies such as the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and so forth, were not the answer to the problem of the division of domestic labor between men and women. I started to collect data based on time-use surveys and found that appliances raise expectations: you get a washing machine and suddenly you are expected to wash your clothes very often, and to arrange them into “bright colors” and “dark colors.” This affects not only the weekly time dedicated to laundry, but also the clothes you buy, the interior design of your suburban house, and many other aspects of your daily life. There is no simple equation between having a washing machine and spending less time on laundry; often, it’s the other way around. In this sense, Pressed for Time can be seen as a continuation of feminist debates about domestic labor and books such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother (1983).


NA: Your writing style, which is scholarly yet accessible, also echoes Cowan’s work; the ideas and examples can be grasped by a range of audiences. When you started to work on this project, did you have any reader in mind?


JW: I’m always committed, as a feminist and a socialist, to writing in an accessible way. Contrary to many other academic works in the field of science and technology studies, the original idea was to present arguments in a way that makes them accessible to as wide an audience as possible. I believe theory should be inclusive.


III | The Rise of Busyness


NA: What you describe in the book is the reversal of late 19th-century “conspicuous consumption” and indulgence in leisure as a mark of high social status, as Thorstein Veblen described. In the 21st century, leisure time is a status symbol only if one can squeeze as many cultural activities as possible into it. “Busyness” has replaced idleness as the epitome of success.


JW: Yes. I just today read in the paper an interview with a California-based entrepreneur who developed a wireless temperature-control system for the home as part of the new Internet of Things. He talked about the fact that now, after a change of heart, he only works 70 hours a week. He used to work day and night at Google until one day he came home and his child was crying. When he went to pick him up the child ran to the nanny; he thought, “I’m not spending enough time with my son,” and decided to quit his job and start his own company.


NA: These “epiphany narratives” always remind me of Augustine’s Confessions and other religious and spiritual texts of conversion. I once was blind, but now I see. Is this a new form of enlightenment?


JW: Absolutely. You read these stories every day, and they never mention the fact that the people working for these guys have yet to experience this life-changing transformation for the simple fact that they are required to work 24/7. I wrote a book called Managing like a Man (1998), for which I interviewed senior men managers and CEOs. They all talked about how much they regretted not having spent more time with their loved ones. But none of them turned around and said, “We’re going to reorganize the company so that the young men who come in won’t make this same mistake.” Instead it was what I call “a rhetoric of regret,” and it’s completely empty. Tech companies suck employees into an impossible work schedule and then they offer them yoga or mindfulness retreats—very different than actually reducing work hours or giving workers more free time.


IV | Rage Against the ATM


NA: Following Paul Virilio, you argue that “the chronoscopic time of the ICT [information and communications technology] revolution—a temporality of instantaneous and continuous connectivity—is, paradoxically, accompanied by new forms of inertia,” that of an increasingly stationary way of life: sitting in front of a screen. Why does every increase of speed seem to eventually increase the potential for slowness?


JW: Let me give you an example. I went into my bank a couple of hours ago and nearly had a nervous breakdown because they had literally gotten rid of all the bank tellers and, instead, had installed automatic machines with limited functions. There are so many ways in which technology is leading to more self-service, and consumers find themselves struggling with machines. The myth of Silicon Valley is that technology is seamless, smooth, light, beautiful, and—most important—it never breaks down. However, people’s experience of technology is entirely different. Most gadgets are unrepairable by design. Once they break—and they always do—we have to either spend money on new products, or waste time and energy on chasing the retail shop and tracing the original receipt. There are so many ways in which technology produces work rather than reduces it.

Take cars, for example. They are normally described in terms of movement, speed, and time-saving, but we spend more and more time stuck in traffic, sitting helplessly behind the wheel. Due to the emergence of the suburban logic, we design cities around freeways, which tend to get clogged. As a result, we spend hours a day commuting to work. Rather than redesigning cities in a way that will enable more people to live close to their work, we build more and more freeways and trust Silicon Valley to come up with technological solutions such as self-driving cars.

Umberto Boccioni, Sketch for <i>The City Rises</i> (1910). Wikimedia Commons.

Umberto Boccioni, Sketch for The City Rises (1910). Wikimedia Commons.

NA: Your concluding chapter is a polemic against Google’s self-driving car. It seems like this idea hit a nerve …


JW: Yes, it did. The logic behind this invention is that people will sit there for hours, able to work while someone else is driving for them. I think it’s iconic of the current trajectory of technology and time, and I find it to be a very American or Californian solution to our problems. It worries me for several reasons: ecologically, it’s not very sustainable, and—equally important—it’s supposed to replace a much-needed radical redesign of cities on a more human scale. We need to spend more time and energy developing urban centers with public transport than encouraging people to have private cars.


NA: In your conclusion, you criticize resistance strategies such as the Slow Food Movement or “Digital Detox” camps that offer gadget-free weekends in nature. Why do you dismiss these ideas?


JW: I’ve got nothing against the Slow Food Movement or yoga retreats, but I feel these solutions ignore the wider problem of the rise of the “acceleration cult,” the cultural value of “busyness,” and the constant pressure to increase productivity. The best solutions are collective solutions rather than individual ones. We can collectively agree not to send work emails during the weekend. The problem is, if only several employees comply and the rest still work seven days a week, then the former might be considered “lazy” or “irresponsible.” We need collective debates and collective solutions about how we want to organize our time, and what role technology should play in our lives.

That said, I’m perfectly optimistic because I think that when technologies are new—and all of these technologies are certainly new—people are excited about them and use them excessively and obsessively. But if you look at the long history of technology, you find that over time we always optimize the way to integrate new tools into our lives. No one will tell you that the landline “oppresses” him, but the telephone was initially seen as a potentially dangerous and addictive device, especially for teenagers. The discussion we’re having now will look very odd in 30 years. icon

Featured image: J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and SpeedThe Great Western Railway, (1844). Wikimedia Commons.