Tyranny of the Moment (A Summary/ Notes)

A summary of/ notes on Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2001)

The general focus of the book is on why social life has become so hurried and accelerated and what the (negative) consequences of these changes are for family life and leisure-time.

Preface

We face a double paradox – Despite the proliferation of time-saving technologies we seem to have less time to spare than ever, and the information revolution has not created a more informed population, but a more confused one.

The book stems from a sabbatical in which the author got very little work done, because his time seemed to filled with lots of minor tasks – he had no time to sit down to a long project. So it seems with life today – we seem unable to think a thought more than two inches long.

This book is not luddite, it is an attempt to create understanding of the unintended consequences of the information society.

The general focus of the book is on how life is hurried and accelerated – how working days are overloaded, leisure-time is chopped up and the consequences of these changes for family life.

Chapter One – Introduction – Mind The Gap

A central claim of this book is that the unhindered and massive flow of information in our time is about to fill all the gaps, leading as a consequence to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical series of saturated moments, without a ‘before’ and ‘after’, a ‘here’ and ‘there’ to separate them.

We seem to live about two seconds in the future. When one is on the receiving end of a mass of information, the scarcest resource is slow, continuous time.

In the information age it could be that more flexibility makes us less flexible and more choice makes us less free – Why do most of us have less spare time, and why does more information result in less comprehension?

Chapter Two – Information Culture, Information Cult

We need to understand the move from an industrial to an informational society – a term which can be traced back to The Frankfurt School, MacLuhan and of course Toffler.

The move to the informational society is only one of many trends leading to greater complexity, uncertainty and individualism.

The twenty first century began in 1991 with three major events – firstly the collapse of the USSR, secondly the emergence of geopolitical instability, for example the Balkan Wars and the USA’s New World Order – heralding more wars in far flung places.

The third major event was the emergence and rapid growth of the Internet, which changes knowledge through linking chunks of it together differently and leads to constant updating, which heralded the move to an informational society, which is a society in which IT is integral to all production, as it is in many other spheres of social life.

Information has now become the new scarce resource – Information processing is increasingly integral to many jobs.

In the information society, freedom from information is a scarce resource. The skill we really need to learn is to learn to filter out the 0.001% we actually need.

Many of us are coming to see living in a world of colourful fragments of knowledge – and engaging with this knowledge without being able to grasp everything in its entirety as not being a problem. People used to worry about knowing everything – now they don’t.

however, even though we do not regard this as a problem this represents a profound transformation of knowledge.

In information society, the gaps are being filled with fast time (NB Mgraine has something to say about this).

For those on the supply side of the economy, they are competing for attention – and they want our attention NOW because information can quickly become obsolete. For those of us who are consumers, freedom from information is our scarce resource. (Interesting).

People are uncertain of who they are, where they have to re-invent themselves on a day to day basis. People are free to choose but not free not to choose.

In Information society – The point of gravity in the global economy has moved from things to signs. The sign economy changes at astonishing speed, and requires other organisational forms and a greater flexibility than the economy of things, since signs float more freely than things…. The free availability of ideas simultaneously implies that many of them compete for the free spaces in our heads, leading to confusion and uncertain identities – identity has become disembedded from tradition, or major, continuous narrative. Hybridity and blurred boundaries are the norm.

Another feature of the 21st century is that freedom and vulnerability are synonyms – the bipolar world has been replaced with a unipolar world. That pole is called market liberalism and indivdualism, and its beats the drum with catchwords like flexibility, freedom and openness. Resistance is scattered and uncoordinated. New tensions result and new types of scarcity might emerge as a result:

  • Slow time
  • Security
  • Predictability
  • belonging, stable, personal identity
  • Coherence and understanding
  • Cumulative, linear, organic growth
  • Real experiences.

What matters is not whether any of this is new, what matters is the fact that our age is the information age.

What is the relationship between technology, time and culture? You have to understand this by looking at the recent past… which is where we go back to in chapter 3…

Chapter Three – The Time of the book, the clock and money.

Skimread

Acceleration is at the heart of the last 10000 years of cultural history – Writing lasted 4500 years, the printing press 500, while radio only had a few decades of dominance before the TV. Today, it is feasible that a product can be obsolete before it hits the shelves.

He now apologies for making some general comparisons of the traditional, the modern era and the information era…..

In this chapter Eriksen looks at five technological innovations which indicate those ‘peculiar institutions’ of modern society which are precursors of the information society: Writing, clocks, money, and notation,

Writing – Has been an essential tool in the transition from a concrete society based on intimate, personal relationships, memory, local religion and orally transmitted myths, to an abstract society based on formal legislation, archives, a book religion and written history.

The emergence of Clock Time – Time used to be event-determined – Something would happen when everything else was ready – You find this in some traditional societies today – where trains arrive when they arrive, not at a pre-given time. With the invention of the calendar and especially the clock, time becomes external and something which we are expected to sign a contract to stick to from cradle to grave – It becomes something objective which can be chopped up. It also now becomes something which can be used to coordinate us – the basis of modern business.

Bergson in ‘Time and Free Will’ has criticised how quantitative empty time now regulates us from outside rather than letting tasks at hand fill time from within.

Money does roughly the same thing to payment, value measurement and exchange as clocks and writing do to language and time. They make the transaction abstract and impose a standardised grid on the whole world. They place individual, mundane transactions under an invisible umbrella of abstraction. Money renders personal connections and trust redundant, as long as we agree on the value of the digit.

Musical Notation is his final example – manuscripts make music abstract, separate them from the individual. He argues that classical music would not have been possible without musical notation.

All of these changes together lead to a small-scale society based on local knowledge to a large scale society based on an abstract legislative system and abstract knowledge founded in logic and science.

The printing press and the industrial revolution were also necessary to pull all of the above together in modernity – a society where external abstract systems regulate huge people into being part of of one machine in which they are expendable. ‘Particular individuals are expendable because language, economy, memory, morality and knowledge are all externalised’.

Linear time is not part of the problem…

In addition to all of the above, possible because all of the above, a key feature of modernity was faith in progress – that things were getting better – however, now we are living in a postmodern age. People think things are about to go horribly wrong. This is not caused by linear time, but by a time perception which is not sufficiently linear. Time has been partitioned into so many pieces that the only time in existence is a single, manic, hysterical moment which is continuously changed, but which does not point to anything other than the next moment.

This could well be an unintended consequence of the efficient society concerned with speed.

Chapter Four – Speed (and the consequences of time speeding up!)

The chapter starts off by drawing on Paul Virilio, a theorist of speed (dromology)

Virilio studies the military – pointing out that invading a country used to take another country months to organise, then weeks and now possibly minutes – even more rapidly if we include the potential of cyber-war.

In response to Mcluhan’s global village, V prefers the term global megacity – characterised by anonymity and disintegration – Where everyone communicates to everyone and nobody really speaks with anyone. Time dominates place, everyone is close by in an instant.

The chapter now goes into an interesting description of how acceleration took place in the industrial revolution which was caused by the IR and new productivity demands in commodity production.

This acceleration was aided in the second half of the twenty first century by Information Technology – IT is simultaneously catalyst, source of coveted goods and economic powerhouse.

There are eight consequences of acceleration which are unique to post-modernity:

One – Speed is an addictive drug…

Because it is easier to communicate today, we communicate more – previously, the labour in writing a letter precluded the writing of unnecessary letters, emails are easier to write, and we we can be contacted anywhere, so we send more emails. Also, we are now more impatient in waiting for a response. In the age of email, we now expect, demand, a rapid response to our communications –

Because we demand a rapid response, this interrupts slow time.

It is not just email, everything moves faster now.

Two – Speed leads to simplification…

For example paintings to photos, and summaries of books in Readers Digest (actually the reference to Readers Digest dates this a bit!)

Three – Speed creates assembly line effects….

Quite a weak section – speed leads to a reduction in quality generally, but sometimes fast products are OK and especially better than nothing!

Four – Speed leads to a loss of precision…

Today decisions have to be made almost immediately. Those who pause for thought are overtaken by those prepared to act immediately. This can lead to bad decisions and uncertainty – unsurprising maybe when we no longer stop to reflect.

In politics, politicians react immediately and short termism is in fashion – those who play the long game get nowhere (the greens?). While in financial markets, ripples in one country rapidly domino to others.

Finally he turns to Journalism where accuracy and complexity have been replaced by speed and what’s interesting. What matters is beating the other guys to getting something published.

Erikson notes that this is correlated with declining trust in journalists – an interesting dialectic where increasing freedom = increasing distrust.

Five – Speed Demands Space…

Because they complete over our attention, every spare moment is precious in the information age – There are less empty spaces, less time for the free flow of thought, messages on mobile technologies fill every gap.

Six – Speed is Contagious…

Short wins out over long – and what’s lost along the way is context and understanding and credibility. We also speed up…. Plays are faster…

A political scientist recently studied the development of the annual financial debate in the Norwegian Parliament, comparing the speed of speech in selected years from 1945 to 1995 – Looking at Phonemes per minute…

584 in 1945

772 in 1980

863 in 1995

In other worlds the average politician spoke 50 percent faster in 1995 compared to 1945.

Increasing speed also makes us more impatient – If a plane journey takes an hour, a delay of 15 minutes is less bearable than if the same journey took two hours. Similarly we are now impatient when it takes a computer 30 seconds to log on.

Seven – Gains and losses tend to equal each other out…

For example — Although computer processor power doubles every 18 months, so does the complexity of the software.

Worse, more complex software means more chances of crashing.

Also it means more choice, and more time spent negotiating these choices, and hence less efficiency.

Eight – Technology leads to unpredictable changes

Who could have thought that time saving technologies and more information could have made time scarcer and us less enlightened?

Chapter Five – Exponential Growth

Basically involves the doubling of a number over a certain time period – Growth is slow at first, and then there is a sudden leap upwards, leading to a qualitative shift in a very short time – for example when a village becomes a town.

Exponential growth creates scarcity of space…

There is now a dearth of information – and when there is more information, we spend less time looking at any one piece of it…. And thus the producers of info change the info to fit in with this – Movies are more action packed and commercials shorter for example. Speed is also a narcotic, it is easier to speed up the info rather than to slow it down.

Side effects become dominant –

Quantitative growth leads to qualitative change – For example Bateson’s Polyploid Horse and the tendency to larger institutions towards Bureaucratisation. Basically larger organisations are less efficient, and more time is spent in wasteful activities.

There is more of everything – he now spends some time outlining the rapid growth of books and journal articles (most of which are never read?) and air traffic. Before stating that the growth rates in cyberspace surpass everything (p97)

Changes in cyerbspace represent compression in time – more and more information, consumption, movement and activity is being pushed into the available time, which is relatively constant. When the growth line hits vertical, time has ceased to exist – this happens when news is outdated the moment it is published.

When more and more is squeezed into each moment, the result is stacking…

Chapter Six – Stacking

We have moved from the relatively slow and linear to the fast and momentary – novels and old style dramas evolved based on passed events and assume you read progressively. The internet and new style dramas (Dynasty) stand still at enormous speed – the web is not hierachical and new dramas despite the cliffhangers do not generally progress – you can pick up the narrative thread after being away for several episodes.

The most important part of navigating the web is filters, but filters do not remove the fragmentation .

We are forced to customise the content in the internet – this gives us freedom of choice but we lose internal cohesion, meaningful context and slowness.

In the Informational Society pieces replace totalities…

Industrial society

Informational Society

CD/ Vinyl record

Book

Sinlge channel TV

Letter

Stationary Telephone

MP3

WWW

Mutli-channel TV

Email

Mobile Telephone

Lifelong Monogamy

Lifelong work

Depth

Linear Time-saving

Scarcity of Information

Serial Monogomy

Flexible Work

Breadth

Fragmented Contemporariness

Scarcity of Freedom of Information

The tidal waves of information fragments typical of our kind of society stimulate a style of thought that is less reminiscent of the strict, logical, linear thinking characteristic of industrial society than of the freely associating, poetical, metaphorical thinking that characterised many non modern societies. Instead of ordering knowledge in tidy rows, Information Society offers cascades of decontextualised sings more or less randomly connected to each other.

Contemporary Culture runs at full speed without moving an inch

The close cousins of acceleration and exponential growth lead to vertical stacking. Since there is no vacant time to spread information in, it gets compressed and stacked in time spans which become shorter and shorter.

He also uses music to point out that nothing new has been created since about 1990. The new now emerges from stacking – new combinations of old phenomenon. This has consequences for human creativity.

When this happens it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic. This has consequences for the way we related to knowledge, work and lifestyle. Cause and effect, internal organic growth, maturity and experience are all under threat in this situation.

The law of diminishing returns strikes with a vengeance

Media appeal is the most important thing politicians can have – their ideas are less important. Those who take time and prefer complexity have less influence.

Today, there are diminishing returns of media participation following information explosion… Basically the more channels, the less valuable a media appearance. Also, a stronger effect is needed to get the message across.

News has a decreasing marginal value – the first ten seconds is valuable, and after that…?

Information destroys continuity….

A section on today’s typical HE student who has to vertically stack activities – a lecture is something one goes to between many other activities – slow learning is marginalised – and universities adapt – they teach faster. This is like his own life, but his is because of information lint.

Very few academics today have five years to spend writing a book – especially since the marginal value of new information is next to zero, and so easier to produce something rapidly that grabs attention, even if it is cut and paste from a conference paper.

Because of all this stacking, the moment is ephemeral, superficial and intense. When the moment dominates, everything must be interchangeable with everything else in the immediate NOW – even if some things only make sense with duration.

Chapter Seven – The Lego Brick Syndrome

The relationship between time and space has undergone dramatic transformations in the IS –

  • Baudrillard talks of the implosion of the time/ space axis
  • Giddens says there has been a collapse of time and space
  • Castells talks about how the space of flows has been replaced by the space of places
  • Harvey of Time Space Compression.

It is no longer viable to pretend that a certain duration corresponds to a certain distance, and for this reason delays, gaps, slowness are threatened.

When time is chopped up into sufficiently small units, it ceases to exist as duration but continues to exist as moments about to be overtaken by the next moment.

The same pattern can be observed in many apparently unrelated fields…. We used to receive a set of lego bricks at birth with a number of sets of instructions to choose between – now there are no instructions – this must have been what Giddens meant when he spoke of the self as a project – it is not a given entity, it has to be created again and again.

He now looks at how fixation on the moment, stacking and the lego brick syndrome influence labour, family life, leisure, and consumption.

An accelerated professional life offers flexibility but leads to a whole host of other negative consequences….

In the Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett describes how successful people in the emergent economies of the 1990s – flexible, adjustable, technologically capable people – experienced a vacuum in the very centre of their lives. They work in sectors such as finance, web design, e-commerce, advertising and journalism, in sectors which have been radically transformed in the information age.

New technology in many ways makes up the backbone of these industries, but at the same time it also forces the labour market to adapt to it. Old-timers with long and vast experience do not have much value in this new setting.

Sennett describes people who have been liberated from the monotonous drudgery of the labour market, but they live under constant pressure to reinvent themselves, update and change their perspective on the job they are doing. There is little of routine in their work, and they enjoy the opportunities on offer, but they experience serious problems in attempting to make their lives hang together as something other than a discontinuous series of events, career moves, and so on.

Some of them are virtually burnt out by the time they are 35. He now quotes some stats (30% of the workforce report mental health issues in the UK) and early burn-out is already in a good position to contend for the title of the civilizational disease of the new century.

Also, long-term planning seems to have disappeared as a concept in the world of work. Short-term stays in jobs are much more common than they used to be and contract work has increased enormously. (I guess this means more intense working?). This means job security is reduced.

This new world of work also favours a particular personality type – adaptable, opportunistic etc, which helps to explain why teaching is now seen as a low-grade profession.

Finally, these changes result in increased uncertainty, not least because the present is opaque but also because the demands of this moment are terrorised by the next.

The effects on family life and leisure-time

Given that fast time beats slow time, when the concept of working at home was introduced, the former was bound to win. Workers may not be expected to be on time any more, but they are expected to be online.

Work has invaded our home lives, and one of the most profound effects is that our family lives have become ‘Taylorised’ (following Bateson) – because increased flexibility in one area of life means less in other areas:

We now have to negotiate how to keep the kids busy so I can fit in with the flexible demands of work. We have lost the sense of slow time in which we just live for the sake of living, family life has become a tit for tat process of negotiating.

Family life is not particular labour-intensive, or capital-intensive, but it is time-intensive – and this is precisely what is absent in today’s society, hence these changes

Furthermore, family life in general is by nature slow and fits the current era badly – frequent changes of life partners are clear indications of the spread of the tyranny of the moment into the intimate sphere. The number of failed marriages and the number of Peter Pans and Bridget Jones are also testimony to this.

Serial Monogamy is a good example of standing still at great speed – the same debates in relationships had over and over again.

Marriages are also under direct pressure from the Tyranny of the Moment in which ever more exciting things are just around the corner, and there is no sense of continuity. Duration and continuity lose out, spontaneity and innovation win.

The Cult of Youth is Caused by the Tyranny of The Moment

When knowledge changes quickly, what role for the older generation? They lose at least some of their relevance and the youth are minded to fashion their own values from fragments – from a mixture of the older generation and X box!

Until quite recently 15 year olds were quite happy to start their adult life – to become properly independent persons – while at the other end of the scale, with age came established certainty and authority.

Today, however, youth, or that ambiguous phase between childhood and adulthood, has extended in both directions – through marketing to the very young and those in their 40s to remain younger. Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’ is now truly relevant.

Two of the most serious symptoms of the tyranny of the moment are the cult of youth and the crisis of knowledge transmission – A society which does not value ageing has no interest in where it has come from – and thus no real handle on where it is going.

Our society values spontaneous energy over historical experience (in the new economy) and this is often blamed on advertising and pop culture, but it is all of the above that is really to blame.

Leisure-Time becomes a stressful rush to get more things done…

Staffan Linder talks of The contradictions of Capitalism – a healthy growth rate requires us to produce more efficiently and consume at a faster rate. Leisure time thus turns into a mad rush for intensified consumption. Leisure time becomes like work – we have to organise it, learn to multi-task and stack, to consume more efficiently and spend less time doing just one thing.

The fragmentation of work, consumption, family life and the public sphere brings us to a world where each must construct their own identity – but is such a task manageable or is life inevitably becoming collage-like and filled with singular events and impressions, arbitrariness and spontaneity with no over-arching direction, is the fast-mode becoming hegemonic rather than a mix between fast and slow modes?

Finally, the further social consequences of a life in fragments…

Bauman is far from alone in publishing books such as life in fragments – the dividing of time into ever decreasing units and the lost of internal coherence lead to….

  • Fundamentalism
  • Extreme Opportunism
  • Burn-Outs
  • Politics devoid of vision.

Does the Information Revolution actually increase efficiency?

Obviously with more complex technology we are required to go on courses to learn how to use their functionalities.

But also when we have mobile technologies, the quiet times disappear because we are expected to be always on! When emails reach a certain threshold, we loose convenience and they become oppressive. Similarly he argues that many transport connections designed to speed travel up are cancelled out by traffic jams and queuing….And now we have impatience, which is the transition between fast and slow time , and journeys are filled with things we should be doing.

Chapter Eight – The Pleasures of Slow Time…

Not everyone is affected by the pressures of fast time – but a growing number of people in the developed world are and because fast time affects the production of culture the majority is exposed to such pressures – when you switch on the TV for example.

A brief summary of the main points in Tyranny of the Moment

  1. When there is a surplus, and no scarcity of information, the degree of comprehension falls in proportion with the growth of the amount of information. The more you know, the more you do not know.
  2. The main scarce resource for suppliers of any commodity is the attention of others
  3. The main scarce resource of the inhabitants of an IS are well-functioning filters
  4. Acceleration removes distance, time and space.
  5. When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins
  6. Flexible work causes a loss of flexibility in the non-work areas of life.
  7. When time is partitioned into sufficiently small units it ceases to exist as duration.

There are many academics who write about exponential growth, stacking and acceleration – Giddens and Beck are the figureheads but also Bordieu, and their theme seems to be that there is now a generalised inability to get a coherent overview of everything in this fast moving world.

There are few solutions offered to acceleration and information overload:

Castells just warns against ‘building castles’

  • Giddens talks of dialogic democracy but provides no substance about how this might be achieved
  • Bordieu – simply suggests we hit the off button
  • Baudrillard escapes into dark humour
  • Virillio says he has no solutions

So what to do? Some suggestions:

  • What can be done fast should be done fast
  • Remember that dawdling is a virtue as long as no one gets hurt
  • Recognise that slowness needs protection
  • Treat delays are a blessing in disguise
  • The logic of the wood cabin needs to be globalised
  • All decisions need to exclude as much as they include
  • It is necessary to switch consciously between fast and slow time
  • Recognise/ accept that most things one will never need know about
  • We also need to put the breaks on fast time by….
  • Establishing press rules for the slow production of more types of news.
  • Establishing the rule of less is more – quality over quantity.

He finishes with a number of fairly obvious public/ work level policies for introducing slowness, which I won’t go into.

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