Thursday, January 13, 2011

Technologies of Waiting

I've been reading Orvar Löfgren's and Billy Ehn's
The Secret World of Doing Nothing (University of California, 2010) in preparation for the Spring semester.  It's the first time I've used a work of ethnology  (i.e., a comparison of different cultures) in the classroom, as opposed to the conventional, in-depth monographs that are the bread and butter of US anthropology.

Lofgren and Ehn explore the cultural and social life of non-events, i.e., those parts of our life that we ordinarily "bracket" as irrelevant--the times we wait in line, or idly stare out a window.  There are interesting questions--especially with regards to methodology.  How do you do anthropology when no one thinks it's even worth talking about?  

Not surprisingly, they find that our experiences of these kinds of phenomena are culturally variable, and that "our" (US and Europe) expectations for non-events are very much conditioned by a modernity which 1) sets up a variety of institutions to organize people into spaces to contain "empty" time: waiting rooms, departure gates and 2) places a premium on "productive" time while making it immoral to "waste" time. 

One of the results is an in-built tension between "using" and "wasting" time--a double bind which places people in situations where they must surrender to the "empty" time of waiting while at the same time craving the productive, commodified time of the protestant work ethic.  If modernity replaced meaningful time (Biblical, moral, mythological) with time as an empty variable, then it is not surprising that people would find this unsettling.  Accordingly, there have been many technologies developed to solve the dilemma of empty time:
The accelerated pace of everyday life in the Western world is often said to have influenced the way people feel about waiting.  A whole industry has been built up around diminshing delays. (28) 
One of the major successes, of course, has also been the most Pyrrhic--the automobile has both sped up and slowed down--first by raising expectations for speed and crushing them with the multiplication of sprawl around the world.  Thanks to this effort to speed transportation (and the concomitant spread of suburbs), commute times are high: The average commute where I live (Maryland, USA) is 31 minutes.  China's average commute: 42 minutes.  Tokyo workers: 60 minutes. This hasn't stopped the desire for faster transportation at all.  Indeed, based on The Secret World, one would have to prognosticate that the future will mean various other devices to accelerate.

Still, thinking about waiting and technology, I can imagine other desires besides acceleration.  For one thing, many of the information technologies that we utilize have little to do with "saving" time--in fact, they introduce a number of time effects that include different ways of parsing out time, the frisson of sudden time dilation, the rhythm of turn-taking, etc.  This has been a major draw in gaming: the introduction of "game time" (Tychsen and Hitchens 2009).  Other IT introduces different time effects, the point being less that they introduce "more" speed, then that they demand that the user enter into the new pace.  Social network technologies aren't about speeding up or slowing down along a linear continuum so much as the introduction of different, temporal rhythms.  Aren't these temporalizations another reason for their popularity?

To take this back to Lofgren's and Ehn's book, the growing blight of "empty time" in the form of commuting and bureaucratization may give rise to various technologies of speed (in Virilio's sense), but will also stimulate the development of technologies that introduce new time effects.  "Empty time" acts as a an abstract table upon which variously commodified, variously meaningful time effects can be overlaid--e.g., the rhythm of text messaging and the dialectic of anticipation and expectation produced in the space of that temporalization.  But it's the difference that's important there, not necessarily the speed. 

Tyschsen, Anders and Michael Hitchens (2009).  "Modeling and Analyzing Time in Multiplayer and Massively Multiplayer Games."  Games and Culture 4(2).