Speed is a new value. The faster the better. It’s associated with more efficiency and goes hand in hand with progress and modernity. Slowness, on the other hand, denotes clumsiness and a certain degree of inadequacy. But what are the real benefits of social acceleration for organisations?
What will I about read in this article?
We live in a context that invites social acceleration
Many thinkers have reflected on the implications of speed. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, warned that the tourist himself is driven by a frenetic and impersonal speed that condemns him to “see without looking”.
Years before, the German sociologist George Simmel had already predicted that the metropolis, the modern city, invited anonymity, over-acceleration and the renunciation of reflection, all of which are great enemies of attention and care. Same as Lluís Duch writes in his book “Vida cotidiana y velocidad” (Everyday life and speed).
Literature has not left speed as a contemporary element out of the equation, either. Charles Baudelaire already depicted modern man as one “in the midst of the hustle and bustle of traffic”.
One of the most interesting current reflections comes from Harmut Rosa, Professor of Sociology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena (Germany), who presents social acceleration not as an individual trait of people, but as a systemic tendency of modernity as a whole. In other words, we accelerate on an individual level because our context invites us to do so, it pushes us to acceleration.
What is the cause of social acceleration?
According to Rosa, social science should always have two questions in mind:
- What is a good life?
- Why don’t we have it?
To understand the quality of our lives it’s always essential to examine the macro-micro relationship. That is, to study how the context and our social reality affect our person and our individual reality. In this sense, social acceleration can be an obstacle to the good life.
Rosa wonders what’s really speeding up in our lives. The time available per day remains the same as ever, and life expectancy is extending, so time itself is obviously not what is speeding up.
“Social acceleration, the increase of speed in our lives, can be an obstacle to the good life”.
So, if time’s not accelerating, what is it that makes our lives accelerate? According to the German sociologist, three phenomena are accelerating: technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life. Let’s go through them one by one.
*Technological acceleration. We’re all aware that there’s an increase in the speed of transport, communication and production. If a century ago it took three weeks to go from Spain to Argentina by boat, today we need only 15 hours by plane.
The same goes for communication with each other. We’ve moved from letters to emails and instant messaging. And also, with the manufacturing process of so many products. We are able to produce faster. So, it’s obvious that we live in a context of technological acceleration.
“If a century ago it took three weeks to go from Spain to Argentina by boat, today it takes only 15 hours by plane.
However, this technological acceleration should be harnessed to slow down, as the increased speed of transport, communication, or production gives us “free” time. We arrive earlier in Argentina, we write an email that arrives immediately instead of a letter that would take days to arrive, and we manufacture our product faster. So, this element alone does not explain social acceleration.
*Accelerating social change: According to Rosa, another phenomenon that’s accelerating is changes in attitudes, values, fashions, lifestyles, relationships and social obligations.
Just as an example, the way we dress changed very little over many centuries (imagine the Middle Ages), but it has changed radically in a few decades. Therefore, there are not only acceleration processes within society (such as technological acceleration), but there’s acceleration in society itself as we observe with social changes.
*The acceleration of the pace of life. This is probably the aspect that most directly affects our daily lives, as we see an increase in the number of episodes of action per day.
In other words, in a day, more and more different actions are carried out, with their corresponding transitions from one task to the next, which makes us feel hungry for time. That is, the feeling of not being able to fulfil all our work, social and personal responsibilities, the so-called “clocking up”. We perform more and more actions and time is perceived as a scarce resource divided among the multitude of tasks to be carried out.
“In a day there are more and more different actions that make us feel hungry for time”.
These three forms of acceleration (technological, social change and pace of life), together with a growing sense of competition, are intertwined, generating a cycle of acceleration that’s difficult to stop and with serious consequences not only for the individuals themselves and their families, but also for the organisations themselves.
How does social acceleration affect organisations?
The speed and acceleration of our lives affects our physical and mental health, and also the dehumanisation of our relationships. Speed diminishes the quality of our relationship with others and, as we said, organisations are no exception.
The rush syndrome, caused by the cycle of acceleration presented above, obviously has some benefits, as it pushes us to perform more tasks, complete more projects, but at the same time, there are many invisible consequences for organisations (lack of creativity, reflection, dehumanisation) that require some pondering.
This is why more and more people are looking for oases of deceleration (resorts, monasteries, mindfulness classes, trips to the desert). Rosa also points out that acceleration itself can become dysfunctional and unintentionally turn into deceleration. We observe this in traffic jams caused by many people who want to move quickly, or in some people who unfortunately go from a high level of activity or speed to a very low level caused by anxiety, depression or cardiovascular diseases that prevent them from continuing with previous levels of speed.
Therefore, in view of this new situation, it would be interesting to reflect on the following points:
* On an individual level, it would be good to ask oneself the following questions: What are the benefits of my acceleration? What are the negative consequences of my acceleration? Does it affect the quality of my work? Does it affect the quality of my relationships with the people around me?
* Also on an individual level, if the person considers it important, look for moments of deceleration, either throughout the year (holidays), or throughout the day (regenerative breaks at the beginning of the day, the morning miracle, at midday, or before going to sleep).
* At the corporate level it would be interesting to ask the following questions: What are the benefits of acceleration? What are the negative consequences of acceleration? Does speed make the organisation lose creative capacity? Does speed negatively affect innovation? In what other aspects does social acceleration affect us, positively and negatively?
* Also at the corporate level, slow-down times for employees could also be encouraged either through training programmes or by reinforcing the importance of rest and slow-down times.
Excellence sometimes requires speed, but many other moments can generate valuable wealth for the individual and his or her work group if they are filled with reflection, serenity and enjoyment of the small details.
- Duch, Lluís (2018) Vida cotidiana y velocidad. Herder, Barcelona.
- Rosa, Harmut (2016). Alienación y aceleración. Hacia una teoría crítica de la temporalidad en la modernidad tardía. Katz Editores, Madrid.