Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 'Tyranny of the Moment - Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age'

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Review by Gareth Evans

In his novel Slowness, Czech writer Milan Kundera makes the astute remark that we slow down to remember and speed up to forget. If this is true then, according to Norwegian Social Anthropologist Eriksen, we might be in danger of becoming an amnesiac species sooner rather than later, due to our fixation with acceleration.

His thesis here is simply and lucidly put: the exponential growth in “time-saving” communication technologies is leading paradoxically to less time being left available for the pursuits of life itself, as more and more media interfaces interrupt our ability to deal directly with what matters. Add to this the cultural reinforcement of Warhol's “15 minutes of fame” or the nature of modern celebrity and it becomes clear that his attention is “timely” and well-placed.

He is not alone in making such observations. James Gleick's recent book Faster deals with similar concerns while Jay Griffiths's Pip Pip considers, among other things, the commodification of time and subsequent loss of indigenous - and deeply poetic, resonant and environmentally relevant - time-frames.

Eriksen's text takes an initially close-up and personal view, anchored in his own experience as an academic struggling with media and information overload, and the symptoms he describes are sure to find an echo in all his likely readers' own itineraries. He's no Luddite however; as he says, “like everyone else, I am impatiently waiting for a decent company to offer me a superfast cheap and stable internet connection”. He simply wants to understand the huge changes, in thinking, physiology and society, being wrought by new media and their attendant atmospheres. He examines the language around speed, from the negative connotations of being “slow”, through to the underpinning philosophy of capitalism that “time is money” (“spending” time) and charts the replacement of linear time with what he calls “stacking”, simultaneous actions and processes. There is a polemical side to the book however - an argument for the right to live and reflect at a calmer pace. He asks major questions about what is really of priority in life.

This is a short book then but a significant one. In keeping with this issue's theme, time itself is clearly ripe to become a zone of cultural resistance. New York media commentator Douglas Rushkoff now takes a day off - a kind of C21 Sabbath honouring his Jewish origins - where he engages in no financial exchange. This kind of 24-hour “retreat” from the processes of the market-led world could become a significant strategy of opposition to the dehumanising, fragmented and unsustaining system we find ourselves rat-racing through. So this is a “timely” work and a word of warning about the faster future. Clock its message before it's too late!

Topics: Technology
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