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The 2019 Van Zelst Lecture Focuses on Time in the Digital Age

Judy Wajcman, the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, discussed our complicated relationship with time during the 36th Annual Van Zelst Lecture in Communication at Norris University Center on May 22.

“I became intrigued by the endless discussion we have that life was getting faster. Everywhere people said the pace of life is accelerating, and everyone complains how busy we are,” said Wajcman, whose research touches on science and technology studies, feminist theory, and work and organizations. “At the core of this acceleration argument is somehow ubiquitous technologies have altered our subjective experience of time. That these technologies have really sort of changed in a dramatic way how we experience time and how we think about time.”

Wajcman, whose books include The Social Shaping of Technology, Feminism Confronts Technology, and Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, discussed how our relationship to time has changed over the years. Before the industrial revolution, for example, most people didn’t think about time in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of tasks, seasons, and years. 

Now, that’s all changed. Wajcman recently held the Mellon Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, where she interviewed tech engineers in Silicon Valley.  Wajcman said tech companies have been making efficiency a priority and are working on ways apps and other technologies can help us become more productive.

In the not-too-distant future, she said, our digital calendars might be powered by artificial intelligence and work like assistants, telling us how we should prioritize our tasks, or pushing us to take advantage of downtime by tackling something on our to-do lists.

 “We have this schizophrenic relationship with technology,” she said. “We vacillate between blaming technology for these problems [of lack of time] and yet we look to technologies to solve the very problem that’s being created.”

Wajcman said the workaholic culture of Silicon Valley values efficiency almost above all else. In fact, she said, some workers there value time so much they listen to podcasts at double speed in order to absorb more information faster.

“They won’t go to live events because the event feels too slow,” she said. These tech engineers developing new technology, she said, in some ways equate an efficient life to a moral life.

“But the basic premise of Pressed for Time, is that this obsession with time saving, with efficiency, has deeper roots than just technology,” she said. “It tells us as much about our culture as it does about technology…I always think of technology as inherently social. Technologies naturalize features of our culture and values, and shape how we live according to those very values.” 

At the end of the lecture, made possible by a generous gift from Louann and Theodore Van Zelst, School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe presented Wajcman with the Van Zelst medal.

 “We’re so grateful that you traveled here and we hope that each time you look at that medal you remember us,” O’Keefe said.

By Cara Lockwood