Coping with Acceleration

I wrote recently about cognitive triage in higher education and its ramifications for personal reflexivity. My claim is that an inflation of situational demands leads subjects to prioritise the urgent, moving immediately from one necessity to another, in a way which crowds out the important. While the urgent/importantdichotomy is a feature of the ‘productivity culture’ I’m trying to analyse, I nonetheless think it’s actually a useful contrast. It loosely reflects the distinction between first-order desires and second-order desires offered by Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt: between our immediate desires and our desires about our desires e.g. I don’t want to go outside into the snow to walk to work but I want to want to do this and will if my second-order desire wins out over my first-order desire.

I’d like to develop the urgent/important contrast as a way of conceptually unpacking how reflexivity operates in working life. Dealing with both entails reflexivity but of very different sorts. The reflexivity of  urgency is much more limited in its scope, often instrumental and usually restricted to situational considerations. The reflexivity of importance is much more expansive, often value-rational and tends to transcend situational limitations. It’s the latter that is the foundation of agency, as what is important leads to action orientated towards changing our circumstances or exiting them (another aspect of what I’d like to do with this project). This is an overview of what I’m trying to argue:

  1. Social acceleration leads what is urgent to crowd out what is important via an escalation of situational demands
  2. In doing so, personal reflexivity tends towards the urgent rather than the important
  3. This has important ramifications for how subjects behave within the workplace
  4. Coping strategies by subjects reinforce this tendency towards urgent reflexivity
  5. These coping strategies also tend to reinforce acceleration within the workplace, as they facilitate the continual escalation of situational demands

Along with Filip Vostal, I want to develop this argument using higher education as a case study but I believe the process is far from restricted to the academy. In short, we’re trying to explore how a ‘circle of acceleration’ is intensified by personal coping strategies. These questions seem politically pressing to me because social acceleration is not an inexorable phenomenon. While some important aspects of it are technological, there’s nonetheless a large element which emerges from new technologies of control within the workplace (and is in turn being entrenched through an expansion of the technological facilities for audit & intervention). This amounts to, as Will Davies put it, “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest” (I’ve had this line stuck in my head since I encountered it) – what we’re interested in is how people seek to get better at hopping and how this reinforces the overall trend.


Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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5 replies »

  1. I find this a rather topsy-turvy way, though perhaps interesting, way of talking about the problem of ‘discounting’ in what is known as ‘picoeconomics’ (i.e. the economics of allocating psychic resources). People generally discount the future too heavily when deciding what to do. Thus, short-term desires swamp long-term desires, even when people know that long-term desires are more important. This is how addiction is explained by people (e.g. George Ainslie) who apply rational choice theory to psychiatry, namely, as people lurching from satisfying one short-term desire to the next, fully realizing that their long-term desires are less likely to be satisfied in the process.

    However, your example about not wanting to go to work in the snow is unclear. Is your lack of desire to go out to be read as a sign of discounting or not? Because you want to give this a social acceleration spin, one might interpret you to mean that actually the first-order lack of desire is the right one, since the second-order desire is simply imposed by our urgency culture. However, in the normal picoeconomic rendering of the example, that second-order desire would be seen as the one to follow because it has your long-term interest in view.

    • Thanks Steve, I’d never heard of ‘picoeconomics’ and it’s fascinating – this seems to be the thread that unites all the things I’m trying to do at the moment. A kind of sociological picoeconomics I guess.

      But I’m not sure I accept the framing of ‘discounting’: it seems to imply a cognitive bias in an otherwise uniform faculty of cognition, whereas I’m trying to suggest that cognition is *not* uniform in the first place. Social conditions engender different temporal horizons and these in turn tendentially lead to outcomes. It’s a minor distinction between this and what you mean by ‘discounting’, assuming I’ve understood you correctly, but I think it’s an important one in terms of the methodological consequences that follow from it.

  2. In other words, I think ‘discounting’ suggests the variation in cognition is entirely individual in its origins, whereas I’m suggesting it’s mostly social

  3. There’s also a more extreme kind of behaviour sometimes called “hurdling” – where the hurdler actively seeks out a constant stream of small but challenging problems to “hurdle” at just the right speed. They get really good at managing the stream of incoming problems so as to get the pace and intensity right. There’s a psychological dynamic, a focus and adrenalin curve, involved in it. I’m a computer programmer, so I know what it is like – and I know programming teams who work in this way (Jira is their favoured platform).

    My theory is that such people are in increasingly powerful positions in the technocratic world. So they actively construct a reality adapted to their hurdling-addiction. They might have, for example, propagated the myth that “change only happens when there is a burning platform”. Thus adding to the sense of acceleration.

    • I really like the idea! I also immediately started wondering about whether I’ve been implicitly striving towards hurdling…

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