Coping with acceleration: triaging strategies and the new empiricism

My concern in this short talk is not to diagnose the underlying conditions which generate an acceleration of social life, or indeed the various experiences which differently placed actors have of such acceleration. Instead, I’m interested in the novel and deeply reflexive cultural forms arising under these conditions, as what we might think of as temporal strategies, originally grounded in the lived experience of coping with intensified demands, instead become commodified and take on a relative autonomy vis-a-vis their application.

The most familiar manifestation of this commodification is the self-help industry, estimated as an $11 billion industry in 2013. This is a market that has changed a lot in recent years, as depressing incomes have constrained a previously buoyant market of live events and the challenge of digital media has encouraged many self-help gurus to give away ‘taster’ content online as they attempt to build up a brand. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the highest profile speakers and their global best sellers: for instance The Secret has sold more than 19 million copies and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies. But there’s also a buoyant coaching market (estimated $1.5 billion world wide) and public seminars market (estimated $308 million in the United States) which need to be recognise as part of the broader self-improvement or self-help industry.

My concern is with a more recent addition to this landscape: productivity culture. The most influential text of productivity culture, Getting Things Done by David Allen Green, has sold 1.6 million copies. The category of ‘productivity’ has become a central feature of apps, with many thousands available for the many millions of iPads and iPhones in circulation, as well as comparable availability for other mobile platforms. There’s a whole movement towards what the technologist Alex Pang calls ‘contemplative computing’: designing software that minimises distraction and facilitates immersive productivity. The popular blog Life Hacker reaches over 20 million people each month and has helped spawn a much wider ecosystem of productivity orientated content online.

It’s within this broader ecosystem that we can see a rich flourishing of what I’ve come to think of as triaging strategies: ways of coping with an intensity of demands placed upon the self by calibrating our responses to our environment and establishing new priorities. We have to treat these strategies carefully because they’re being promulgated: some people might simply be reflecting upon their experiences for anyone who happens to take an interest but many are selling books, coaching services and webinars. In fact people can move from one category to the latter, as the fact of having accumulated an audience for one’s musings on these issues holds out an inevitable temptation of ‘monetising’ this audience through the production of a book. In this sense, the promulgation of a triaging strategy can itself be a triaging strategy i.e. it’s a scheme to escape the ‘rat race’ and find a new direction in life, one more satisfying and rewarding than the present reality.

One further methodological caveat. We shouldn’t infer a common outlook  from a common action. Just because someone buys a particular book or read a particular website, does not mean that they do so for the same reason or  react in the same way to the cultural content they are engaging with. Someone might buy  a book for idle curiosity, a deep sense of need, to fill time, to critique or for any number of other reasons. Someone might then devote their life to the principles expounded in the book, react with a disinterested curiosity about the different ways in which one can live life, throw the book away at the first opportunity, forget it all together or any number of other reasons. Recognising this variability of responses is crucial to understanding the phenomenon of triaging strategies: these are cultural resources, usually though not always offered as commodities by those seeking to sustain themselves through this activity, susceptible to being picked up and put down, applied in many different ways or not at all. These are technologies of the self. But we misconstrue them if we fail to consider the diverse range of ways in which differently situated selves might draw upon them, how their characteristics will be inflected through the ensuing context, as well as how such actions will aggregatively lead to the transformation or reproduction of the cultural form e.g. contributing to rising sales figures through word of mouth or changing public perceptions of it.

My suggestion is that the 7 triaging strategies I offer can be usefully analysed in terms of the nexus of work and life. This is the terminology that occurs frequently within the literature but these are also useful analytical categories to understand the lived experience of intensifying demands. We occupy multiple social roles and there are many factors leading to an intensification of demands upon each one of them e.g. constant connectivity at work, rising expectations of parental activity, automation leading to the outsourcing of ‘shadow work’ to consumers etc.

There are many factors, each of which could be a talk in their own right. My concern here is not to elucidate them but rather to consider how intensifying expectations within clusters of social roles that we can loosely categorise as ‘work’ and ‘life’ create problems for the subject. As Margaret Archer puts it, “roles are greedy”. There’s no logical limit to how much of ourselves we can invest in them but there are temporal, physical, psychological and socio-economic constraints on the choices that we make. It requires reflexivity to negotiate between these competing demands, something which itself requires time and space. My argument will be that these 7 triaging strategies can be usefully conceptualised as different solutions to the increasingly problematic relationship between ‘work’ and ‘life’ under digital capitalism. My suggestion is that this is usually experienced as personal life being consumed by working life, the concerns of the self being subordinated to the imperatives of the workplace. But a crucial part of the investigation which I’m still in the early stages of undertaking is to analyse the different ways the underlying dilemmas conceived of and represented in this literature.

  1. If personal life is being consumed by working life, one solution is to seek a job that perfectly expresses yourself.  Thus I believe we can see the contemporary resurgence of the notion of the vocation as  something expressive of an underlying impulse towards finding personal fulfilment in working life by blurring boundaries between the two domains. As well as the macro-economic untenability of this strategy for most under contemporary capitalism, much scholarship in cultural policy and the sociology of work reveals how this discourse of ‘passion’ – doing what you love – goes side-by-side with exploitative and worsening working conditions, growing expectations of unpaid work and spiralling working hours.
  2. An equally familiar solution  is to instrumentally calibrate the demands of working life and personal life. This is most frequently expressed in terms of the notion of the work/life balance, but in sectors defined by a project based knowledge work  we increasingly see the notion of the work/life merge: a wilful collapse of temporal boundaries, using mobile computing to both work and life in a more or less spontaneous sequencing over the course of the day. The extent to which this is chosen or enforced remains a pressing question.
  3. Another solution is to  is to minimise the demands of personal life and working life. The most extreme expressions of this  lifestyle minimalism represent a form of moral athleticism, in which advocates compete to see who most radically reduce their possessions into a set number of objects. It’s correspondingly hostile to ‘clutter’ and imbues it with almost magical capacities to shape one’s psychic life. It sometimes celebrates nomadism – of a very privileged sort – including a permanent home within the category of ‘stuff’ that constrains our lives. But it is driven by an underlying concern for quality over quantity: reclaiming core experiences by dispensing with that deemed ‘unnecessary’. It’s striking how completely dominated the online discourse of lifestyle minimalism is by childless white men in their 20s to 40s, usually seeming to be without attachments. This is asceticism for a certain demographic rather than a strategy for all.
  4. Perhaps the most novel solution is the concept of lifestyle design: instrumentally reducing the demands of working life in order to focus on personal life. Propounded most successfully by Tim Ferris, whose book The Four Hour Work Week has sold well over a million copies, it encourages a strategic mobility: exploiting currency differentials in order to live richly without necessarily being rich, outsourcing as many tasks as possible to virtual assistants operating out of Indian cities and taking ‘mini-retirements’ to focus intensively on certain skills or experiences. It almost represents a kind of hipster neo-colonialism, a strategy utterly dependent on global power relations defining contemporary digitalised and financialised capitalism.
  5. A fifth solution is to seek to dispense with working life to the greatest extent possible. A superb recent book by the Cardiff sociologist David Frayne presents interviews with a diverse range of movements sharing a common orientation to the refusal of work: reducing hours to their minimum, giving up work entirely or otherwise seeking to escape from working life.
  6. We can see a novel form of temporizing emerging in extreme early retirement: embracing a rigid asceticism for many years, intricately monitoring spending and income, in order to ensure the possibility of retiring by a fixed point in time. This represents a solution of sequencing: solving the problems of the relation between work and life by working now in order to live later. It’s interesting to consider the assumptions this makes about the future calculability of digital capitalism e.g. if this is reliant on pensions and investments, how will predicted long term declines in average returns lead to a gradual ratcheting up of the early retirement age and how will practitioners of extreme early retirement reaction to this?
  7. Finally, I think self-optimisation can be included here, particularly when it involves open-ended projects of self-improvement using self-tracking technologies. Not all self-tracking practices are concerned with self-optimisation: we need to distinguish here between goal orientated self-tracking, experimental self-tracking and ongoing projects to perpetually optimise oneself. But an ongoing project to become more productive in work and life, to optimise oneself for the conditions in which one lives and works, seeks to solve the dilemma by improving performance on both sides of the dichotomy. The problem arises because demands are not static and learning to be quicker inevitably incites one to do more: choices that might formerly have been made on the basis of practical necessity now become live options, risking an intensification of demands and rendering further self-optimisation necessary in order to cope.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and each of these strategies presented is just a brief outline of a complex phenomenon. My claim is that these need to be recognised in their specificity and that the ‘greedy’ relationship between the role clusters of ‘work’ and ‘life’ represents a useful analytical framework through which to understand the purpose of these strategies and how they can be taken up by subjects struggling to cope with the intensified demands of digital capitalism.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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2 replies »

  1. Hi Mark. Good post. Any chance of a seminal reference or two you are drawing from regarding the first ‘strategy’, namely “…much scholarship in cultural policy and the sociology of work reveals how this discourse of ‘passion’ – doing what you love – goes side-by-side with exploitative and worsening working conditions, growing expectations of unpaid work and spiralling working hours.”

    I work in a low SES school where ‘pursuing your passion’ is a highly valued strategy, all while seeing the passions (and jobs) these kids aspire to disappearing fast. Having a ‘macro’ reference to inform and perhaps critique this stand would be really good.



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