Judy Wajcman, April 8, 2021
In our 7th edition of Rebalance Talks, we had the pleasure of speaking with Judy Wajcman. Sociologist and expert in the field of science and technology, she spoke about cultural expectations of speed, inherent biases embedded in technology and technological innovation, and the depth of inequality exposed by the pandemic. She addressed questions about the connection between speed and the making of a succinct narrative of our lives, and the possibility of technological solutions for social and environmental problems.
Judy Wajcman began the talk by stating that one of the greatest effects the pandemic has had is to further expose the grave inequality that exists in the world and expressed that temporal sovereignty should be a human right. She explained how wealthy New Yorkers and Londoners left their respective cities to wait out the pandemic in their summer homes in the countryside. A luxury clearly unique to those with a summer home. She also criticized the general presumption that “we all have more time to make bread!” asserting that this only applies to a portion of the population. Many others, such as parents with young children in need of proper homeschooling, have experienced a loss of time or at least a loss in control over their time. She also claimed that people working in the GIG economy such as Uber, Glovo, and Amazon, have actually experienced an intensification of work. For Wajcman, these two examples don’t allow for temporal sovereignty and this is wrong, as Wajcman believes that having control over one’s time is a human right. She also insisted that in a digital economy, high-speed broadband and access to devices is a human right that may have emerged or became more evident due to the pandemic. For Wajcman, one positive outcome of the pandemic has been the construction of bike lanes across European cities as people increasingly choose to ride a bicycle over public transportation or driving.
In a digital economy, high-speed broadband and access to devices is a human right that may have emerged or became more evident due to the pandemic.
CULTURE OF SPEED
As an expert in the fields of science and technology and a Sociologist of time and speed, Wajcman’s most recent book, Pressed for time, explores different socio-cultural dimensions of why time seems to be speeding up and to what degree we should blame technology for these phenomena. One of her main points is that it is not necessarily technological innovation in and of itself that is to blame for our collective sense of a loss of time, but rather the ‘culture of speed,’ that surrounds the use of these technologies. In her talk she explained that we live in a “culture of optimizing time,” and “a good value is to be active, efficient and make the most of time.” Wajcman provided the example of ever-faster delivery times. She said that in the past a 3-day book delivery from Amazon was a big innovation. Over time 3 days became 2 hours. She also explained that many food delivery services promise 10 minute food deliveries. (Click here to see the Glovo food delivery advertisement that promises food delivery within minutes.) For Wajcman, it is not simply that the technology exists to make this rapid speed delivery possible but rather the expectation of that speed, the speed of consumption. She asked us to reflect, how is the food getting there so quickly?
We live in a “culture of optimizing time,” and “a good value is to be active, efficient and make the most of time.”
In a speech she gave discussing her book, Wajcman explained that along with cultural expectations, social relations and power dynamics are also embedded within technology. For example, she writes about email arguing that
The fact that we feel the need to respond to email quickly is not due to the speed of data transmission, but because of collective norms that have built up about appropriate response times. An individual’s ability to resist the pressure of perpetual availability very much depends on the institutional context.
Whether its food delivery or email response times, Wajcman argues that we live in a culture of speed just as much as we enjoy the technologies that allow for that speed. Perhaps our need to respond quickly has less to do with the technological possibility and more to do with power relations. It is not only what technology exists but how we use it.
Wajcman’s point about email relates to how we experience leisure time. If we feel more busy than ever before, the question is, have we truly lost our leisure time? Anthropologist David Graeber writes in his book, Bullshit Jobs, that in 1930 John Maynard Kaynes, one of the father’s of modern day economy, predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently so that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a fifteen-hour work week. Graeber writes:
In technological terms, we are quite capable of this…Why did Keynes’s promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the sixties—never materialize? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism…rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector…whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.
For Graeber, we have not achieved this due to the increase in not only consumerism but also the increase of jobs in certain sectors that did not exist before. Wajcman writes about leisure time saying that in fact, “surveys indicate that people feel rushed and pressed for time, and share a widespread perception that leisure time is scarcer and more hectic. However…overall leisure time has not declined over the last 50 years…this gap between objective time and how we subjectively experience it, points to the importance of the quality or character of time, and not simply the amount of time we have. And this is where technology comes in.” Therefore, for Graeber we work more than ever and it is because of an increase of jobs in the administrative sector, whereas for Wajcman the sense of busyness comes from the quality or character of time we use. While perhaps their conclusions are different, both Wajcman and Graeber note similar outcomes that there is a general, collective sense of a loss of one’s leisure time. Wajcman stated that there is an anthropological need and desire to work, but perhaps that is not 40 hours a week. Wajcman explained that in a study on unemployed people, the desire was more for coordinated social time rather than necessarily an over abundance of free time.
There is an anthropological need and desire to work, but perhaps that is not 40 hours a week.
TECHNOLOGY IS INHERENTLY BIASED
Whether or not we have more or less leisure time and if we will ever get to the point where machines will perform a great majority of the work we will do, Wajcman makes one thing very clear: technology is inherently biased. She rejects technological determinism, stating that she does not believe that machines have any internal logic or autonomous agency, however, insists that what we need is for, “engineers, programmers and makers of technology” to be “much more diverse and representative of the population at large.” This is important because she explains that for example, the facial recognition technology has a far easier time recognizing white faces than it does black or ethnic faces. She went on to explain that the testing of seatbelts was done on the male body” and it actually meant that women had more injuries. This is because, according to Wajcman, “People design things according to their experience.” Therefore, she advocates for a more diverse population of engineers arguing that, “if we had a broader range of people designing technologies there’d be different sets of priorities, different experiences feeding in that technology.”
Technology is inherently biased: we need is for, “engineers, programmers and makers of technology” to be “much more diverse and representative of the population at large.”
The general assumption we have as a population that science and technology are unbiased, objective forces is false, and we need to become aware of all of the social, political and value-based decisions that are being made if we are to have a more equal society. Wajcman suggests the use of Citizens juries to discuss if people want various technological developments to go through, such as in vitro and genetically modified tomatoes. She believes that governments and business shouldn’t be the only actors with a voice in these conversations. She explained that people believe that science is objective and value free, however, “political, economic, and cultural decisions weigh in the whole time.” For example, in the pandemic we had to ask, who is funding the vaccine? Why does Psfizer cost more than Astrazeneca? How come they can suddenly make some of these things so quickly when there’s a lot of other problems that cannot be solved as quickly? This last question is a similar point Tim Creswell made when we talked about the ease with which London solved its problem with homelessness once they decided it was something to pay attention to. She also pointed out that during the pandemic we saw that the highest rate of death amongst elderly people in London was in Care homes. Is this for a purely scientific reason, or must we ask ourselves, why are they concentrated in Care homes? Is that the optimal way to look after people?
Judy Wajcman motivated us to ask ourselves important questions not only about speed and technology but to think deeper about the culture of speed and the biases that underlie science and upcoming technological innovations.
 Pressed for time; The digital transformation of everyday life, 2016
 Bullshit Jobs, 2018
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Judy Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the LSE and a Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, where she is the Principal Investigator on the Women in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence research project. She is a Visiting Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and a member of the AI100 Standing Committee. Expert in the field of technology, time, and speed.