Modernization involves multiple accelerations, says the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa in his 2010 book, Acceleration and Alienation. Advanced technology speeds up movement and communication, and the rate of technological change increases with Moore’s-Law regularity. Social change happens faster, as fashions and fads come and go. Daily life picks up pace.
Acceleration dashes the hopes of modernity. Many modern practices can’t run on technology’s schedule, and this de-synchronization leaves us politically dislocated and psychically disoriented. Modernity, for example, promises participatory government. Real democracy takes time, especially in modern pluralist societies without rooted norms and conventions. Ironically, Rosa says, “the same processes that accelerate social, cultural, and economic changes, slow down democratic will-formation and decision-making.” Politics cannot govern social change because it can’t keep up with the technology that drives social change. This is one of the deep sources of chaos in our politics: Frenetically driven by technologized time, we do not, cannot, take time to listen to one another. We don’t have time to get to the bottom of our disagreements, much less to resolve them.
Acceleration also clashes with modernity’s promise of freedom. There’s an inherent tension in modern freedom even if we leave acceleration out of the picture. On the one hand, we have far more freedom of choice than past civilizations. On the other hand, modern societies are interdependent to an unprecedented degree. Our complex webs of dependence must be coordinated, but coordination inhibits freedom of choice and action. Add in the acceleration made possible by communications and transportation technologies, and the tension intensifies. While free, we “feel completely dominated by an ever-increasing, excessive list of social demands.” Despite time-saving devices, we can’t keep up. We feel we have less time than ever. We eat more quickly, sleep fewer hours, and communicate less often with families and neighbors than past generations.
As a result, we no longer experience freedom as freedom. Rosa writes, “Nowhere outside the realm of Western modernity, I daresay, are everyday actions so consistently justified by the rhetorics of the ‘must’: We always legitimate to ourselves as well as to others what we are doing by reference to some external demand: ‘I really have to go to work now, I really need to fill in the tax form; I have to do something for my fitness; I have got to learn a foreign language, I must update my hard- or software now, I have to catch up with the news.’” When stress becomes unbearable, we decide we “must” take a vacation. We’re enslaved to the imperatives of a technology-driven schedule.
I read Rosa’s little book in the spring of 2020, sitting on my back deck on a long lockdown afternoon. The clash between Rosa’s thesis and my circumstances was dramatic, and it left me with a glimmer of hope: Perhaps the pandemic will give us the chance to live slowly enough to notice, to contemplate.
In warp-speed modernity, contemplation seems a luxury, a leisure activity at best. That’s a mistake. As Byung-Chul Han observes in The Burnout Society, human civilization wouldn’t exist at all without “deep, contemplative attention.” In contemplation, we step outside ourselves to immerse ourselves in our surroundings. “Deep boredom” and “profound idleness” are the wellsprings of creativity. We wonder “at the ways things are,” a wonder that “has nothing to do with practicality or processuality,” an intensive wonder that bears fruit in art, dance, music, and philosophy. Contemplation opens us to remembrance of God.
In accelerated modernity, Han says, we live in a bustle of “hyper attention,” constantly shifting focus “between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness.” We think we’re creative, but the velocity of life makes real creativity impossible: “A purely hectic rush produces nothing new.” Doubt about reality replaces wonder, but doubt blinds us to the intricate contours of things that require long and slow attention.
Long ago, Nietzsche suggested modern civilization suffers a “lack of repose” that is driving us toward a “new barbarism.” Never before, Han says, have the “active, that is to say, the restless, counted for more.” One of our greatest needs is “a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element.”
Call me a cynic, but I suspect that, now that Biden is safely in the White House, we’ll see a rapid return to normal. But we should pause before we rush back into the rush. 2020 gave us a taste of non-modern time, and perhaps we can learn to savor it. We can slow down for friends and family, to eat dinner at a dinner table, to read a story to our children or wrestle with them in the yard, to worship and sing, to look and listen. We can choose to slow down our institutions—our schools, our journalism, our political debates and battles, our prayer meetings and our liturgies. We might learn the time of Covidtide is more normal than the frenzy we regard as “normal.”
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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