Not long ago, while crashing with my parents for a few days, I had the opportunity to sift through a wicker box stuffed with memorabilia from my youth: cards, letters, notes scribbled furtively in class. I’m not that old—the historical period in question was the 1990s—but the exercise felt like stepping back into an ancient era. There were letters from old flames, grandparents and, disproportionately, my childhood best friend; creased paper and smudged ink, the occasional drawing, inside jokes that still made me laugh. An erstwhile sentimentalist, I had saved paper fragments with the scrawled names of people I could no longer place (who was Sharon?) and their phone numbers (most of which, quaintly, had no area codes). For several evenings, until I’d touched and devoured every last scrap, the box seduced me away from my usual nighttime dabbling in work and diversion.
Throughout the hours that I spent with this paper archive, my experience of time seemed to change. I was fully absorbed in each old document I encountered. I was also reminded of a period of my life when I had a very different relationship with time: I would kill entire afternoons scribbling bad poems in my journal, or napping to the tunes on obsessively curated mix tapes.
Now, I can nod along to the refrains about how quickly time passes, how busy life is. What changed? Was it just that then I was a kid, and now I have a kid? Time no longer seems unlimited: then I had possibilities; now I have responsibilities. Is it because I was blessed (or so it seems to me) to be in the last generation to grow up without the intrusions and distractions of the Internet and cellphones? Or maybe I’m just misremembering it all through a haze of nostalgia. (It may even be possible—though unlikely—that the ’90s were not objectively the greatest decade for music and culture in my lifetime, but merely the time when I happened to be 16. Unlikely, but theoretically possible.)
On a larger social scale, we have been observing similar patterns and asking similar questions for some time. Why are we so busy, and why do we have so little time? Is it because our gadgets and gizmos have accelerated the pace of life? Much as I have had to assume the obligations of adulthood, do we all shoulder greater burdens now than we did before hyper-globalization and the shriveling of the welfare state? Or are we just engaging in collective nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed and that, in fact, we don’t even really want to inhabit?
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These are some of the questions Judy Wajcman takes up in her bracing, if not altogether convincing, new book, Pressed for Time. The title is somewhat misleading, for Wajcman’s argument complicates the prevailing idea that we have less time than ever and that technology is to blame. She is impatient with unsupported assumptions about how people spend time. She points out that people’s experience of time is heterogeneous, and that those who dominate public discussion of the issue tend to generalize based on their own experience. (The underemployed, for instance, may not be so busy; the notion of acceleration may not resonate for care workers, because the pace of care is inherently slow.) She also points out that theorists on the subject have seldom drawn on empirical research regarding “time practices.”