Running to Miss Nothing: Anxious Temporality and the Frustration of the (Un)limited
23 January 2022
This paper aims to inquire about the peculiar temporality implicit in the processes of ‘digitalization of life’, with the increasing use of communication and information devices that operate in networks and offer extensive menus for online consumption, available practically anytime and anywhere. It analyzes some phenomena that are symptomatic of these changes in the ways of experiencing temporality. Among them, we address the habit of binge-watching audiovisual products on streaming platforms; the use of programs that speed up the consumption of videos and audios; and the offer of ‘slow content’ to recalibrate one’s wellbeing in an efficient and productive way. In all these practices, a certain anxiety is detected in our ways of dealing with time, resulting from the conflict between the stimulus to consume unlimitedly and the frustration due to the persistence of limitations, especially when it comes to time. This is an essayistic analysis based on the genealogical perspective, which seeks to identify, in a set of media articles dedicated to the subject matter in focus, changes in the regimes of knowledge and power in the transition from modern to contemporary era.
With so many options available, several of them offered more or less for free at a single click (or a mere scroll) away on the screens of digital devices, time is never enough. With so much stimulus and such existential openness, it is inevitable to suspect that there will always be something more interesting or fun, more useful, pleasurable or essential to see, read, do, comment on, share, etc. But we will never be able to consume it all. Frustration, therefore, is guaranteed; as well as anxiety, tiredness, and even – perhaps paradoxically – boredom. Even if it seems like a conflict caused by digital technologies, a closer look will belie this diagnosis. These devices are part of significant historical changes in the ways people live, which have been gestated over decades and ended up causing, among other effects, both the invention and the successful adoption of those technologies on a global scale; and, along with them, the temporal reconfiguration in focus here.
So, a new problem emerges: the growing inability to deal with this lack of limits that characterizes both our online life and our role as voracious, full-time consumers. ‘You can’, says the ubiquitous advertising, a motto that tunes with the euphoric ‘I want it’ – and the consequent ‘I deserve it’ – in contrast to the severe ‘You must’ that defined the citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the unlimited horizon that digitalization provides, it has become legitimate to want everything, including what we cannot – and will never be able to – consummate, because our all-too-human experience continues to be fatally limited. Even so, it is painful to assume that we should be able to do everything, instead of suffering rigid limits like those that used to impose, in a consensual way, both the law and the morals of nineteenth century civilization.
These trends were accentuated in the second decade of the 21st century, with the popularization of social networks, mobile internet access and streaming. If the options are infinite and always renewed and their consumption is actively stimulated, the act of binge-watching comes at hand to satisfy such needs. Words, as we know, are rich sources of meaning. In English, the verb to binge alludes to excesses and indulgence in acts like eating, drinking or using drugs. For this reason, we also speak of binge regret, alluding to a sort of hangover after having spent too much time consuming series, films, games or any other product offered in the mesmerizing endless streaming. In Portuguese, the same habit is called to marathon – a different but also interesting way to characterize the race in which user engage in order not to see any spoilers before watching everything there is to be seen. When it comes to Speed Watching – the possibility of watching content in accelerated speed – the goal is also to consume as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Not surprisingly, once used to the use of these accelerator tools, the user no longer stands the original temporality of the contents consumed. It is even likely that the rhythm of everyday life outside the screens also seems too slow and therefore suffocating, faced with the impossibility of accelerating according to the will of the spectator – who is also, and above all, a consumer.
Given the rush that these new temporal experiences arouse, it is also expected that certain protection tactics also proliferate, such as silencing device notifications or establishing personal guidelines to reduce screen time and use. But it is not easy to abandon the state of alertness and readiness to embark on other temporalities that are often desired. As attractive as the ‘digitalized life’ sounds, it has become exhausting. In fact, the virtually infinite collection of information accessible anytime, anywhere, which is constantly renewed, is a powerful emblem of our time. We no longer suffer – or not exclusively, perhaps – for having to submit ourselves with a certain docility to the orbit of duty, that violent introjection that led to repress the most obscure desires. A considerable portion of the current malaise seems to be linked to another logic, which appears almost opposite to the previous drama. This is the problem addressed by this paper: the difficulty that self-control implies in a culture that encourages unlimited consumption based on individual ‘free choice’, while lacking the tools to deal with failure and restrictions, including temporal ones.
23 January 2022
Paula Sibilia is a professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Media and in the Postgraduate Programme in Communication at Fluminense Federal University, Brazil.
Manuela Arruda Galindo is a PhD candidate in the Postgraduate Programme in Communication at Fluminense Federal University, Brazil. In her current research, Galindo addresses social media tools and apps dedicated to ephemeral content, and the tensions between the desire for visibility, urgent visualization and imminent erasure.
Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society