Interview: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society

Pausing for thought with Scott Wark and Tom Sutherland

Hi Scott and Tom,
Thanks for being up for a chat with INC. We met through your Pause for Thought (PfT) project, when you invited a bunch of researchers, writers, artists, etc. to join in a discussion around ‘making sense’ within a high speed society.
First off, can you tell us what the PfT project is about overall and how it came to be? And secondly, how did you arrive at these unique workshop formats – where you select a group of people who don’t know eachother to have discussions that are not recorded, transcribed, or documented (particularly publically) anywhere?

Tom: The aim of the PfT project, in simple terms, is to get people together – scholars, artists, writers, journalists, etc. – to think about questions of speed and contemporaneity, and to reflect upon the pressures that are imposed upon us in the name of productivity, efficiency, novelty, and so forth. But also, to think about how all of us deal with these pressures – the ‘literacies’, to use a slightly unfashionable term, that we all possess for navigating and negotiating a world that operates at high speeds.

For a few years now, I’ve been quite interested in the concept of ‘social acceleration’ – the notion that the world, and our experience of the world, is moving faster and faster. But I think what inspired this project in particular – and where Scott and my influences really converged – is the question of contemporaneity, and how it affects the production and dissemination of knowledge. I lecture in media studies, and I’d noted on many occasions that when teaching media, one always feels a bit behind, always teaching things that feel a little bit out of date, always struggling to keep up your students’ own practices. It made me wonder the extent to which this perceived need to be contemporary, the injunction to ‘keep up’, structures and delimits knowledge production, both within the academy and outside of it.

Scott: I’ve been hung up on the challenge of theorising constantly-changing media for a while now. This challenge is not a new one, of course, but it also feels like it’s intensified over the past decade or more as the spread of platforms, mobile internet-enabled devices, and always-on working practices seem to keep us immersed in media for longer and longer and racing to stay on top of every new thing. So it feels harder and harder to be ‘contemporary’ – that is, up to date, but also in the moment.

Tom: I think that’s a crucial point: it’s not just a problem in teaching media, but in theorising it as well. But it can be a quite productive or illuminative problem too – it’s not always bad to be untimely!

Scott: That led us to the (probably bad) pun in our title. What does it mean to ‘pause for thought’? There’s a number of ways to spin this phrase. I think it’s important to emphasise that PfT is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. So, we try to think about these problems using a critical lens derived from our training in the humanities, broadly conceived.

Tom: We’re particularly interested in the resources that the humanities specifically hold for thinking through these problems.

Scott: And we recognise that we, media scholars, can’t possibly have a monopoly on knowledge about media.

Tom: Exactly. We all use media; our lives are permeated by media (and manifold processes of mediation). And we are all, in quite different ways, ‘literate’ in media, even if we don’t really think about it in those terms. So at a time when there’s a real push toward more scientistic approaches to studying media and technology, we’re much more excited by what artists, writers, historians, and so on might be able to tell us.

Scott: That’s where the idea for these workshop formats came from. We thought if we got a bunch of people together who have interesting things to say about how they navigate what Tom’s calling ‘social acceleration,’ we could test this idea that actually, people who work with media come up with ways of thinking about them and ways of navigating the fact that they change all the time. Maybe Tom and I can learn from that – maybe not.

And we landed on not turning the meetings themselves into outputs for a variety of reasons. Not wanting to impose upon participants or ask for too much. Not wanting to exploit people who have knowledge about their particular field or domain that we don’t have, which academic research has often been accused of doing. Letting people contribute to the project under their own name and using their own style/take on things, rather than recuperating them to academic genres of knowledge production.

Tom: Yeah, trying to do something that quite decidedly doesn’t resemble a focus group.

Scott: And at the risk of sounding cliched, valuing the conversations themselves!

With this form of interdisciplinary workshop, what have you learnt so far? Has anything surprised you?

Scott: From my perspective, I’d say that what most surprised me about the conversations we had were things that really shouldn’t have been surprising. In the first workshop, for instance, we used the theme of ‘keeping it all together’ to frame the conversation. We thought that this might get people to talk about how they manage their work with media or how media shape their social lives or leisure time – but of course, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation quickly turned to discussions about how people literally kept it all together during days, weeks, or months of isolation, remote teaching, work from home, and burnout. In the second workshop, we invited a number of freelance writers and artists to talk about knowledge production – and the discussions focussed heavily on precarity and labour conditions.

In a way, it’s obvious – these are the conditions in which one works with media today, and Tom and I do talk about this stuff and, indeed, need to think about this stuff. But talking to people becomes a useful and necessary corrective to your own habitual ways of thinking about media and time and work and change.

Tom: I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by how willing so many people have been to take part, and how genuinely fruitful and engrossing the discussions have been. The topic really seems to have struck a chord. But also, I’ve mentioned to Scott on many occasions that I’ve appreciated the extent to which participants have been willing to really challenge our premises. In the first workshop, a lot of scrutiny was placed on this motif of ‘keeping it together’, with many participants suggesting that this was fundamentally the wrong question to ask, or noting the ways in which they deal with pressures precisely by refusing such an imperative – letting things fall apart a bit. Which is what we’re looking for – we don’t just want confirmation of our biases.

I was particularly impressed by how conscious the project is of remuneration and acknowledgement of labour. It was refreshing to be encouraged to not invest too much time in the after-article, for example. I remember one of you saying “If you’re spending hours on this, you’re doing something wrong.”
What has informed your orientation towards how you want to run this project? Has this experience of cultural funding shown you anything unexpected, or reinforced something you suspected already?
Tom: There was definitely a desire on our part to put into practice some of the principles that we were trying to foreground with this project. So trying to make explicit that there is a labour involved, and trying to quantify that labour. Which of course risks instrumentalising the type of discussion which, ideally, should remain irreducible to the strictures of fungible value. Conversely though, I think in a lot of cases it’s precisely by not properly quantifying these things, and by resting upon the notion that creatives, scholars, knowledge workers of all stripes should just be grateful for opportunities that they’re given – ‘doing what they love’, etc. – that exploitation can so easily occur. 

Scott: Telling people to go with ‘first thought best thought’ seemed in keeping with the spirit of the project. Instead of spending time preparing too much, or labouring over a contribution post-workshop, we just assume that everyone we invite already has a lot of knowledge about social acceleration and changing media and so on and that what they produce will be great.

Tom: We like the idea of the contributions being slightly off the cuff. We didn’t want participants to endlessly ponder whether or not what they were producing was suitable – exactly as Scott says, we just assumed that whatever they produced would be great, and would go some way toward materialising a kind of lingering memory of these otherwise deliberately transitory workshops.

Scott: I think we also had a bit of a desire to throw off the ambiguity that comes with freelance work. I’ve done some freelance writing and copyediting in the past, and I’ve also worked in cultural institutions back in Australia (volunteering or doing low-end work, like invigilating galleries). Sometimes it’s paid well, but sometimes those seemingly big flat fees boil down to exploitative hourly rates. We recognise that we are relatively privileged, in that we have salaries. So we wanted to make sure that freelancers would (hopefully) do just as much work as they’re paid for, or less even, and that we could pick up the slack by helping out with ideas or doing some editing.

To answer your question, though, every experience of cultural funding unfortunately reinforces my suspicions that a world of institutions that take ages to pay for invoices is not one that values creative labour!

Pause for Thought will conclude with a symposium, under the topic of ‘Making Sense of the High-Speed Society’. What are the hopes and desires for this closing event? Will it also go without recording and be a moment for those present?

Scott: The idea isn’t to record this closing event. Partly, this reflects the fact that we’re running this event together and don’t have much administrative or tech support, so streaming it online or recording it and hosting it later is beyond us. But partly it also reflects a feeling, that I think Tom shares as well, that certain modes of delivery – like the in-person academic paper – don’t always translate across formats, i.e. from live or in-person to online. These are different mediums with different affordances.

Tom: Absolutely. We quite dramatically shifted our plans and expectations for the workshops once we were confronted with the pandemic, in order to suit the affordances of Zoom as a platform. Which we reckon was fairly successful. But we’d also like to hold an event that makes the most use possible of the ‘offline’ mode of delivery (i.e. being physically present to one another).

Scott: While acknowledging the access issues involved in insisting on an offline event – and, indeed, the risk that the UK will go back in to lockdown over winter! – we decided to document the event by hosting extended abstracts on our website instead of hosting recordings. The hope is that this approach will translate people’s arguments better for an online audience, which might be more inclined to skim a brief argument than watch a series of dry academic papers. 

Tom: Indeed. And if I’m being quite frank, I think one of our main hopes for the symposium is simply that we might be able to hold an in-person event for this project: we applied for funding pre-COVID, without the slightest thought that our workshops would be anything other than in-person events, with participants physically present. All such presuppositions have now obviously been shattered. But we’d really like to do something that isn’t just held via Zoom, in spite of the many benefits afforded by the latter. So in order to facilitate this (circumstances permitting), we’ve had to be quite modest in our goals for the symposium: most notably, a very small number of participants. Which isn’t ideal, but these are the kinds of compromises that one inevitably has to make at the moment.

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TOM SUTHERLAND
is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Lincoln, UK. tsutherland@lincoln.ac.uk

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