Social acceleration and complexity

Neo-nationalism, or the general social backlash that Trump (and Brexit) represents may be understood as a retreat from social acceleration and complexity. Trump appealed to the fantasy that millions of white, non-college educating Americans share of returning to the 1950s . Sixty years ago, society, understood in the Luhmannian sense as global communication, changed far less quickly. It was more stable, though it was also more oppressive for anyone living on the margins. But, somewhat paradoxically, even the fact of Trump’s election is evidence of social acceleration. Very few people believed he had a chance when he started his campaign; it wasn’t even treated as serious news. Social acceleration doesn’t have to lead to a more open or just society; it can be reactionary. Change just speeds up in unpredictable directions. And the “shrinking of the present” makes it increasingly difficult to form reliable expectations based  on past experience. In a context like this, the legal system, which stabilizes normative expectations over time, will likely have to play a major role is managing social instability. But the legal system might be too slow.

Once source of anxiety relates to the education system, as the family system is less capable of teaching children what they need to know to live in the 21st century. The education system, therefore, may be seen as a threat to the family. The family socializes children, but it can no longer educate them. Furthermore, the socialization accomplished by the family faces increased competition from the mass media.

Hartmut Rosa’s 2013 book titled Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity  is worth reading in this context. Here is a description from Amazon.

Hartmut Rosa advances an account of the temporal structure of society from the perspective of critical theory. He identifies three categories of change in the tempo of modern social life: technological acceleration, evident in transportation, communication, and production; the acceleration of social change, reflected in cultural knowledge, social institutions, and personal relationships; and acceleration in the pace of life, which happens despite the expectation that technological change should increase an individual’s free time.

According to Rosa, both the structural and cultural aspects of our institutions and practices are marked by the “shrinking of the present,” a decreasing time period during which expectations based on past experience reliably match the future. When this phenomenon combines with technological acceleration and the increasing pace of life, time seems to flow ever faster, making our relationships to each other and the world fluid and problematic. It is as if we are standing on “slipping slopes,” a steep social terrain that is itself in motion and in turn demands faster lives and technology. As Rosa deftly shows, this self-reinforcing feedback loop fundamentally determines the character of modern life.

Here is a Tedx talk by Professor Rosa:




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