303: Social Acceleration by Hartmut Rosa

by Gerard


303.4: Rosa, Hartmut. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys. Columbia, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013. 322 pp. ISBN 978-0-2311-4834-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 300: Social sciences, sociology, and anthropology
  • 303: Social processes
  • 303.4: Social change

I don’t know where to begin with this one. It’s about so many different things. Well, it’s actually about everything—everything we do, we invent, we perceive–the social processes that make up the fabric of everybody’s lives. Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration concerns itself with the pace of social growth. He posits that society as a macrocosmic unit is accelerating based on a three-pronged investigation of the mechanisms that shape society: technical expansion, pace of life, and social change.

He starts with a treatise on how time is both perceived and conceived. By looking at how we as social units perceive time and how that perception has changed through history, she comes up with a unique visualization of society. In physics (a long time ago), I learned that velocity is change in position over time and what we call acceleration is actually change in velocity over time (which is actually change in position over time over time). This same principle applies to society. Social velocity is a change in a society’s position (or state) over time, so therefore social acceleration is change in state over time over time. It’s this acceleration and its meaning that Rosa seeks to define.

While all this may already be confusing, he goes further. By looking at individual accelerations in technical expansion (from 0 to Internet in 50 years), in the pace of life (most poignantly how most people have acclimated to rampant multi-tasking), and in social change (i.e., a culture’s change from conservation to progressive and back again over the course of a few years), he forces the reader to look at humanity from a 40,000 foot view. This view, while still accounting for pockets of slowness and resistance to change, is one that points to an undeniable acceleration in social processes.

What I found relieving, though, is his statement that there is no way to accelerate to infinity. The growth of human societies has boundaries in the form of natural geophysical, anthropological, and biological limitations in both the species and the universe. His argument for social acceleration is one that both seeks to define modernism and help us see how the integration of time as a separate and discrete unit of the macrosociological model will inform our future studies.

Granted, this book isn’t for everyone. It’s a little dry in places and some of his arguments are somewhat arbitrary, but they are still interesting to ponder for a while. It’s nice, too, to be able to take a step back from reading focused, singular accounts of parts of the world and see to the whole thing as a single organism with rules, nuances, and systems. Just don’t do it for too long, though: you’ll lose perspective. A heavy but thought-provoking read.