We live under Fast Capitalism, which is profoundly transforming our sense of waiting. A 24x7 consumer economy and click-and-order services mean that we need our goods, food, cabs, and services in or before time. We are entitled to become impatient and angry because we have paid for this time.
Think of the opposite of Fast Capitalism. It is not slow capitalism — it is public/government-run services, such as hospitals, banks, and certificate-issuing authorities. They shape our sense of patience and waiting due to their sluggish nature of services and delivery. Private service providers recognize that queuing up often results in customer dissatisfaction. Delays, long waiting periods, and how we are treated during the waiting period are key areas of intervention that Fast Capitalism analyses and works on. It uses our patience to make profits and, in turn, transforms the self deeply and, perhaps, irreversibly. The minute management of waiting is where the profits of consumer culture and capitalism lie.
But capitalism also needs a slow, poor quality and, sometimes, defunct but running public sector. This need for the ‘Other’ gives it legitimacy and a superior moral ground to strengthen its hold. Unsurprisingly, there is much support among people for the privatization of public institutions such as schools, railways, hospitals and, now, even airports and airlines. Given the choice between a cost-effective public service and a privatized, quicker service with higher cost, the rich and the middle-class would go for the latter without thinking about the exclusion of the poor in the process. They would prefer a space which is less crowded and has a coffee machine and an air-conditioner. While accepting privatized services as a golden norm, they internalize the public sector as slow and inefficient. To demand for its reform is a ‘never-ending wait’.
The gap between the poor and the rich is not just about haves and have-nots; it is also about who will/should wait or not wait. Time is money and status. How you spend your time shapes your class, caste, and gendered self.
The theft and management of time was — and is — at the heart of capitalist profit. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, factory owners stole time from workers’ leisure hours by reducing lunchtimes, letting machines run partially during breaks, asking employees to work on weekends and mismanaging factory clocks. This stolen time amounted to significant profit for employers.
Fast Capitalism is propelled by the internet and information technology. Mobile devices have compressed our waiting time. As per one calculation, about 60 per cent of the global population are active internet users and, among them, about 92 per cent use their mobile devices for accessing the internet. We have become the new, unpaid digital labour of information technology firms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on — yielding them profits with our time and new forms of socialization. Twitter users announce short sabbaticals from the platform as if they work for Twitter. Academics and office goers remind each other to not respond on weekends and in the evening. These are prime examples of our internalization of a new time-sense and an incessant digital work culture.
It wasn’t as if we did not socialize or wait for messages from lovers, family members, and employers before the arrival of mobile devices with the internet. But that waiting was of a different kind. There were moments of pause, reflection, and a re-gathering of emotions in that waiting. A letter could take weeks or months to reach its recipient. Words were thought through, drafted, and crafted before being penned.
The new, compressed waiting time has changed our selfhood and socialization. This unique shaping of time and of waiting is peculiar to this era.
Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor at Nottingham University