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We live in the “acceleration society”: the less you achieve, the more important it is to look busy

The best way to look successful is to tell people how busy you are.

The more time we have, the more urgently we convince ourselves that it is running out faster. By living longer, we have more time altogether. And there is also more free time within that time. In 1965, housework alone took, on average, 40 hours a week. Try fitting in Facebook, Twitter and various forms of self-beautification on top of that. And yet we are all too busy – too busy to read, too busy to finish anything, too busy, even, to stop.

The German social theorist Hartmut Rosa has called this paradox the “acceleration society”. Labour-saving technology, which delivers free time, has been accompanied by “the dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time”. At one level, the speeding up and, hence, shrinking of time is literally nonsense. Yet it is so deeply felt that it is at least emotionally true. Being busy has become a style of living, something else that needs to be fitted into our lives.

“Keeping busy?” is the new way of asking how someone is feeling or, more accurately, how they are getting on in the world. Busyness is a synonym for success. “It’s been manic!” is shorthand for “God, I’m doing well”, which may or may not be true, but certainly reveals how people want to be seen. This conversational tic, apparently harmless, subtly sustains the deification of urgency, which in turn reinforces a sense of anxiety. If you’re not busy, and yet claim to be, surely it’s time to be getting on with something – checking emails or rolling news sites, or buying something on the internet. Enforced busyness? Or just exercising free choice without realising it?

Consumerist neophilia accentuates the same feedback loop. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has explored how buying new things (usually very similar to older models that we already own) gives a brief bounce of satisfaction, which quickly reverts to the baseline of well-being. The result is a “treadmill effect”, a shopping list in which the final item can never be ticked off.

Social media feeds the time paradox. By expanding the range of potential social events to almost an infinite degree, social media makes it more likely that the status quo feels inadequate. At the end of my cricket career, even great victories were often celebrated in social isolation: we might have been all together, but most team-mates were checking their smartphones. The craic, the revolving narrator and shared storytelling, was on the wrong side of history. The mobile phone was a disaster for team spirit: it broke the intuitive understanding that boredom generates entertainment. Even now, I try to organise all social events as if the mobile phone had never been invented. “Let’s be in touch on the day” is shorthand for “This isn’t going to work”.

Busyness is a style. As with all styles, the surface hides the underlying truth. Executive busyness is a response to executive guilt: there is, as everyone knows, less to do at the top. Less in this context, of course, means less work that is easily processed. There are fewer actions and decisions to make, but each decision is likely to be more important. So we should expect leaders to do less but to do less more ably than other people would. The voguish phrase “He would never ask anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself” doesn’t bear much scrutiny. I wouldn’t want to work for someone who didn’t avoid doing most of the tedious things that they asked other people to do. What other justification could they have for the fact that they are not just another person?

There is huge resistance to this underlying reality. Hence the ubiquity of the open-plan office, with its glassy, shutterless executive cabin in the middle, exposed to the whole workforce, to guard against any executive napping. It is a kind of mutually agreed armlock. The executive is determined to ­appear to be working – and to check that you are working. Admitting that busyness has nothing to do with achievement looks undemocratic or, worse, aristocratic.

And yet when you observe, say, Roger Federer at close quarters, it is hard to imagine a less busy-looking person. He has, however, got quite a lot done. In a candid moment, Sir Rod Eddington, formerly chief executive of British Airways, told me that his job was to make good decisions, not to give the appearance of constant busyness.

The conflation of rushing around with actual progress is a new idea. Once people cultivated sprezzatura, even if it was disingenuous. The opposite arrangement now holds: the less you’re achieving, the more important it is to look busy. Ball Four, the 1969 diary of the New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, offered some worldly advice. Whenever an athlete wasn’t sure what he should be doing during pre-season training (that was most of the time), he should pretend to tie up a shoelace. That way, the coaching staff, content that the player was occupied with an urgent task, wouldn’t waste his time by insisting on a meaningless (and probably counterproductive) “official” exercise. The equivalent at a news­paper office is the old adage: “Never walk by the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper” – even if it only says “milk, eggs, washing-up liquid”.

In fact, I suspect that a sense of achievement is linked to slowing or stilling time – much harder to achieve. The ancient Greeks had two words for time and kairos was distinct from chronos in marking a decision or point of fulfilment, the moment when the meaningless march of events (chronos) distils into significance.

Just as “I haven’t time” usually means “I can’t be bothered”, so the phrase “I wish I had more time” should be translated as: “I wish my time had more meaning.”

Ed Smith is the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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