Running to Stand Still: A Review of “Social Acceleration” by Hartmut Rosa


I don’t usually add any sub-text to the titles of my book reviews. I want them to stand on their own, without interpretation.

But as it dawned on me that I really wanted to review Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, it was because the sub-titles just wouldn’t stop coming: The Need for Speed, Time is Money, The Fierce Rush of Life, and so on. And the fact that all of them were cliches or close variations on cliches (my second place was The More Things Change, the More They Change), told me that Rosa was onto something big. Cliches are cliches for a reason. Despite being a theorist of the airy and arcane, this sociologist from the University of Jena, who has never appeared on the NYT Best Seller list, had found something so organic to late-modern life that all of us have experienced it–the unstoppable speeding up of everything.

To be fair, Rosa objects to the claim that everything is speeding up. We still have traffic jams and download times, for examples. He says it’s “only” three things that are accelerating: technology, social change, and the pace of life. So, okay, that’s not quite everything, but let’s hear him out.

Rosa starts with a well-known paradox. The time-saving features of technology that have appeared since the industrial revolution should have freed up time resources for people in developed societies. But the opposite has happened, despite the fact that new time-saving technologies now appear at an ever faster pace. The more we free humans from time-devouring work, they less free time they have and the more their pace of life picks up. Since this should not happen in theory–it’s like saying 2 + 2 = 3–Rosa looks for empirical causes. There must be something about that way society works in real life that causes speed-ups in technology, social change, and the pace of life to interact with one another and propel a self-perpetuating a cycle of acceleration. Turn one of the three gears faster, and they all speed up.

“Since the Renaissance,” Rosa opens Chapter 1, ” . . . the defenders and the despisers of modernity have agreed on one point: its constitutive experience is that of a monstrous acceleration of the world, of life, and of each individual’s stream of experience.” He goes on to add the Marxian point that the modern human condition is one of “ceaseless dynamism” in which–here’s Marx–“all that is solid melts into air.”

That certainly sounds compelling.

I once had an impressive collection of compact discs. All my favorite albums were on CD, and I played them in my car. Well, up until 2017 I did, when my cars stopped having CD players in them. Everyone was “ripping” or downloading their music onto mp3 players. I hated this change, because I knew I would have to create accounts with passwords and payment methods and buy a new device to connect to my car’s sound system. I wasn’t nostalgic; I just didn’t want to bother with one more goddam account and everything that went with it. My CD collection, which had had such a hard solidity to it, lasted 15 years, at which point it melted into air and I gave in to the ceaseless dynamism of music streaming.

So score one point for Rosa’s basic approach. The “continual unsettling of certainties,” he says, “accompanies all processes of modernization.” It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to let go of my CD collection–I can’t even tell you where those hundred or so discs are anymore–it was more that I could feel the onset of the future change telegraphed by the transformation I was tackling at that time. The unsettling of certainties was going to be continual.

I often fret in a vague kind of way that I won’t be able to understand the lives my children will lead as adults. Their certainties will become unsettled even faster than mine. The “real” things they expect to remain solid will melt into air. Including big things. Rosa writes that a person’s sense of purpose and identity in the world is based on an “expectation horizon” that is stable across time. When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, we are introducing this idea of an expectation horizon. Their present gives them enough information about the world and themselves to map out a plausible mental picture of the future.

In pre-modernity, people didn’t have to think much about what they wanted to be when they grew up. There identities were given to them in a cross-generational pattern of cultural inheritance. If your father was a Catholic baker in a medium-sized village, that’s what you were going to be, no questions asked. This setup lasted for centuries.

Then modernity introduced the idea (explicitly through Kant) that people could and should think for themselves, even about who they wanted to be. Individuals had a vote in their own identity. Their choices may have been constrained by geographic, economic, and social factors, but choose they could. And so identity became a generational characteristic: your dad may have been a baker, but you could be a tailor, law student, or what have you. Furthermore, if your conscience tells you to convert to a form of Protestantism, you could do that too. And that old village your family has lived in forever? The horse coach and soon enough the steam train will let you move your whole life miles away if you wish.

Starting in the 20th century, these patterns of change sped up even more. Social ties that people used to hold onto for life–to their spouses, their employers, their political parties, their friend groups–began to change within each generation. The building blocks of one’s identity, which for the longest time had been cross-generational, then for maybe 150 years were generational, were now infra-generational. Quo vadimus? Here Rosa starts to hint at the concept of “critical thresholds,” rates of social change that surpass the individual’s capacity to cope.

Rosa observes early in his book that there are always counter-movements that rise up to oppose the disorienting acceleration of social change, and they always lose. The three gears he identifies–technological progress, social change, and the pace of life–will keep getting faster despite deliberate attempts by some groups to constrain them. Which means: there will almost certainly be some “monstrous acceleration” of change that has my kids sprinting after the things that are supposed to give meaning to life, and those things will melt into air. Will my children have to create meaning from things so fleeting they might as well be nothing?

You can’t break the law of gravity. So it may be that humans, as they approach the critical thresholds of social acceleration will necessarily adapt and adjust. This thought only offers limited comfort, though, because I really do think it will be my kids’ generation that will break upon the rocks of humanity’s critical thresholds of acceleration. They will have to figure out what remains possible after this traumatic collision. And I won’t be there to do the only thing I am even slightly capable of doing, which is, figure things out.

Maybe the only thing I’ll be able to do is leave them a copy of Rosa’s book.