Slow Down

Many have remarked about how fast things are moving in our society. This is most often associated with the rapidly changing pace of computer technologies. You buy a computer and worry that within a year (or less) your machine is obsolete or not powerful enough. You must commit a good portion of your life to downloading new software in order to keep things humming along. Those within the high-tech sector often see fast change as a positive feature of their industry, believing that most of this change is for the better, that the next version of computer hardware or software will be an improvement (that it is not, of course, can be seen sometimes by the complaints appearing about glitches and other problems with new releases). Every addition of memory, of powerful processing enhancements, can be interpreted as a positive change, as good an example of technological determinism as anyone can imagine. The old days of having electrical and other devices repaired, usually by a local person, are over; now we rip the device out and buy a new one. Stephen Bertman suggests that the computer’s nature works against our ability to reflect: “reflection and meditation are functions inconsistent with the computer’s nature, its mandate from society, and society’s own pace. Thought a computer may save us time, its very quickness can condition us to disdain slower, more peculiarly human, modes of operation” (Stephen Bertman, Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed [Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998], p. 23). David Levy argues that “Thinking is by its very nature a slow-time activity” (David M. Levy, “No Time to Think: Reflections on Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship,” Ethics and Information Technology 9 [December 2007]: 244).

Yet, we do not have to stick with our computers to see how the pace of life has quickened. Let’s take the most obvious example, the emergence of 24/7 news. When I was growing up news was reported via print newspapers appearing daily (in some instances several times a day) and the evening local and national newscasts. News stories unfolded slowly, the most important news stories appearing over a succession of days. All this has changed. Now we get news instantaneously, so fast that at first we are mostly hearing about rumors rather than substantiated news. In fact, often the news industry becomes the news itself, firing up rumors and making predictions before all the facts have emerged. I once experienced a panic started by local newscasters reporting an impending shortage of Christmas trees, based on soft or no evidence but leading to a run on these trees; we bought our tree late for a fraction of the cost, since the lots were overflowing with surplus trees just before the holiday. This is a humorous example, but the reporting of the events in Ferguson, Missouri following the events of the shooting of the unarmed black teenager is far les humorous while showing some of the same characteristics of instilling unease and panic. In one sense, television news has become indistinguishable from reality shows, especially as the newscasts are laced with personal exchanges and more personal opinions than factual reporting. Analysts, individuals supposedly possessing some relevant expertise, offer opinion, and they usually outnumber the journalists.

We can take some solace, I suppose, in remembering that commentators from earlier eras have also lamented the rapidity of change they were experiencing. Shifts in more durable writing materials and the inventing of movable type printing must have brought such concerns, as did the emergence of new communications systems such as the telegraph and telephone. It would be silly, however, to deny that our digital era isn’t moving, literally, a whole lot faster, driven by technologies forcing us always to be at work, never disconnected, and never on off time. In other essays about slow reading or slow communication, one must recognize that doing this takes a lot of individual will power and ability to buck the trends. Just look around yourself in a coffee shop and try to find someone who is not checking e-mail, browsing FaceBook, or sending a Tweet. Or listen to a discussion about academic research, where quantity of production often seems to outshine significance or impact. Faculty members are urged to produce faster, and long-term research and other projects are often squeezed out.

In recent years there has been a lot of research about multi-tasking, almost always built on the premise that this is an approach necessary, or desirable, for coping in our present society. I write about this with some trepidation since my natural proclivity is to function as a multi-tasker. However, this is different from believing that the only way to cope is by multi-tasking, as fast and as efficiently as possible. I enjoy working on multiple projects at the same time. I am always reading several books at once, usually divergent in topic and style, just for the change of pace. I am always writing on several essays at once, again usually on extremely different topics. Every once and again, I finish several projects at nearly the same time, providing a kind of intellectual euphoria. This is what I enjoy, not what I have to do. While I have written a lot of books and articles, my goal is not to beat out others in sheer numbers. My pleasure in reading, reflecting, and writing about interesting issues and concerns is what drives me. I have had fallow periods, where I produced little, but those times were not devoid of thinking about future projects; the only issue that makes me pause a bit is that as I get older I realize I have less time to finish my work.

Why should we want to slow down? This is a good question, since the speed of information access and dissemination are heralded as such great positive attributes of our present era. While there has been consideration about how the use of the Internet and other networked communication systems might be negatively affecting our cognitive abilities, there has been less attention paid to what all this might be doing to our physical selves. The most obvious problem is the fact that all the predictions of just a generation ago that we would have shorter workweeks have been obliterated. Now, many of us work longer and are rarely, if ever, cut off from work; we stay connected to our work on vacation, while we travel, while we relax at coffee shops, and even when we visit friends and relatives. This has have to be having health implications. Most of us feel tense when we are away from work or, at least, away from our online connections, and it sometimes takes a while before we can truly relax. This seems extremely unnatural. When we wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, our first inclination is check our email or to surf the Web; our second inclination, to turn on the television, is little better (and these days, it is hard to distinguish between our computers and televisions) — either way, we seldom do something that helps us fall back to sleep. We keep on running, figuratively, toward our work.

What do we need to do to slow down? There has been an increasing literature on doing this, with some just saying shut off the computer, disconnect every once in a while, and take a break. Mark Taylor states, “Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us, networks that were supposed to unite us now divide us, and technologies that were supposed to save time leave us no time for ourselves” (Mark C. Taylor, “Speed Kills: Fast is Never Fast Enough,” The Chronicle Review, October 24, 2014, p. B7). So, what other choice do we have, but to shut the machines down and take a break? That this is important can also be seen in the increasing testimony about the positive benefits of occasionally taking a break from our smart phones, tablets, and other digital devices (such as Jay Bookman, Caught in the Current: Searching for Simplicity in the Technological Age [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004].

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