[knowledgelab] John Freeman: Not so Fast! A Manifesto for Slow Communication

mp m.pedersen at lancaster.ac.uk
Fri Sep 11 15:47:21 BST 2009



-------- Original Message --------

bwo Wall Street Journal (August 21, 2009)
original at: http://tinyurl.com/ndokgn


Not So Fast
Sending and receiving at breakneck speed can make life queasy; a manifesto
for slow communication

By JOHN FREEMAN

The boundlessness of the Internet always runs into the hard fact of our
animal nature, our physical limits, the dimensions of our cognitive
present, the overheated capac­ity of our minds. "My friend has just had
his PC wired for broadband," writes the poet Don Paterson. "I meet him in
the café; he looks terrible—his face puffy and pale, his eyes bloodshot. .
. . He tells me he is now detained, night and day, in downloading every
album he ever owned, lost, desired, or was casually intrigued by; he has
now stopped even listen­ing to them, and spends his time sleeplessly
monitoring a progress bar. . . . He says it's like all my birthdays have
come at once, by which I can see he means, precisely, that he feels he is
going to die."

We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and
cared about will die, too, sometimes—heartbreakingly—before us. Being
someone else, traveling the world, making new friends gives us a temporary
reprieve from this knowledge, which is spared most of the animal kingdom.
Busyness—or the simulated busyness of email addiction—numbs the pain of
this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days
are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do,
what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to
allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot
change. In short, we need to slow down.

Our society does not often tell us this. Progress, since the dawn of the
Industrial Age, is supposed to be a linear upward progression; graphs with
upward slopes are a good sign. Process­ing speeds are always getting
faster; broadband now makes dial-­up seem like traveling by horse and
buggy. Growth is eternal. But only two things grow indefinitely or have
indefinite growth firmly ensconced at the heart of their being: cancer and
the cor­poration. For everything else, especially in nature, the
consum­ing fires eventually come and force a starting over.

The ultimate form of progress, however, is learning to decide what is
working and what is not; and working at this pace, emailing at this
frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of
our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our
ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our
bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to
change it. Of course email is good for many things; that has never been in
dispute. But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less
dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.

In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns
of the barrier between our work and per­sonal lives since the notion of
leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial
Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our
brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with
whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It
has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to
tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and
enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made
it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.

This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly
on causes emotional and physical burnout, work­place meltdowns, and
unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in
front of a screen?

If we are to step off this hurtling machine, we must reassert principles
that have been lost in the blur. It is time to launch a manifesto for a
slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the
forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values
of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for
solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the
mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is
to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the
Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but
a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements
are self-evident.

1. Speed matters.

We have numerous technologies that can work with extreme rapidity. But we
don't use these capabilities because they are either dangerous (even the
Autobahn has begun applying speed limits, due to severe accidents) or
uncomfortable (imagine tur­bulence at 1,200 miles per hour) or would ruin
the point of hav­ing the technology at all (played back faster than it was
recorded, Led Zeppelin's syrupy metal sound turns to tinsel).

The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it.
Words and communication are not immune to this fundamental truth. The
faster we talk and chat and type over tools such as email and text
messages, the more our com­munication will resemble traveling at great
speed. Bumped and jostled, queasy from the constant ocular and muscular
adjust­ments our body must make to keep up, we will live in a constant
state of digital jet lag.

This is a disastrous development on many levels. Brain sci­ence may
suggest that some decisions can be made in the blink of an eye, but not
all judgments benefit from a short frame of reference. We need to protect
the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships. We
need time in order to prop­erly consider the effect of what we say upon
others. We need time in order to grasp the political and professional
ramifica­tions of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and
design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean.
Communicating at great haste hones our utterances down to instincts and
impulses that until now have been held back or channeled more carefully.

Continuing in this strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment as it
stands will be destructive for businesses. Employees communicating at
breakneck speed make mistakes. They forget, cross boundaries that exist
for a reason, make sloppy errors, offend clients, spread rumors and gossip
that would never travel through offline channels, work well past the point
where their contributions are helpful, burn out and break down and then
have trouble shutting down and recuperating. The churn produced by this
communication lifestyle cannot be sustained. "To perfect things, speed is
a unifying force," the race-car driver Michael Schumacher has said. "To
imperfect things, speed is a destructive force." No company is perfect,
nor is any individual.

It is hard not to blame us for believing otherwise, because the Internet
and the global markets it facilitates have bought into a fundamental
warping of the actual meaning of speed. Speed used to convey urgency; now
we somehow think it means efficiency. One can even see this in the
etymology of the word. The earliest recorded use of it as a verb—"to go
fast"— dates back to 1300, when horses were the primary mode of moving in
haste. By 1569, as the printing press was beginning to remake society,
speed was being used to mean "to send forth with quickness." By 1856, in
the thick of the Industrial Revo­lution, when machines and mechanized
production and train travel were remaking society yet again, "speed" took
on another meaning. It was being used to "increase the work rate of," as
in speed up.

There is a paradox here, though. The Internet has provided us with an
almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it
works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might
work at a higher rate, but this is not work­ing. We can store a limited
amount of information in our brains and have it at our disposal at any one
time. Making decisions in this communication brownout, though without
complete infor­mation, we go to war hastily, go to meetings unprepared,
and build relationships on the slippery gravel of false impressions.
Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources. If we waste it on
frivolous communication, we will have nothing left when we really need it.

Everything we say needn't travel at the fastest rate possible. The
difference between typing an email and writing a letter or memo out by
hand is akin to walking on concrete versus stroll­ing on grass. You forget
how natural it feels until you do it again. Our time on this earth is
limited, the world is vast, and the people we care about or need for our
business life to operate will not always live and work nearby; we will
always have to com­municate over distance. We might as well enjoy it and
preserve the space and time to do it in a way that matches the rhythms of
our bodies. Continuing to work and type and write at speed, however, will
make our communication environment resemble our cities. There will be
concrete as far as the eye can see.

2. The Physical World matters.

A large part of electronic commu­nication leads us away from the physical
world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets
and commu­nity meeting halls have suffered as a result of this
development. They are beginning to resemble the tidy and lonely bedroom
commuter towns created by the expansion of the American interstate system.
Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don't hear the murmur or rise and
fall of conversation but the con­tinuous, insect-like patter of typing.
The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual
world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation
and neglect of the tangible commons.

This is a terrible loss. We may rely heavily on the Internet, but we
cannot touch it, taste it or experience the indescribable feeling of
togetherness that one gleans from face-to-face interac­tion, from the
reassuring sensation of being among a crowd of one's neighbors. Seeing one
another in these situations reinforces the importance of sharing
resources, of working together, of bal­ancing our own needs with those of
others. Online, these values become notions that are much more easily
suspended to further our own self-interest. Not surprisingly, political
movements that begin online must have a real-world component; otherwise
they evaporate and dissolve into the blur of other activities.

It is almost impossible to navigate the Web without having to stutter-step
around ads and blinking messages from sponsors. In using this tool so
heavily, consumers aren't just frying their attention spans, they're
forfeiting one of the large sources of information that comes from
face-to-face interaction and business. A butcher can tell you which cuts
of meat are the freshest; an online grocer may not. That same butcher, if
he is good, might not just remember your preferences—which an online
retailer can do frighteningly well—but ask you how your mother has been
doing, whether you caught the latest football game. These interactions
remind us that we are more than con­sumers; they remind us that we are
part of the world in a way no amount of online shopping ever will.

If we spend our eve­ning online trading short messages over Facebook with
friends thousands of miles away rather than going to our local pub or park
with a friend, we are effectively withdrawing from the peo­ple we could
turn to for solace, humor and friendship, not to mention the places we
could go to do this. We trade the com­plicated reality of friendship for
its vacuum-packed idea.

3. Context matters

We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic
communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn't search online for a
solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we
need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of
speed from effi­ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that
efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always
lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships. We are here
for a short time on this planet, and reacting to demands on our time by
simply speeding up has canceled out many of the benefits of the Internet,
which is one of the most fabulous technological inventions ever conceived.
We are connected, yes, but we were before, only by gossamer threads that
worked more slowly. Slow communication will preserve these threads and our
ability to sensibly choose to use faster modes when necessary. It will
also preserve our sanity, our families, our relationships and our ability
to find happiness in a world where, in spite of the Internet, saying what
we mean is as hard as it ever was. It starts with a simple instruction:
Don't send.

—John Freeman is the acting editor of Granta magazine. This essay was
adapted from his book "The Tyranny of E-Mail," forthcoming from Scribner.



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