Racing Toward the Great Slowing-Down

Lifes never felt so hectic . . . yet we’ve never had so much opportunity to enjoy it.


A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte   by George Seurat (1884).Nineteenth-century folks felt just as stressed about modernity as we do, and they still found time for...whatever this is. (And yes, this is the painting that hit Cameron hard in  Ferris Beuller ’  s Day Off .)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by George Seurat (1884).Nineteenth-century folks felt just as stressed about modernity as we do, and they still found time for...whatever this is. (And yes, this is the painting that hit Cameron hard in Ferris Beullers Day Off.)

We may look back on 2015 as an obvious watershed year, a period in which our whole culture hinged in a new direction.

Can you feel it? No?

OK, lets say that “it” can refer to either of two hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Never before has life been so hectic, so haywire, so frazzled with neon-hued nuisances and devices and obligations and notifications and information and information and information. The mind can only take so much, and we are fast approaching a tipping point — a nightmare combination of speed and supersaturation when technology’s ruthless advance will forever cripple our capacity to think deeply, to relate to the past, to even comprehend our own emotional turmoil.

Hypothesis 2: The backlash has commenced. A growing movement to slow…things…down and reassert the supremacy of quality and value over speed and utility is upon us. From championing the value of thoughtful design, to savoring the careful preparation of home-cooked locally farmed ingredients and scientifically calibrated ultra-gourmet coffee, to the rise of software and apps that exist solely to block access to the endless distraction stream, to the recognition that human minds require time away from electronic screens in general (especially before bedtime!), to a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the printed page and the preeminence of primary sources, the verdict is in: slow is the new hotness.

As it goes with all theories (even ones I didn’t sort of make up just now), I could cherry-pick supporting articles and data to assert that both of these are true (behold exhibits A, B, C, and D). There’s no real way to prove either theory, of course, since they’re based on subjective individual experience. Some of you might feel Theory 1 is so obvious that it’s asinine to even point it out, while some of you gourmand Bulletproof Coffee drinkers out there might be more open to Theory 2.

As it happens, I touched on Theory 1 before in this space. Long story short: some erudite people have demonstrated that claims such as “Our times are more hectic and unmanageable than ever before!” have pretty much occurred like clockwork throughout history. It seems that every generation feels it is the most put-upon ever to walk this green earth.

Granted, it’s not impossible for one generation to be the most put-upon ever to walk this green earth . . . until the next generation comes and everything does get more hectic, and so forth. Still, it is very telling that these concerns are so regularly aired.

So, which is it? Is life moving exponentially faster, or are people finally learning to chill out after two decades of information overload?

Now, it might shock you to your core to see a writer hedge his bets, but that’s what I’ve got to do, because both propositions are indeed true — depending on what we’re talking about.

If you think about this in a certain way, it’s easier to see evidence of each phenomenon happening all around us simultaneously, and to realize that the two ideas aren’t so mutually exclusive after all.


“Silence Too Is Eloquent”

In his illuminating review of James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin, Dana Gioia offers plenty of interesting tidbits about that giant of 20th century poetry. But none made as much of an impression on me as this one: “In his prime he published an average of only four poems a year.” 

Considering the number of Larkin’s truly first-rate poems (Gioia, a successful poet himself and a former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, believes that “Larkin’s core legacy comprises about 90 meticulously crafted poems”), the four-a-year average is surprising yet also makes intuitive sense. Larkin wasn’t continuously throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping that a few times a year something would stick. Rather, he was deliberately, slowly, painstakingly crafting excellent poems at that rate, maintaining a near-1.000 batting average. As he put it himself, “Silence is preferable to publishing rubbish and far better for one’s reputation.” (In his poetry he once phrased the idea more beautifully: “Silence too is eloquent.”)

Contrast this with today’s “publish or die” mentality, and it’s easy to imagine that Larkin would appear to our age as an alien might. After all, fresh content is a chief driver of SEO! Back-linking isn’t enough these days. You have to push out new material constantly or get lost in the din, which just happens to be growing louder by the second.

But these contrasting scenarios serve as an excellent representation of the dichotomy of Theory 1 (speed speed speed is going to be the end of us) vs. Theory 2 (we’re finally learning to chill the hell out and smell the roses once in a while).

The difference lies in the nature of the medium.

If you are a journalist or blogger, if you are a source of information for others (or wish to be), you will be best served by publishing at a furious pace, keeping track of events as they happen and remaining plugged into social media to accomplish that goal and to reach new people. Attention to detail will help you, and high-quality writing will surely not harm you, but these concerns do not trump the main one, which is keeping the flow of information going. You’ve got to move stuff out the door.

If, however, you wish to create poetry, or literature, or essays approaching a more literary quality, you’re probably gonna want to slow down there, Turbo.

This dichotomy — information vs. poetry, or more accurately, utility vs. beauty — is an ongoing battle in virtually every aspect of our lives. The thing is, each factor consistently gets its day in the sun. Whichever wins in any given situation is decided entirely based on that individual’s personal values in that specific moment. And it turns out that speeding up and slowing down isn’t so cut and dried. Indeed, they feed upon each other. 


Two Priorities Enter, Two Priorities Leave

In a nice Medium post, Shefaly Yogendra uses some recent remarks by Apple’s Jony Ive as a springboard to pose an interesting question: Will our growing predilection for quality design put an end to mindless consumerism?

I agree with Ms. Yogendra that beauty and design will continue to grow in demand and esteem, but I must part ways with her theory that this in itself will lessen rank consumerism. Human nature being what it is, I don’t think anything can or will ever make a dent in our acquisitive tendencies. We all want stuff, we all will always want stuff, and that’s OK.

Instead I believe these two values will continue to exist simultaneously in every person: the endless drive for efficiency and our unquenchable desire for beauty. Which trumps which depends on the situation at hand and will often be different for different people.

Think of it like this. Imagine that a man runs into a McDonald’s really fast to grab a quick cup of coffee. Meanwhile, across town, a woman is grinding only enough freshly imported Salvadoran medium-roasted beans to brew precisely two cups in her elegant French press, and she’s just now putting a thermometer into the kettle of purified water to ensure that it hasn’t eclipsed 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

It would be a logical error to assume that Mr. Mickey D’s doesn’t value quality or beauty. (By the way, this is slightly off-topic but McDonald’s coffee actually bested Starbucks in blind tests conducted by Consumer Reports, and its premium coffee is considered a large factor in its massive popularity in France.) Not long after, perhaps our guy jumped into a brand-new Tesla Model S, while Ms. French Press doesn’t even own a car and takes Uber everywhere.

Actually, this presents another informative example. One reason that Uber is going to be so successful is that it’s not just disrupting the taxi industry (as if that weren’t enough); Uber is projected to have a major impact on car ownership itself. There will be a significant portion of the population, especially in the younger Millennial generation, who will gladly give up what they view as the hassle and cost of car ownership (payments, interest, gasoline, up-keep, insurance) to rely more on Uber and other means of transportation to get around. Not everyone will do this, but what would it look like if one percent of American car owners ditch their cars? Five percent? Ten?

For those people, having a car just isn’t that big a deal. In fact, it’s a hindrance. For them, in this specific situation, convenience trumps all. But these same people will still value beauty and design in other areas of their lives, in anything from food to music to clothing to their phones, while a far larger portion of the population will always adore their cars.

Similarly, some people will stand in line once a year for an iPhone. Others (ahem) will keep their Android phone for five years before replacing it. And still others will be in the market for a new smartphone designed to last a decade. Some of us value things more than we do our phones, is all (like our iPads).

One more made-up example. Imagine a woman who still has her ancient iPod Shuffle. It’s got about 500 songs on it and she mostly listens to about 30 of them — while riding her $2,500 Superfly FS Trek mountain bike. Her best friend, meanwhile, has a premium Spotify account and $750 Sennheiser HD headphones, while the only exercise equipment she owns is a beat-up two-year-old yoga mat.


Time and technology are conspiring against us! (Lucky for us...) Image courtesy of   Gratisography by Bells Design .

Time and technology are conspiring against us! (Lucky for us...) Image courtesy of Gratisography by Bells Design.

Only Speed Can Slow You Down

We all value different things, but every single one of us values convenience when we want it — and quality design when we want that. And once you make your pick in any given case, it’s hard to go back or even settle for something that doesn’t continually improve, whether it’s speed or beauty that you’re after.

This dual desire leads to a wonderful paradox: The hectic rate of change that can cause us to feel unmoored, uncertain, and a bit frazzled at times is also the very vehicle enabling us to experience the most beautiful joys of life, whatever they may be, on our own terms. Every minute technology saves you can be spent on the true priorities of your life. (Imagine getting by without washing machines, for example.)

Our crazy rapid-fire world  and the hyper-productivity its technology enables are precisely the reasons why we now have more opportunities than ever to decelerate and conscientiously savor the good stuff — and more good stuff to savor, period.

That is, if we can learn to step back once in a while. We don’t really miss that much when we do, and we miss a whole lot more when we don’t.



Posted on January 7, 2015