A Manifesto for Speed
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responding first to e-mail from family and friends, then deleting all spam and “FYI” e-mails, then acting on every work-related e-mail request that can be dispatched in two minutes or less, and finally transferring all of the remaining requests onto a to-do list and addressing them later. While this may leave you with a swelling to-do list, it will at least give you the daily experience what I called “the bliss of an empty inbox.”
3. Slower isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, it’s just slower.
The society that abandons itself to e-mail and other forms of instant communication may indeed fetishize speed and falsely equate it with efficiency, as Freeman charges. But to my eyes, Freeman and other critics of modern Internet technologies romanticize slowness and falsely equate it with wisdom and fulfillment.
“The difference between typing an e-mail and writing a letter or memo out by hand is akin to walking on concrete versus strolling on grass,” Freeman soliloquizes. I would like to see him hand-write all of the notes I type to people every day while trying to keep my little part of Xconomy running. If he tried, I think he would conclude that the difference is more akin to getting a massage versus getting arthritis.
Novelist Mark Helprin starts out his recent non-fiction screed Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto with an entertaining little scenario contrasting the life of a fictional California software executive in 2028 with the life of a fictional English politician in 1908. The software executive is, of course, continuously immersed in a stream of digital data served up over the global network, even while he’s on vacation in the (by then tropical) Aleutians, while the politician, who’s on holiday at Lake Como, Italy, is completely out of touch with London, dependent on week-old newspapers and pen-and-ink letters carried by freighter. For the software executive, “The world flows at increasingly faster and faster speeds. You must match them…You love the pace, the giddy, continual acceleration. Though what is new might not be beautiful, it is marvelously compelling.” The politician, by contrast, makes do with his books, his memories, and his writing desk; he has “learned to enjoy the attribute of patience itself, for it slows time, embraces tranquility, and lets you savor a world in which you are clearly aware that your passage is but a brief candle.”
It’s obvious long before he acknowledges it that Helprin would rather be the politician than the software executive. To which I say: If Helprin has found a time machine that will take him back to 1908, he is welcome to go. I hope he’s had his shots. Personally, having tasted what it’s like to have instant access to nearly everyone I know and to nearly boundless stored knowledge, I could never choose a life of isolation. Nor do I think it would be a very good idea for politicians and businesspeople to return to an era in which progress was limited by the speed of steamships and locomotives.
It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be spelled out, but if we can communicate faster, we can also air questions, reach agreements, finish transactions, resolve disputes, and make plans faster. Think about it: who would you rather have in the White House during an economic or political crisis, a president with a Blackberry on his belt or one with a telegraph operator in the basement?
Freeman and Helprin can stroll on their grass by the lake and use all the postage stamps they want. Just give me my coffee, my computer, and my cable Internet service.
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