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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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Bill Ghormley

    Right on, Wade.
    Caffeine + Cable + Communication at light speed = Exponential Connection to a Compelling Cosmos (more poetry, too)
    I learned the “bliss of the empty in box” from Bruce Bullen, now acting CEO at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
    Bruce actually takes it a step further — he never leaves for home until his ENTIRE inbox is less than one screen in length, which means he opens and processes all but a dozen holdover emails daily. Noting Bruce’s effectiveness when working with him, I try to get to a zero inbox at least 2-3 times a week. (;-> Wag

  • We’re all different aren’t we? For me, 5 days in a row of constant interruptions & information, followed by 2 days of being unplugged, works well. Freemen seems to need a different environment. The key is figuring out what environment works for you and how to find it.

  • I’m happy to see voices of reason popping up here and there among the din of “information overload is destroying your brain” messages. I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here that needs to be managed and that many people don’t have dysfunctional message processes. I use reason to mean applying skepticism and objectivity (as Chris does above pointing out each person has a different environment). Information overload comes across too often with evangelical zeal. That’s why I recommend avoiding the “information overload” term and its negative associtations entirely and describe it in terms of a management issue (enterprise attention management).

    More on the “attention management” tag of my blog: