Monday, October 12, 2009

In Praise of (Cyber) Slowness

 Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness, recently talked to Arianna Huffington about an an epiphany he had a few years ago. He came across a book of one-minute bedtime stories and thought it was a good way to bond with his toddler. Huffington reports, "He suddenly found himself thinking: 'Have I gone completely insane?' " So Honore wrote about slowing down -- is it wise? is it even possible? -- and the origin, evolution and direction of "Slow" movements.

Here's an excerpt from his book:
"Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs, and what the slow movement offers, is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes in between."
and from Huffington's commentary:
Honore is not some easy-to-dismiss Luddite who wants you to throw your BlackBerry in the river. "This is not a declaration of war against speed," he explains. "Speed has helped remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating." But it can also become "a kind of idolatry."

Even though the main theme of the book is our day-to-day personal obsession with time, rereading the book this week I was struck by how much it also had to say about our financial crisis and the rethinking occasioned by the collapse of free-market fundamentalism. (Huffington liked the book so much she selected it for her new HuffPost Book Club. More here)
So far I'm intrigued by the whole concept of the book, but getting stuck on idea of moderation. A city has many layers, structurally and experientially -- the frantic subway platform versus the calm park above it, but also the relaxed dudes on the platform listening to their ipods, versus the helicopter parents squawking at their kids to play nice on the swings above. It's easy to see how a city can incorporate fast and slow, simultaneously and even in the same spaces.

Same goes for food (preparation and consumption) and sex. Nuance and variation aren't just possible -- they're what help distinguish and determine each of the poles.

But can you sort of slow down your life? Once you make the decision to become calmer and at least look for opportunities to decompress, can you not take them? If slowness seduces you, wouldn't that become your new mode? Won't the "sometimes fast" moments Honore discusses become mere punctuations of the slow ones, a dialectical counterpoint to the calmer baseline? Is balance just a midway step, toward total acquiescence to, or eventual rejection of, slowness?

I haven't read his book yet so I don't know if it touches upon this, but I see an antecedent for the "Slow" movement in mid-19th century France. People were moving from the countryside to the capital in record numbers; the population of Paris hit 1 million in 1846, around the time the electric motor and the telegraph were invented. Poets and novelists were writing about clocks and trains and printing presses, with a sense of frenzy, exuberance, and terror they never had before. And amid the rubble of the old way of life, a new creature emerged: the flaneur, a man who took his time.

This character, which Charles Baudelaire and after him Walter Benjamin wrote about, was known for wearing vintage duds and wandering around the city aimlessly. (The term describes a type of man, not an actual person; the most famous of them had a pet turtle he used to take on walks.) As people rushed to explore Paris's glorious new hotspots -- arcades, train stations, theaters, department stores, art exhibits -- the flaneurs spent their days doing precisely nothing. But that nothing was something: they didn't work, didn't consume, didn't produce a commodity, but instead returned to their scrappy garrets at night and drew or wrote. They studied the city and, in so doing, gave it meaning. Perhaps in a similar vein as Huffington's comment above about how the slow movement -- and the cult of speed -- speak gazillions about the financial crisis, the 19th century flaneurs were also engaging in a political critique. Instead of participating in the tumult of modern life, they chose to sit on the sidelines and watch modernity unfurl before them, like a dream.

For someone sucked into the web day and night, a true e-commodity fetishist, could one solution be to become a cyberflaneur? What would that consist in, and what would it entail?

Well, one thing is certain: If I do go offline for an extended period, this will be at the top of my reading list. Hell, even if I don't.

[second image via kathy koja]

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