This weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “Not So Fast” (August 21, 2009), and while it was indeed talking about our high-speed world, it was not actually about my book by that same title. I just want to clear that up first thing, because someone assumed that my book, Not So Fast, was being highlighted.
The article’s author, John Freeman, and I seem to share the same concerns about living a high-speed life, but he focused specifically on the speed of communication. The article was adapted from his forthcoming book (entitled The Tyrrany of E-mail).
In it, Freeman sets forth a “manifesto for slow communication.”
He begins by pointing out that we have limits—even our minds have limits. In fact, he refers to “the overheated capacity of our minds.” The speed of communication runs up against these limits and stresses them.
Busyness, he argues, especially that which is brought about by email addiction, numbs and distracts us from dealing with our morbidity. Freeman writes:
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.
He describes our perception of progress as moving faster and growth as eternal; but in reality, very few things have indefinite growth. Instead, progress ultimately has to do with “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 … Of course email is good for many things … But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.”
Reading is affected when we can’t slow down and enjoy it. The high-speed, high-tech lifestyle makes it hard for us to listen, to be restful and reflective. Being constantly “on” leads to burnout, meltdowns and general unhappiness. “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?” Freeman rhetorically asks.
Then comes the manifesto for a “slow communication movement,” yet another avenue in which humans are longing to slow down our lives in this fast-paced world. There’s the Slow Food movement, Slow Cycling, Slow Parenting, Slow Schooling, Slow Design, and now, Slow Communication.
Everyone is aching to live “not so fast.”
And people are analyzing all the ways we’re encouraged/tempted/pushed to speed up. Communication in a high-tech world is a big one. The fact that I can type up a response to John Freeman’s article on this blog and click “Publish” so that you can immediately access it illustrates the speed of communication today. One needn’t wait for a newspaper to receive and accept my letter to the editor and publish it on a printing press. We have blogs. Email. Facebook. Twitter. I can tweet a link to this in seconds. In fact, I probably will.
Not long ago, I wondered if we should become “Slow to Tweet,” to avoid some of the ranting and raving that slips out when we write too fast, without editing, without pausing, without thinking through the consequences of our words. I wrote:
The strength of these forms of communication is their immediacy. But immediacy doesn’t build in adequate time for the slow reflection that enhances meaningful communication. In fact, the immediacy of Twitter or Facebook doesn’t even build in time for basic editing; so often I’ve been aggravated with myself for misspellings or even missing words in my tweets.
So as I explore and enjoy these communication tools, I have to remind myself to go slow; to tap on the mental brakes long enough to think through my words and ideas—and consider how they might be received.
I think I’m tracking with Freeman, who writes, “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.” For the manifesto, he proposes:
1. Speed matters.
The speed at which we do something changes our experience of it. This includes words and communication. “The faster we talk and chat and type over tools such as email and text messages,” Freeman claims, “the more our communication will resemble traveling at great speed … we will live in a constant state of digital jet lag.”
Decision-making is affected by speed. We can make bold and effective snap decisions when need be, but sometimes we need to take time to make well-thought-through decisions that need analysis and wisdom.
Freeman points out, as I did in my “Slow to Tweet” post, that we need to think through cause and effect in all areas, including communication. Jotting off a thought too quickly via email is how we end up spreading gossip and rumors, hurt someone, or make sloppy errors.
We need to live slow enough to give our words the attention they need. We need to slow down and compose carefully. To think through each thought. To pause before hitting “send.”
“Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources,” Freeman states. “If we waste it on frivolous communication, we will have nothing left when we really need it.” And that which we say needn’t travel at the fastest rate possible.
Point two of his manifesto?
2. The Physical World matters.
While it’s great to use technology to connect with people around the world (we Kroekers are, in fact, happy with the technological ability to easily stay in touch with family members who live on another continent), it does change the communication experience.
Freeman points out that using electronics to communicate leads us away from cafes, post offices, and community halls where we would chat with real people in a physical location. It can lead to a sense of isolation and neglect of the place where we might otherwise have gathered.
I’d rather be in person, where I can experience what the article says is “the indescribable feeling of togetherness that one gleans from face-to-face interaction.” If we devote hours to exchanging messages via Facebook with friends all over the world instead of joining a friend at a park, we are, Freeman says, “effectively withdrawing from the people we could turn to for solace, humor and friendship, not to mention the places we could do this.”
His final point in his “slow communication manifesto” is:
3. Context matters.
Today, progress is closely associated with speed, and speed is identified with efficiency; but Freeman advises us to pause, separate these ideas from each other and examine them individually. Efficiency may be good for certain businesses and necessary for government action, but doesn’t lead to “mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships,” Freeman states. The Internet is a fabulous invention that we can tap into for many purposes, but isn’t best for everything that needs discussion. Slowing communication can help us recognize when a fast mode is the ideal choice, and when it’s best to say something in person, face-to-face, while looking someone in the eye.
I use technology to communicate. I turn to e-mail for much of my professional work and to interact with family and friends, both local and long-distance. I Twitter and use Facebook.
But I want to enjoy rich, fun, memorable conversations with my husband and four kids. I want to tell stories, laugh, resolve conflict and relate truth. And I want to do this across the table with them, or while holding hands on a walk down the street.
I have friends, too, that I want to spend time with in person. We may exchange a few thoughts via e-mail, but before long I want to pick up a phone to chat, or meet them for dinner.
So while we do use our computers and two of the kids have texting, we walk away from the screens and turn off the gadgets to be together. This very evening, I left this post—this post about communication and connecting with people—half-written in draft mode in order to attend a neighborhood fun fair with friends. We gathered and ate nachos, played Bingo, and ended up at their house where we drank hot chocolate and talked for hours.
There’s a place for technology in our world. It’s not going away, and I’m glad, because I depend on it for many tasks—including communication needs. But I don’t want it to dominate or become my life; I want it to be a tool that enhances my life … my life in this physical world that I inhabit and this home that I share with five other people and a dog.
Hopefully the WSJ lets you access the article. I’ve attempted to summarize, but I think you’ll enjoy the entire article, as Freeman examines this one aspect of the high-speed world we live in and how it affects us in profound ways.
Get to know Ann Kroeker better at annkroeker.com