The speed myth

Myths about working for the government notwithstanding, my colleagues and I worked hard and worked smart. What I increasingly resented and found difficult, however, were the ludicrous deadlines for much of what we did. Multi-million dollar decisions that touched the lives of many were sought in a few hours or minutes. Australia’s Government deludes itself into believing that efficiency equals speed, and that longer work hours produce more and better decisions. Much expectation of rapid decision-making comes from electronic communications, especially word-processing and e-mail. The myth is that because It can be done faster, it ought to done faster.

Recently, the retiring head of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, David Borthwick, concluded a 36-year career by saying that the public service is so busy doing the Government’s bidding it lacks time to properly check whether its policies actually work. He said that the public service wanted to develop more effective policies, “but our agencies are so flat out, so stretched, that we have scant capacity to invest in serious thinking”. “[More] than ever, governments are reactive to the intense pressure of the 24-hour news cycle.”

John Freeman’s Shrinking the World The 4,000-year story of how email came to rule our lives is a history of how changing methods of communication have eroded the great distances between us. The telegram, newspapers, synchronised time and railway networks have changed everything from the nature of military intelligence to the messages we write to loved ones. We need to slow down, Freeman argues, to concentrate our short lives on the things most important.

Our society does not often tell us this. Progress, since the dawn of the Industrial Age, is supposed to be a linear upward progression; graphs with upward slopes are a good sign. Processing speeds are always getting faster; broadband now makes dial-up seem like traveling by horse and buggy. Growth is eternal.

. . . The ultimate form of progress, however, is 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. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to change it. Of course email is good for many things; that has never been in dispute. But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.

In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and personal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.

This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, workplace meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?

If we are to step off this hurtling machine, we must reassert principles that have been lost in the blur. It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements-it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the manifesto of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. 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 . . .

The speed at which we do something-anything-changes our experience of it. Words and communication are not immune to this fundamental truth. The faster we talk and chat and type over tools such as email and text messages, the more our communication will resemble traveling at great speed. . . .

This is a disastrous development on many levels. Brain science may suggest that some decisions can be made in the blink of an eye, but not all judgments benefit from a short frame of reference. We need to protect the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships. We need time in order to properly consider the effect of what we say upon others. We need time in order to grasp the political and professional ramifications of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean. Communicating at great haste hones our utterances down to instincts and impulses that until now have been held back or channeled more carefully.

Continuing in this strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment as it stands will be destructive for businesses. Employees communicating at breakneck speed make mistakes. They forget, cross boundaries that exist for a reason, make sloppy errors, offend clients, spread rumors and gossip that would never travel through offline channels, work well past the point where their contributions are helpful, burn out and break down and then have trouble shutting down and recuperating. The churn produced by this communication lifestyle cannot be sustained. “To perfect things, speed is a unifying force,” the race-car driver Michael Schumacher has said. “To imperfect things, speed is a destructive force.” No company is perfect, nor is any individual.

It is hard not to blame us for believing otherwise, because the Internet and the global markets it facilitates have bought into a fundamental warping of the actual meaning of speed. Speed used to convey urgency; now we somehow think it means efficiency. One can even see this in the etymology of the word. The earliest recorded use of it as a verb-“to go fast”- dates back to 1300, when horses were the primary mode of moving in haste. By 1569, as the printing press was beginning to remake society, speed was being used to mean “to send forth with quickness.” By 1856, in the thick of the Industrial Revolution, when machines and mechanized production and train travel were remaking society yet again, “speed” took on another meaning. It was being used to “increase the work rate of,” as in speed up.

There is a paradox here, though. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works-and we work through it-has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not working. We can store a limited amount of information in our brains and have it at our disposal at any one time. Making decisions in this communication brownout, though without complete information, we go to war hastily, go to meetings unprepared, and build relationships on the slippery gravel of false impressions. Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources. If we waste it on frivolous communication, we will have nothing left when we really need it.

Everything we say needn’t travel at the fastest rate possible. The difference between typing an email and writing a letter or memo out by hand is akin to walking on concrete versus strolling on grass. You forget how natural it feels until you do it again. Our time on this earth is limited, the world is vast, and the people we care about or need for our business life to operate will not always live and work nearby; we will always have to communicate over distance. We might as well enjoy it and preserve the space and time to do it in a way that matches the rhythms of our bodies. Continuing to work and type and write at speed, however, will make our communication environment resemble our cities. There will be concrete as far as the eye can see.

. . . We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from efficiency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships. We are here for a short time on this planet, and reacting to demands on our time by simply speeding up has canceled out many of the benefits of the Internet, which is one of the most fabulous technological inventions ever conceived. We are connected, yes, but we were before, only by gossamer threads that worked more slowly. Slow communication will preserve these threads and our ability to sensibly choose to use faster modes when necessary. It will also preserve our sanity, our families, our relationships and our ability to find happiness in a world where, in spite of the Internet, saying what we mean is as hard as it ever was. It starts with a simple instruction: Don’t send.