“Whatever protests we have made to the march of modernity the world opted for speed again and again”
“We don’t have any time, although we’ve gained far more than we needed before.”
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much.”
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
A couple of months ago, Iris and I were choosing where we would live next. We were choosing, specifically, between Seattle and New York — and to help inform that choice we decided to watch movies filmed in each city. Of course, we watched Sleepless in Seattle, which takes place in both cities, but also Singles, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 homage to Seattle’s grunge scene and Smoke, a 1995 Brooklyn-based film co-directed by the novelist Paul Auster.
It had been a long time since I watched a movie from the 90s. Naturally, each film evoked a sense of nostalgia for the relative simplicity of my adolescence when the record store was the anchor of the neighborhood and when mobile phones, if they existed at all, were the size of giant walkie talkies. But I was also impressed by the slowness of the movies, the duration of each scene, the unhurried dialogues that unfolded just like real conversations. They didn’t register with my modern sense of cinema where time is increasingly compressed, and where characters speak only in ironic witticisms.
There was something about the slowness and simplicity of these movies that provoked great pleasure. So why has the pace of cinema quickened ever since?
The current issue of the science journal Nautilus is dedicated to time, and features an essay by Tom Vanderbilt on the “Pleasure and Pain of Speed.” He notes that the rooftop chase scene in the The Bourne Ultimatum lasts approximately 109 seconds. “From the time he crashes through the window to when he finally subdues the assassin, there are roughly 122 cuts—less than a second per cut.” More generally, according to psychology professor James Cutting, the average length of a shot of a Hollywood film has been compressed from ten to five seconds.
Research by another psychologist, Emily Pronin, helps explain why fast has conquered slow. In a series of experiments Pronin and her colleagues found that subjects exposed to fast-paced content reported higher levels of energy and happiness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Whether it’s listening to poppy techno music at a dance club, riding a motorcycle, binging on social media, or playing a photo-realistic video game, faster is better. Our brains become hooked, overwhelmed by the elation of speed.
Friction and Intentionality
Silicon Valley is fond of “frictionless” as a design principle. To pursue frictionless is to remove as many barriers as possible between an intention and an outcome. It’s also a strategy to get users to spend more time on a website or mobile app. The smallest encounter of friction, the theory goes, and users will search for an alternative with less friction.
Vanderbilt, citing the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, describes the quest by casinos to speed up the experience of the slot machine by removing friction:
The mechanical handle was dropped in favor of a button. Cumbersome cash payouts (which might disrupt a player’s “flow”) were scrapped for computerized credits. Putting in money was also done away with (no more fumbling for loose change). Mechanical reels, limited by physics, were replaced by “virtual reels,” which players could stop early if they wished. The ability to place a dizzying array of bets across several games at once was added.
As a result, gamblers were able to place more bets in less time. One would expect, therefore, that players would spend less total time on the slot machines, not more. Instead, the perceived shortening of time elevated their stimuli (faster = happier) and they spent even more time with the slot machine.
The same basic principle applies to most cases where technology has promised to save us time. An email takes probably 1/5th the time of writing and sending a letter, and yet we spend more time writing emails than we ever spent writing letters. As a result, each individual email becomes less memorable than an individual letter. On Pinterest, we can view the same number of compelling images found in a design magazine in less than half the time. Yet, we end up spending more time on Pinterest than we ever did with magazines. “We don’t have any time,” writes Hartmut Rosa, “although we’ve gained far more than we needed before.”
A few days ago my friend Luis and I were reflecting on the great dream of convergence. When I was in college I regularly had the following items in my backpack: newspaper, camera, MP3 player, cell phone, pen, notepad, paper map, audio recorder, Harper’s Magazine, several books. Now all of those individual tools are embedded in my mobile phone, and eventually they will all fit on a Dick Tracy-like watch. What neither Luis or I anticipated at the time is that convergence precipitates multi-tasting, more distraction, less intentionality.
Friction can be a good thing. I realize this when I take photographs with my large, clunky SLR camera. Unlike the iPhone, which I can pull out of my pocket and use to snap a photo within seconds, the SLR causes me to slow down and deliberate. Which lens should I use? What is the appropriate depth of field to draw attention to important aspects of the frame? Do I want to adjust the shutter speed to communicate a sense of motion? My thoughts are focused entirely on the photograph itself as I carefully observe every detail in the frame. With the iPhone, in contrast, I am more focused on the future than the photograph. Who will I share this photograph with? Will they like it? Which Instagram filters will I use?
Slowness & Meditation
There is a scene in Milan Kundera’s Slowness in which the narrator is driving slowly along a rural highway. The slow pace allows him to observe and enjoy the countryside around him. He is content, but he is not elated. Then he begins to speed up, sacrificing his ability to observe what’s around him for the thrill of speed. The scene has always struck me as a beautiful metaphor for the great motif of my generation: the compression of time and our willingness to sacrifice observation for elation.
But then, that’s probably true of every generation. The compression of time is not new. Doris Kearns Goodwin mentions in The Bully Pulpit an epidemic of anxiety attacks at the turn of the 20th century that were blamed on the overwhelming abundance of products and information brought forth by the steam ship and telegraph.
I used to complain of never having enough time. I am embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until last month, nearly 2,000 years after Seneca wrote On the Shortness of Life, that I realized that, in fact, I have plenty of time; I just wasn’t using it wisely. My days didn’t have the right balance between fast and slow, surrender and control, observing and doing. I became addicted to fast.
Despite our frequent nostalgia for slowness, rarely do we actually choose it. To favor slowness is to intentionally choose less over more. Fewer friends, less music, fewer ingredients, less consumption, fewer books, less food, more chewing, more nothingness.
In order to build the willpower to prioritize less over more, I have spent the beginning of 2014 focused on my meditation practice. Despite its brand association with eastern mysticism, meditation has never struck me as spiritual. For me, the parallel is going to the gym. But instead of building strength, I’m building my capacity to pay attention and live more intentionally. The more I meditate, the less I find myself flipping mindlessly through social media, nodding along at conversations without paying attention, or living life on autopilot.
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much,” wrote Seneca in 49 AD to his friend Paulinus. By meditating for just 30 minutes a day, I’ve found that I am recovering much of that lost time.