In praise of slowness

Vinicio Hernandez, News Editor

History teachers generations from now, introducing an elective course on “Twenty-First Century History,” might begin one of their first lectures by proclaiming its era the ‘dawn of decadence’ (cleverly recalling to mind French-born American historian of ideas Jacques Barzun’s 2001 tome From Dawn to Decadence), citing perhaps the technological revolution which helped globalize the world’s nations as the force which also set into motion its gradual decline. From History’s own long, forlorn gaze, why might this be? Did we, for once, in our development of electronic mail, electronic books, fiber optic cables, smartphones and social media, finally outpace the march of recordable history? Or is it that enough can be recorded in video or text, and broadcasted out to the public, for future generations to see, that there is now too much to process? 


Is it any surprise, in reaction to this overabundance of stimuli, that many are left stressed, fatigued, or dry of empathy? “There is simply too much to think about,” as Saul Bellow sighed out once. Were we ever meant to stretch our attention so thinly? To dip our heads into basins of watery knowledge of so many sources that, upon pouring out what we’ve collected, appears now as murky as the polluted Mississippi? The abundance of accessible media makes learning just about anything much easier than it ever has been, and that is a great benefit to the democratization of education — but the depth of our knowledge goes extends as far as our attention spans, which by the generation have grown shorter and shorter. Though information has never been easier to obtain and set to mind, never has it seemed more difficult to keep it all up there. Out of spite, perhaps, one might be momentarily tempted to do away with the whole lot: to “unplug,” retreat to some meditation camp for the “spiritually disturbed,” or at the least to make some effort to quiet things down. 


In this event, there is some less drastic, but equally effective, alternative: turn the clock back on your habits and notice, over a week, how they might change. For instance, trade out the smartphone’s built-in alarm for a battery-powered manually-set alarm clock. This way you can prevent the surge of blue light disturbing your circadian rhythm at night, though it will seem to take a bit more trouble than it’s worth to get out of bed in the morning. But as with most of these habits: the more overtly disruptive it appears and the more manual energy you must exert to complete the habit, the more effectively it will stay with you over time.


The most peculiar of these habits is, daringly, to trade the common text message to some distant friend or relative for the letter delivered via “snail mail.” Texting is easy, very easy: but that is precisely why a change in this habit of modern life could be particularly useful. How much do you care to speak with your friends or relatives? How well can you speak with them? The gesture towards letter-writing puts these curious, though intimidating, questions to the forefront of your mind. Now you are forced, to some real discomfort, to feel the weight of your words. Though epistolary correspondences are, in our day, often considered something “dainty” or overly sentimental, if not borderline useless, there are few actions which will direct your attention so closely to what you write and how you choose to express yourself in writing. Your words are your thoughts are your actions, all of which lead into your individual habits of being.


This is not to disregard the usefulness of a whole host of our modern inventions. Before the invention of alarm clocks, the British employed “knocker-uppers” for a few pence per week to rouse workers in the early morning to get up for work at a mutually-agreed-upon time. Now we can set the recording of a rooster’s crow for specific times on most mobile devices at no extra charge. We can compose letters to total strangers and receive a reply within a day at most using a recent app called Slowly, itself a more patient alternative to the instantaneous gratification offered by more mainstream dating apps like Tinder or Bumble. 


But as the advent of the Kindle or Nook directed a new generation of readers into the digital age, the intimacy of print, of even writing novels or plays or poems in long-hand, is a pleasure fast fading. However our technology develops, there is little that can surpass the indelibly human mark left on every mailed letter, every locally-printed book, or every small handwritten note. Language is a community of letters beginning and ending with the human — so what if we’ve moved from tablets, to papyrus, to vellum, then to paper? We are right where we began: tablets.