Monday, June 1, 2009

Feelin' Groovy?

In his landmark book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler postulated that it was not the nature of change that would cause the downfall of modern civilization, but the speed of change.

Poor Alvin.

How could he have envisioned the world we inhabit today?

On the surface, it would seem that the pace of modern life is accelerating exponentially. There's never enough time. We're always rushing. A short delay in the daily sprint causes road rage, high blood pressure and hemorrhoids.

Poor, poor us.

So it was with a combination of curiosity and skepticism that I picked up "In Praise of Slowness" by Carl Honoré. The sub-title, "How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed," provides some insight into the author's preconceptions, i.e. that speed, in and of itself, is the culprit.

I respectfully disagree.

Historically, when we look at the proponents of the simpler, slower life many have a unique and irritating trait in common: they have already made or inherited their millions.

Short of that, they have a comfortable social hammock (Thoreau for example) woven of friends and family willing to indulge their indolence.

Invariably, those who can afford to contemplate their navels while seated in a half lotus position are already rich or they are counting on someone else to pay the rent.

Many times the dichotomy is comical.

On a movie set, the action is frenetic. Time is money. An afternoon rain shower causes a delay that cascades throughout the shooting schedule. The producer is screaming about time and money. The star is apoplectic because she has to be in Aspen by Friday. The director is curled up behind the camera in a fetal position. And the writer is giving an interview on E! telling the reporter that his masterpiece is all about how the pace of modern life is killing us all.

Did you ever wonder why Paul Simon didn't think of slowin' down or kickin' down the cobblestones until he had a dozen top-ten hits under his belt?

He was too busy doing the important, creative work that made him his millions in the first place!

My modest proposal: Don't slow down, make the rest of the world slow down.

Superstar athletes know the secret. Chess grandmasters know it too.

It was said that Wayne Gretzky could envision patterns on the ice five seconds ahead of real time. For him, the game slowed down and he was always in the right place at precisely the right time. The Great One was able to see that lightning-fast game unfold before his eyes in super slow motion.

Bobby Fisher could see the chess board several moves ahead of his opponent. He didn't speed up his calculations. Instead, he eliminated extraneous variables and the game slowed down for him while it sped up for his competitors. A chess computer may be able to calculate every conceivable move with lightning speed, but a world-class grandmaster is able to zero in on the perfect move in every situation.

For us it's easier. We're not playing NHL hockey or competing against the world's finest chess masters.

For the overwhelming majority of normal, sentient beings the task at hand is to eschew the trivial pursuits that squander time, destroy productivity and make it seem as if we're all hurtling toward a black hole.

Step back for a moment. Look and listen. Today, those that complain loudest about their lives spinning out of control never eliminate extraneous variables.

In fact, triviality is their religion.

Just take an objective look at what sort of information makes the rounds on any of the cyber versions of the Foro Romano.

"Herman Fruschnick is waiting at the Dunkin' Donuts Drive Thru."

"Tippi Canavari wants Benno Blimpy to win The Biggest Loser."

So rather than demonizing the Cult of Speed, perhaps Mr. Honoré should revisit the topic to find what's really ailing us.

Is it velocity, or is it volume? Are we rushing toward oblivion at the speed of light; or are being being buried under an avalanche of text messages, emails and tweets?

I suspect that after chipping away at the superficial patina of modern life he may discover that while speed kills, banality numbs.