Fast, Faster, Fastest: Why the Rush?

Socrates and Plato were not in a hurry. Neither was Aristotle nor Heraclitus. They took time to think deeply. As far back as twenty-four centuries ago, they offered insights and observations about the human condition, character, and personality that are as true today as they were then.

Fast forward to our fast-paced society. Many people think if they talk faster, people will think they’re smarter. Talking fast is not talking smart. Evening TV news interviews of individuals may average five or less seconds, called sound bites, while they averaged about eighteen seconds in the nineteen-seventies. Standardized tests put a premium on how fast you can answer the questions, putting an emphasis on speed and memory rather than understanding. With standardized testing, deeper learning never really had a chance. Marketers aim for your instant gratification when selling you junk food and other impulse buys. “One-click ordering” has taken this system to a completely new level. Smart traders surrender to computerized trading, speculating in split seconds on the stock exchanges. I could give you ten reasons why this is a bad idea.

You can now hear the evening news on National Public Radio in just three or so minutes—an absurdity. There are radio segments called the “academic minute” and the “corporate crime minute,” dedicated to shrinking attention spans.

To state the obvious, there are fast food outlets everywhere—so many that a modest slow food movement is underway. Many hospitals have been known to admit women in labor and discharge these new mothers less than twenty-four hours after they have given birth – exhibiting a corporate form of “attention deficit disorder.” Advertisements for drugs and other consumables end with warnings of adverse effects that are described so swiftly that they are simply incomprehensible. A top sushi restaurant in Tokyo charges by the minute, not the amount ordered—running you about $300 for a thirty minute meal.

Ever count how many images flit by in an ordinary TV news show while it is being narrated? Play it again – does the viewer even have a chance to absorb and mentally react? TV advertisements are, of course, more emotionally charged this way.

Then there is Twitter with its limited 140 character tweets, the ping-pong exchanges of text messaging scores of times throughout the day, and the constant immersion in video games. Back in 1999, Barbara Ehrenreich, in her view of James Gleick’s book “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything,” pauses to ponder: “What we lose, as ‘just about everything’ accelerates, is the chance to reflect, to analyze and, ultimately, to come up with moral judgments.”

Not quite everything in our society, however, is speeding up. Rush hour speeds have slowed to ten or fifteen miles per hour in many cities. Banks, in a computer age, deliberately take days to clear checks, maybe hoping to penalize you with a $35 bounced check fee. Try getting through to a business or another institution on an automated phone line. You may have to work through ten levels of “press one, press two…” After choosing, you may only have the opportunity to leave a voicemail message.

As a society, it has taken far too long to implement proven policies that could address and abolish poverty, including raising the minimum wage that has been long gutted by inflation. As a society, we are too slowly expanding mass transit, confronting climate change, converting to renewable energy, and improving the miles per gallon of our automobiles.

Except for Medicare reimbursements, physicians know how long it takes for insurance companies to pay up. Our companies and governments take a long time to clean up their own pollution or respond to complaints from consumers and citizens. These days, it’s looking like a contest of who can care less.

On the other hand, a bizarre, frantic emphasis has emerged to get the packages you order delivered faster and faster. Amazon is following through on their wildest dreams and even thinking about using drones to make deliveries. Likewise, Walmart is gearing up to deliver to your homes and businesses as fast as they can. Pretty soon, people won’t have to go to stores; they’ll just order everything online and never see any other shoppers or have chance meetings with friends and neighbors. Let’s hear the applause from those people who haven’t thought through these “improvements” and the resulting destruction of communities.

Entertainment is a bubble waiting to burst. People do not have more than two eyes, two ears, or twenty-four hours in a day. In the nineteen-fifties, there were three national television networks. Now, there are hundreds of cable channels and over-the-air TV stations, not to mention the avalanche of internet-based programs and diversions. The pressure for ratings is starting to implode on its vendors. In an article published on August 31, 2015 in the New York Times titled “Soul Searching in TV Land,” reporter John Koblin, sums up the “malaise in TV these days,” namely, “there is simply too much on television.” Too much is colliding with too fast and our technological wonderland is fraying.

Hewlett Packard (HP) has just started an advertising campaign with the headline: “The Future Belongs to the Fast.” The text includes this message: “HP believes that when people, technology, and ideas all come together, business can move further, faster.”

By contrast, fifteen years ago, Bill Joy, the famous technology inventor/innovator wrote an article titled “The Future Doesn’t Need Us,” citing the oncoming converging technologies of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.

So which is it? Got a minute to think about it? Hurry! Oops, you’ve just lost 63 nanoseconds already trying to decide.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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