In Praise of Slowness
Do Everything Faster
We affirm that the world's magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
— Futurist Manifesto, 1909
What is the very first thing you do when you wakeup in the morning? Draw the curtains? Roll over to snuggleup with your partner or pillow? Spring out of bed anddo ten push-ups to get the blood pumping? No, the firstthing you do, the first thing everyone does, is check thetime. From its perch on the bedside table, the clock gives usour bearings, telling us not only where we stand vis-à-visthe rest of the day, but also how to respond. If it's early, Iclose my eyes and try to go back to sleep. If it's late, I springout of bed and make a beeline for the bathroom. Rightfrom that first waking moment, the clock calls the shots.And so it goes, on through the day, as we scurry from oneappointment, one deadline, to the next. Every moment iswoven into a schedule, and wherever we look — the bedsidetable, the office canteen, the corner of the computer screen, our own wrists — the clock is ticking, tracking our progress,urging us not to fall behind.
In our fast-moving modern world, it always seems that thetime-train is pulling out of the station just as we reachthe platform. No matter how fast we go, no matter howcleverly we schedule, there are never enough hours in theday. To some extent, it has always been so. But today we feelmore time pressure than ever before. Why? What makes usdifferent from our ancestors? If we are ever going to slowdown, we must understand why we accelerated in the firstplace, why the world got so revved up, so tightly scheduled.And to do that, we need to start at the very beginning, bylooking at our relationship with time itself.
Mankind has always been in thrall to time, sensing itspresence and power, yet never sure how to define it. In thefourth century, St. Augustine mused, "What is time then?If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explainit to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know."Sixteen hundred years later, after wrestling with a few pagesof Stephen Hawking, we understand exactly how he felt.Yet even if time remains elusive, every society has evolvedways of measuring its passage. Archaeologists believe thatover twenty thousand years ago European ice age hunterscounted the days between lunar phases by carving lines andholes in sticks and bones. Every great culture in the ancientworld — the Sumerians and the Babylonians, the Egyptiansand the Chinese, the Mayans and the Aztecs — created itsown calendar. One of the first documents to roll off theGutenberg printing press was the "Calendar of 1448."
Once our ancestors learned to measure years, months anddays, the next step was to chop time into smaller units. AnEgyptian sundial dating from 1500 BC is one of the oldestsurviving instruments for dividing the day into equal parts.Early "clocks" were based on the time it took for water orsand to pass through a hole, or for a candle or a dish of oilto burn. Timekeeping took a great leap forward with theinvention of the mechanical clock in thirteenth-centuryEurope. By the late 1600s, people could accurately measurenot only hours, but also minutes and seconds.
Survival was one incentive for measuring time. Ancientcivilizations used calendars to work out when to plant andharvest crops. Right from the start, though, timekeepingproved to be a double-edged sword. On the upside, schedulingcan make anyone, from peasant farmer to softwareengineer, more efficient. Yet as soon as we start to parcelup time, the tables turn, and time takes over. We becomeslaves to the schedule. Schedules give us deadlines, anddeadlines, by their very nature, give us a reason to rush. Asan Italian proverb puts it: Man measures time, and timemeasures man.
By making daily schedules possible, clocks held out thepromise of greater efficiency — and also tighter control. Yetearly timepieces were too unreliable to rule mankind theway the clock does today. Sundials did not work at nightor in cloudy weather, and the length of a sundial hour variedfrom day to day thanks to the tilt of the earth. Ideal fortiming a specific act, hourglasses and water clocks werehopeless at telling the time of day. Why were so many duels, battles and other events in history held at dawn? Notbecause our ancestors were partial to early rises, but becausedawn was the one time that everyone could identify andagree on. In the absence of accurate clocks, life was dictatedby what sociologists call Natural Time. People did thingswhen it felt right, not when a wristwatch told them to. Theyate when hungry, and slept when drowsy. Nevertheless,from early on, telling time went hand in hand with tellingpeople what to do.
As long ago as the sixth century, Benedictine monkslived by a routine that would make a modern time managerproud. Using primitive clocks, they rang bells at setintervals throughout the day and night to hurry each otherfrom one task to the next, from prayer to study to farmingto rest, and back to prayer again. When mechanical clocksbegan springing up in town squares across Europe, the linebetween keeping time and keeping control blurred further.Cologne offers a revealing case study. Historical recordssuggest that a public clock was erected in the German cityaround 1370. In 1374, Cologne passed a statute that fixedthe start and end of the workday for labourers, and limitedtheir lunch break to "one hour and no longer."Continues...