Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

by Will Wilkinson

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The “Intellectual Situation” column in the latest edition of N+1 contains a stimulating meditation on the sense that the pace of life is perpetually quickening, leaving us with ever less unharried time.

The centrality of this feeling to our age, and to the ages that preceded it, has received its most comprehensive treatment in the recent work of German theorist Hartmut Rosa and his concept of an “acceleration society.” For Rosa, the sense of speedup created by labor-saving is one of the major paradoxes of modernity, and one of the exemplary versions of this paradox is that “the dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time” in our epoch has been “accompanied by an equally significant increase in free time.”

The paradox, in a nutshell, is that economic growth and technological progress actually does free up time, but also produces a profusion of diversions clamoring for limited attention. “The feeling comes about because the variety of social experiences available is ceaselessly proliferating: the number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large, and expands every day with implacable speed,” say the N+1 editors.

I certainly know the feeling. But I would suggest that this doesn’t really amount to real problem for people who have no aspiration to live on the bleeding edge, or to, to say the same thing, to live in reaction against the bleeding edge. The N+1 editors may not encounter many placidly unhurried folks in Brooklyn, where “artisanal” slow-living presents itself as one among many enticing lifestyle choices, attractive precisely due to the sort of depletion they describe.

Here in Chattanooga, though, I cannot say that I see people breathless from the proliferating options of modern life.

Chattanoogans do have smart phones, but are oddly disinclined to make use of their mapping functions. When, new to town, we purchased a patio furniture set at the Home Depot, the clerk responsible for setting up delivery asked us for detailed directions to our house, which she wrote down on a pad of paper. “Don’t the drivers have GPS?” I asked. The question was met with a quizzical look, perhaps because, unbeknownst to me at the time, GPS in Chattanooga refers to Girls Preparatory School. “Can’t they just get directions on their phone?” She conceded that this might be possible, but would not let the matter rest until she had affirmed, by means of an exceedingly drawn-out exchange, that we indeed lived off the “S-curve” on Hixson Pike, as she had suspected. We may have been a little annoyed by the imposition on our very precious time, but that’s because we were the odd ones, the outsiders, the people who live, for no good reason, in a hurry.

Since moving to the South, I have had I don’t know how many leisurely conversations about the breed of my dog or the age and weight of my baby, as if I had appeared in the supermarket parking lot, or headed up my street in unsociable headphones, specifically to burn my minutes in vacuous neighborly chit chat. I try not to look like I’m itching to get away because, really, what’s the hurry? Anyway, people here go to work, where they do not hurry, go home to their kids and maybe watch a little TV, maybe “like” a few baby pictures on Facebook, on Sundays go to a lot of church, and it’s all slower than it was when I was a kid up in Iowa, sedate Iowa. (The Chamber of Commerce would have you know, however, that Chattanooga has the fastest broadband in the United States.) I may make myself frantic trawling the infinite internet, reading “year’s best” lists full of things I will never ever have time to get around to. I may sit in front of my Roku’s menu screen feeling stymied by the profusion of choices. But I could just relax and live like a regular person.

I’d meant to comment on the N+1 editors’ extraordinary ability to connect the putative problem of feeling like we have no time, like all putative problems, to “neoliberalism.”  (“An era of social acceleration has its political consequences too, in which neoliberalism, the pensée unique, monopolizes the language of inevitability, obligation, fidelity to the one best way.”) But, really, who has the time? Pensée unique? I’ll say. Get another idea.

(Photo from a reader: “Walden, TN overlooking Chattanooga, 7.20 am”)