Put the brakes on this cult of slowness

Forget slow food, slow travel, slow shopping and slow cities. It's far more fun, and liberating, to live life in the fast lane.

Anna Travis

Topics Politics

Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England, has done another of his ‘wacky’ behaviour studies.

This time he’s researched the speed of walking in 32 countries – and he has concluded that our legs, and therefore our lives, move too fast. This discovery has got cultural commentators guiltily confessing that ‘the Universe’s metronome …has enslaved me’, and others admitting that they have become ‘addicted’ to BlackBerrys or ‘doing two things at once’ (1). Such dramatic responses to a study into the speed of walking, alongside green campaigns such as the slow food and slow travel movements, show that many consider the pace of contemporary life to be dizzily spinning off the milometer, and set to send us all into physical and spiritual turmoil.

So, are we all living far too ‘fast lives’, and would we benefit from slowing down?

The walking study forms part of Wiseman’s latest book, Quirkology. Wiseman is known for his earlier research into off-the-wall topics like superstition and smiling, but it is his work on the pace of life that has really captured the media’s attention. His study asks, ‘Is your speed of life too fast for your own good?’. The answer is ‘yes’ if you are a dreaded Type A: ‘impatient, excessively time-conscious, and finds relaxation difficult.’ It is far healthier, apparently, to be a Type B: ‘don’t tend to get stressed by the hustle and bustle of modern-day living.’ (2)

Significantly, the professor acknowledges that if you’re a Type A, ‘This might help you be productive’. But he warns that there is a high price to pay: ‘your relationships and health could suffer as a consequence.’ On the surface, this may be a study of speedy walking and what it reveals about our apparently stressful speedy lives. Yet if we took our anthropologist goggles off for a moment, we would realise that dashing along the pavement is not the act of a crazy automaton species. Rather, walking quickly is about saving what some perceive to be valuable time. Often we do things quickly in order to preserve and expand our relaxation time.

This is the paradox that the pace-of-life experts miss: speed and efficiency are not simply part of a vicious cycle on the ‘hedonic treadmill’; instead they are often about freeing up time to use as we wish. Yet even this spare time we create is not spared the hectoring of today’s slow-living lobby: psychologists and green moralisers also wish to colonise and set in slow motion our personal, private spaces.

Wiseman’s results showed that the pace of life is now ‘10 per cent faster than it was a decade-and-a-half ago’. He argues that a lot of this speeding-up is ‘technology-driven’: ‘What’s amazing is that these days you press send on an email and if someone hasn’t responded in 10 minutes you think “where are they?”’(3) No doubt there is some truth in that – but is this really a sign of childish impatience, or part of a desire simply to get things done? Listening to Professor Wiseman and other speed-cynics, you would think that the adult population is now a collective victim of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Previously reserved for badly-behaved or loud children, the ADD diagnosis appears to have filtered into everyday language and consciousness: we’re all now considered to be fidgety adult toddlers, suffering information-overload and over-stimulation from an aggressive bombardment of stimuli, be it advertising, computer games or rolling news coverage.

Behind all the concern about speedy living, there seems to be an overarching disgust for convenience and our apparently ‘quick-fix culture’. The anti-speed lobby postures puritanically against ease, comfort and consumerism; it seems to loathe these things because they allow people to do lots of different things at once and to get news, information and music (via iPods) on demand. Today, it seems, it is more ethical to shop, cook and travel slowly rather than in a hurry. Consider the issue of cooking.

In recent years, a slow food group has emerged as a ‘resistance movement to fast food’. It started in Italy but it has spread and grown exponentially: it now exists in 100 countries and has 83,000 members. The movement encourages people to grow their own produce, within their own ‘eco-regions’, and to take their time both with the production and the preparation of food. However, look a little closer and the slow food movement’s central philosophy is less about celebrating lengthy marinades and more about looking snootily upon the fast food-scoffing masses: ‘We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers…. [We were] founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat.’ (4)

Dwindling interest in what we eat? In fact, people seem more obsessed than ever with their diets. Yet this notion that we just put any old grub in our mouths without thinking it through – just as we allegedly allow ourselves to be bombarded with 24-hour news and information without filtering it – captures a central prejudice of the slow-living lobby: that people have become automatons, rushing around and doing things without thinking about the consequences.

Elsewhere, it is now assumed that the slow shopper is an ethical shopper. Ethical shoppers boast about their leisurely consumer antics and brag of ‘browsing’ independent bookstores rather than simply clicking on Amazon and getting their tome in the post the next day. Articles in Sunday newspaper supplements frequently praise the beloved second-hand emporiums over the ruthless book chains, arguing that it is more pleasurable to buy a book in a small dusty shop rather than in a supermarket-style massive bookstore. Yet online book sales figures contradict this picture: such sales continue to rise, as vast numbers of people opt for the convenience of buying reading material online rather than in an old backstreet store. Again, we can glimpse an elitist grain in the slow-living lobby, for whom the masses’ methods of buying stuff – what they refer to as ‘frenetic’ or ‘hysterical’ shopping – is inferior to the slower, calmer consumer experience (5).

There is also a slow travel movement. Instead of rushing to fly in the skies (which of course causes pollution) slow travellers make a virtue of crawling around the globe and being the ‘right kind’ of tourist, as ‘it’s not just how we get there that’s important…but how we behave when we’re there.’ (6) In other words, slow travellers are not like the vulgar hordes who go on cheap breaks. A key tenet of today’s green behavioural law is that you should take part in gentle leisurely travel, in order to minimise your carbon footprint: such travel is apparently physically pure, in the sense that it is ‘stress free’ and uncontaminated by speed.

Now even Japan, the emblem of fast lane living, has places like Kakegawa, which proudly declares that it is a ‘Slow Life City’. ‘Slow Life Cities’ have been built in response to what is described as ‘international speed sickness’. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, argues that ‘the global affliction of the hurry virus has afflicted every corner of the planet’. So now speed is seen as a disease, a ‘virus’, which is making us ill. This looks like an updated version of the old religious idea that fast and ‘selfish’ living is morally wrong and those who partake in it will be struck down.

The demand that we should be inefficient for ethical reasons is a demand for us to leave the ‘rat race’. That term has been dusted down and relieved of its 1960s, teenage-angst associations with ‘the man’ or ‘the system’; it now enjoys pride of place as the major descriptor of contemporary living. Popular culture titillates us with invitations to escape the city and buy a house in the country; to escape into a rural idyll or a slower lifestyle abroad. In the various celebrations of slow living today, we are effectively being sold the fantasy of a slower life as the answer to individual and social problems. Instead of asking how everyday life might be improved further, and made more joyous and fruitful, greens and others say: ‘Just slow down, forget about it….’

The pace police’s obsession with work-life balance effectively turns old-fashioned labour dynamics into psychological issues. What was previously described as alienation or workplace exhaustion is now presented as a poor lifestyle management or the fault of a dangerously manic disposition. And so the solution to work problems is discussed at a psychological level, too: it is not to demand better pay or conditions, but rather to slow your life down in order to make yourself feel calmer and, apparently, happier.

The lifestyle gurus offer a false sense of empowerment with their prescriptions to ‘chill out’. Feeling lacklustre? Stuck in a pointless job? Blame your materialistic impulses, slow down, search your inner self for answers. In truth, speed and industriousness can reap their own rewards, if they are fired by worthy ambitions. Speed is about packing more into life – and therefore the rejection of speed looks to me like a rejection of the dynamic possibilities of life itself. Of course, advocating speed for its own sake, Jeremy Clarkson-style, would be as banal as embracing the new slow ethos. But if pace means embracing technology that allows us to have more free time in which to relax, experiment or even try to realise new collective possibilities, then bring on the speed sickness. There is much to be gained from operating in fast forward.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explains Why the politics of happiness makes me mad. Daniel Ben-Ami measured up the results of two happiness surveys in Who’s happiest: Denmark or Vanuatu?. James Murphy investigated the new Puritanism in The assault on pleasure. And Lee Rowland declared measuring happiness to be A fool’s errand. Or you can read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) Life’s speeding up – but not fast enough for me, The Times, 3 May 2007

(2) See the Pace of Life website

(3) City’s slow pace of life revealed, BBC News, 2 May 2007

(4) See the Slow Food website

(5) Primark’s £8 jeans and £2 bikinis cause stampede, Guardian, 6 April 2007

(6) Best of the net – Quick guide to slow travel, Sean Dodson, 10 February 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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