In Praise of TED

Just noticed that my TED Talk in praise of slowness has topped 2 million views. The Slow Revolution marches on….

Slow travel talk

This is a short excerpt from the talk I gave to a convention of travel consultants in Las Vegas. It’s my take on Slow travel.

Slow en México

La Ciudad de las Ideas es el TED de México. He dado dos conferencias allí.

En esta entrevista que me hicieron, hablo de la filosofía Slow en general.

To tweet or not to tweet

The other day I spoke at a conference for the leading bloggers in Norway.

It was a little unnerving. Bloggers are a pretty fast bunch, so singing the praises of Slow to them felt like barbecuing a steak at a vegan retreat.

From the stage, I could see laptop screens glowing in the dark. An iPhone rang. Members of the audience tweeted my talk, their dispatches scrolling down a large screen behind me. In Norwegian.

Even so, the Slow message seemed to go down well. I was not booed, heckled or pelted with tomatoes. Okay, someone tweeted that I reminded him of Quentin Tarantino. But given the high geek content in the room, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

The surest sign that the Slow philosophy made sense to those Norwegian bloggers is that several of them will soon be blogging on Slow Planet.

But the conference left a mark on me, too. I lost my Twitter virginity there. I decided that the only way to balance all the tweets about me was to start tweeting back.

So what do I make of Twitter? It’s a question put to me a lot by journalists these days. My view is that, like all technology, Twitter is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we use it.

Twitter can be a fun, enriching and provocative way to air views and connect with people. It can even reshape the political landscape, as we’ve seen during the protests in Iran. Sometimes a heat-of-the-moment 140-character missive is just the ticket.

But I think Twitter is best enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. In other words, it should complement – rather than replace – other forms of communication.

The trouble is that it can be very tempting to do everything at the speed of a tweet. And I mean everything.

Two university students are now reducing some of the greatest works of English literature, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, to 140-character tweets.

This strikes me as an amusing parlour game that might inspire some people to read the original books in their entirety. It might even add to our understanding of the English canon.

But it also plays into the cultural pressure to reduce all communication to high-speed sound bytes.

Already, research shows that millions of people are no longer bothering to update their blogs. Why? Because blogging is now too slow. It’s much easier (and quicker) to type a short update on Facebook or to fire of a tweet.

If the Slow revolution stands for anything, it stands for doing everything at the right speed. And that principle holds true for communication. There are times for a shoot-from-the-hip tweet, but there are also times for more reflective – or slower – forms of communication.

I’ll tweet from time to time when it feels right. But I’ll also continue writing blogs, emails, articles and even books.

If you want to follow my tweets, my username is carlhonore.

Slow London

It’s finally here.

The first Slow Down London festival kicked off on Friday with, among other things, a very slow walk across Waterloo Bridge. Over the next 10 days, one of the world’s fastest cities will be exploring the benefits of putting on the brakes with a heaving smorgasbord of talks, activities, workshops and media coverage.

This is hugely exciting. If you’d said to me five years ago, when In Praise of Slow came out, that London would be holding a big Slow Down festival in 2009 I would have written you off as a dreamer. Or a loon. It shows how far the Slow revolution has come – and how fast.

Of course, skeptics say it’s impossible to slow down in London. But they are wrong. You don’t have to move to the country to decelerate. You can be slow anywhere because slow is a state of mind. It’s about how you use time.

Slow Down London does not aim turn this magnificent city into a Mediterranean holiday resort or a painting by John Constable. The energy and dynamism of London are wonderful  The problem is that we get caught up in the frenzy and it backfires on us. We can get so much more out of London by slowing down a bit.

So if you live in or near London, I urge you to take part in some of the festival events. If you live somewhere else, why not start planning a Slow Down festival in your own town?

Tonight, I will be speaking at the Southbank centre about the Slow movement. On Monday, I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion about what the Slow movement means for crafts and the art of making things. And on Wednesday, I’m chairing a discussion about Slow travel.

In other words, it won’t be a very slow week for me…

 

Are you listening?

The other day I gave a talk at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. It was a bit like entering the belly of the beast. Technology companies worship at the altar of speed and their products are designed to help us do everything faster.

They also condition us to expect everything to happen at the click of a mouse.

A couple of hours before the talk, I was watching TV in my hotel room when a Microsoft ad came on. It featured animated drawings dancing on the screen while an ambitious CEO talked about how Microsoft software was a godsend for his company. I can’t remember the exact wording, but towards the end of the ad he said something like “…in business you have to do everything at the speed of light.”

Not a very Slow sentiment.

So did I get scalped and lynched during my lunchtime lecture at Microsoft HQ? Far from it. The Slow message seemed to strike a chord with the employees who came to hear me speak. The crowd hung around asking questions and sharing their own reflections even after the 90-minute session was over. This morning one of the organizers emailed to say that my visit has sparked a lot of discussion within the company.

I’m not surprised. Increasingly, it’s people inside the technology companies that are realizing there is too much speed in the system – and they’re looking for ways to slow down a little. Microsoft is no exception.

After my event, I spent some time hanging out with some of the company’s researchers. One of them was Eric Horvitz, who specializes in the interplay between technology and culture – how we use our gadgets and why, and how that use affects us.

Eric is overseeing some new research into what happens when people use laptops while attending public lectures. This particular brand of multitasking is now commonplace. At conferences, you see loads of people listening to speeches with their laptops open, reading and typing away in the eerie glow. Some are taking notes on the talk, but many are handling email, surfing the Web on unrelated topics or updating their Facebook pages. Or they’re tweeting.

Is there anything wrong with this? I think so. For a start, it’s just plain rude. When you attend a talk, the least you can do is give the speaker your full attention. Or at least give the impression that you are listening. Just think how irritating it is to share a dinner table with someone who constantly turns away to deal with incoming emails on a Blackberry. Or how important it is to look a person in the eye when you talk to them.

A public talk is different from a social gathering, of course, but don’t the basic rules of courtesy still apply?

You could argue that the world is changing and that people no longer expect to receive anyone’s full attention. But even if that is true – and I hope it’s not – then we should be worried about how that change affects our understanding of what is being said to us.

Back to that study at Microsoft HQ. Researchers are filming audiences during public talks and then asking them questions about the content. By plotting a time-line, they hope to work out how comprehension waxes and wanes during a speech and how those peaks and troughs correspond to laptop-users looking up and down from their screens.

My guess is that people absorb less when their attention turns to the computer – and that their general comprehension of the talk also suffers. I suppose that as a public speaker I would say that. Like anyone else who stands up on stage, I want to feel like I have the full and undivided attention of everyone in the room. But there is more at work here than my fragile ego.

What brain scan research is teaching us about multitasking is that it doesn’t work: that the human brain cannot process two streams of information at the same time, and that attempting to do so is a recipe for confusion, inefficiency and errors.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone can devote their full attention to everything they do. Some Microsoft employees argue that their workload makes it impossible to unplug for 90 minutes during the day. So they choose to multitask through the lunchtime lectures: giving speakers some of their attention rather than staying away and giving them none at all. Maybe they have a point. Maybe some Slow is better than none.

Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the Microsoft research and will report back here on the findings in due course.

In the meantime, if you’re reading this blog entry while attending a public talk, you might want to consider…

 

An international Slow Day?

Every movement for social change has an annual day of celebration or observance. Some have more than one. Think of Earth Day, International Women’s Day, Buy Nothing Day – the list goes on. So is it time for the Slow Movement to follow suit?

Well, actually, it already has. A number of groups around the world have been holding their own version of an annual Slow Day. One example is the Montréal-based Le Slow Mot. But the Slow Day with the most brio, imagination and international reach is organized by L’Arte del Vivere con Lentezza (The Art of Slow Living). Their firstWorld Day of Slow Livingwas held in 2007 in Milan. The next year it was New York. In 2009, the date is March 9th and the host city is Tokyo, with other events going on around the world. Like any Slow festival worth its salt, the program for the Japanese capital is generously seasoned with humour. Highlights will include a team issuing speeding tickets to people judged to be walking too fast at Shinjuku, the crazy anthill of a train station in downtown Tokyo.

I now need to work out what will be my contribution to the World Day of Slow Living. Somehow “taking the day off work” probably won’t cut it…

A slow prayer…

The other day I gave a talk in the chambers beneath St. Peter’s churchin Vienna, Austria. It was the first time the crypt had been used for a secular event in nearly a thousand years. With the dim lighting, ancient altarpieces and faint whiff of incense, and with the stone walls blocking out all mobile phone reception, it was the perfect setting for an evening devoted to Slow. My hosts were the Austrian chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization– high-flying businesspeople, in other words – but the monsignor in charge of the church was there, too. I felt a bit uneasy seeing him in the front row, but in the end he laughed along at the more risqué jokes. Afterwards, he came up to me with a confession. You know, as I was listening to you, I suddenly realized how easy it is to do things in the wrong way, he said. Lately I have been praying too fast.

Too much of a good thing?

Just back from a conference in Newcastle, England called Thinking Digital. It was a glimpse into the extraordinary ways that technology is going to reshape the future, revolutionizing every aspect of the way we work, play and live. It may even alter what it means to be human, as artificial intelligence catches up with the real thing and more and more gadgets – think medical nanobots patrolling the bloodstream or computer chips boosting the brain – are installed in our bodies. The most vivid picture of this sci-fi future was painted by Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and inventor, who appeared on stage as a ghostly apparition inside a slab of glass. He was thousands of miles away in California yet we could see and hear each other as if we were all in the same room. I found the crystal ball-gazing in Newcastle exhilarating, but also a bit troubling. It seems to me that as the rate of technological change accelerates, we urgently need to slow down and answer some crucial question, starting with: Do really want everything that technology can deliver and will all the advances be benign? Even as a technophile, I have some doubts. What happens to memory, patience and the journey of discovery when all human knowledge is instantly accessible from anywhere? What happens to human relations when you can download the full profile of anyone you meet and read it on a Terminator-like screen on your contact lens before speaking to them? And who gets to write that profile? Above all, what happens when we are constantly connected to the Internet and no longer have any time or space for silent, solitary reflection?

One reason for the global obesity epidemic is that our bodies were designed for a hunter-gathering society and are therefore highly efficient at storing excess calories as fat. Today, when calories are permanently on tap and there is less call for burning them off hunting and gathering, our waist-lines are ballooning. As I sat there in Newcastle, with my own waist expanded from the buffet lunch, it occurred to me that maybe the same analogy works for the high-tech revolution. We are hard-wired to be curious and to want to connect and communicate with others – and those are wonderful instincts. The trouble is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we don’t know when to stop. Just as we keep on eating even after our bodies have had enough food, we keep on texting, surfing and wilfing long after our minds have reached a frenzy of stimulation and distraction. The truth is that no matter how fast the technology becomes, the human brain is always going to need slowness. To rest and recharge. To think deeply and creatively – every artist, designer and inventor knows that deceleration is essential for the act of creation. We also need to slow down in order to look into ourselves and grapple with the big questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What is life really for? Nor is this a concern voiced only by monks and meditation gurus. Even the most gung ho geeks are starting to warn that being “always on” may not be the best thing for the human brain. Dipchand Nishar, the man in charge of wireless technology at Google, has said: “We had Generation X and Generation Y. Now we have Generation ADD.” And other high tech companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, are coming to similar conclusions.

Yet this is not a call for a Luddite backlash. Technology is not evil; on the contrary, it has mind-blowing potential to make the world a better place. But as we enter the era of what Kurzweil calls “exponential growth in technological advances,” the need for circumspection is greater than ever before. That means thinking hard about how best to apply each new technology rather than just automatically adopting it. Or put another way: As the pace of change quickens, we need to remember that some things never change, starting with the fact that we are human beings. And human beings will always need to unplug and slow down.

Everyone (almost) gets it

If you can gauge the strength of a cultural shift from the range of people taking part, then things are looking up for the Slow revolution. I get invited to speak to groups right across the spectrum, from schoolteachers, doctors and yoga coaches to business executives, IT specialists and architects. In fact, I’ve just agreed to speak at two events on February 7th in London. In the afternoon, I will give the second talk in a series of lectures and debates on slowness organized by the Royal College of Art. Then, after a very slow break, I’ll join an evening debate held by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at the Hayward Gallery. The questions on the table are: “Are we moving fast enough? Does more speed always mean a society is making progress? Or is it time to put the brakes on our breakneck world?” Artists and engineers are seldom natural bedfellows but even they are finding common ground when it comes to challenging our fast forward culture.

By the way, the Hayward Gallery event is open to the public so maybe I’ll see some of you there…