The rapid rise of Slow TV

Another Scandinavian TV revolution will sweep across British screens this week. Only this time there will be no grisly murders, imploding families or detectives in woolly jumpers. This time not much will happen at all.

Instead, BBC Four will broadcast a two-hour canal journey in real time. No soundtrack, no host or voiceover, no fancy camerawork; just a serene, unedited pootle through the British countryside.

To many viewers that may sound like a one-way ticket to Planet Boring. Cue jokes about watching paint dry. But the BBC’s first foray into the world of “Slow TV” is actually a wise and welcome move.

Why? Because so much television nowadays is too fast for its own good. Desperate to hold our attention, broadcasters bombard us with crashing scores, breathless voiceovers, hyperactive hosts, split screens and dizzying edits. My pet peeve: announcers yelling about what’s Coming Up Next as soon as the final credits start rolling. It’s frantic, shallow and dispiriting.

Slow TV is an antidote to all that. It is not a return to the television of the 1950s. Who wants that? On the contrary, it’s a glimpse into the future, a marker for how technology can help us stop and stare.

Slow TV is a Zen experience, like doing yoga on a deserted beach or slipping into a hot bath. By serving up an unfiltered, real-time, high-definition window on the world, it encourages us to notice and savour the details, texture and fine grain of what’s around us. Take that canal trip. From the comfort of your own sofa, you can revel in the gentle joys and modest pleasures of the British countryside: spotting wildlife, commenting on the weather and ignoring fellow ramblers.

Slow TV can even spur deeper reflection. Because there is no narrative it is up to the viewer to search for meaning in the images and sounds on the screen. Slow TV becomes a backdrop or a canvas upon which to weave our own stories.

Norway invented Slow TV, and the BBC version is small beer by comparison. The first show featured the view from a train travelling seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Then came 12 hours of knitting. Slow TV finally hit the jackpot with a five-day boat journey. More than half the Norwegian population tuned in and the trip sparked a carnival of audience participation, with viewers lining the fjords and hundreds of private boats chugging along in its wake. Even Queen Sonja of Norway put in a cameo by waving regally from her yacht.

Slow TV is unlikely to make the same waves here. But it does open a new chapter in British television. The relentless pace of modern life takes a heavy toll on everything from our health and happiness to our relationships and communities to our ability to work and think. That’s why a Slow Movement is on the rise. Think Slow Food, Slow Sex, Slow Education, Slow Exercise, Slow Management, Slow Medicine, Slow Travel and so on.

Because “Slow” is not a Luddite throwback, its forward-looking adherents are also seeking ways to harness technology. Just look at the boom in meditation or mindfulness apps. Slow TV is the next step – and it’s spreading fast. A US version is now in the pipeline.

So let’s thank BBC Four for this feast of slowness. If the canal trip doesn’t float your boat, you can always watch artisans crafting a wooden chair or a steel knife, or take a leisurely tour through the National Gallery. As Mae West famously observed, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.” And that includes TV.

(First published in Radio Times)

Brands go Slow

These days, everyone is jumping on the Slow bandwagon – even some who don’t really belong there.

Many brands are now using the language of Slow to sell us stuff. Audi launched a sedan in Britain a few years ago under the slogan: The slowest car we’ve ever built. And they didn’t mean their new sedan would struggle to overtake a Lada on the highway. They mean we built this car with care and attention – when they say the “slowest” car we’ve ever built, they really mean the “best” car we’ve ever built.

The Orange telephone network ran a campaign saying “Good things happen when your phone is switched off.” Not an act of commercial suicide: they know we will always use our phones. But Orange wanted to link itself to the growing desire people have to unplug from technology so the can slow down, enjoy the moment and connect with other people in a way that is deeper and more meaningful than a text message.

The Kit Kat campaign to set up No Wi-Fi zones (see picture above) taps into the same vibe.

In a similar vein, Haagen Dazs recently launched a new line of ice creams in Spain. You have to take the ice cream out of the freezer and wait 12 minutes for the centre to soften and for the flavours to develop. And the advertising campaign made a virtue of slowing down and waiting for that perfect moment of pleasure.

In 2011 the Paris Fair (La Foire de Paris) chose “Slow Time” as its theme.

What does all this mean for the Slow revolution? It cuts both ways.

The danger is that companies and brands use “Slow” to sell products and services that have nothing to do with the Slow philosophy. This is inevitable. And some are already stretching the link with Slow to breaking point. One example: last year, the world’s first Slow Mall opened in downtown Santiago, Chile.

But I think people are intelligent enough to see through the dishonest use of the Slow creed. And on the positive side: the fact that so many brands are using Slow to market themselves, even if they are not Slow, shows just how far this cultural revolution has spread.

It also adds to the chorus in favour of deceleration. Advertising is the wallpaper of our lives, and it usually bombards us with the message that there is never enough time and we have to buy more and more things to help us to do everything faster and faster.

My hope is that introducing even just a few ads that sing the virtues of slowing down makes it easier for us to contemplate putting on the breaks.

What do you think?





Tech for kids?

Two new studies on the effect that the new technologies are having on children. As always, the picture is mixed and a bit contradictory.

Yes, the new gadgets can help with learning. But only if used wisely.

If technology is good, many children are getting too much of a good thing. All those hours spent in front of screens are conditioning them (and the rest of us, for that matter) to expect everything to happen at the speed of software.

Result: shorter attention spans; lack of focus and concentration; a tendency to give up when an easy answer does not present itself at the click of a button.

What’s the take-home? Like most things, technology is good – in the right dosage.

Can gaming spark a revolution in savings?

A few months, ago, I was invited to join a think called the Future Prosperity Panel. It was convened in London by Aviva, a global financial services company. There were nine members (they called us “thinkers”) on the panel, all from different backgrounds. The aim was to reach beyond the traditional confines of the City and Wall Street to find fresh ideas for reshaping financial services for the future.

Each thinker wrote an essay putting forward a single idea. Mine was that we might be able to inspire people to save more if we make saving more like a game. Since I submitted the piece, the media has been full of stories of how “gamification” is working wonders in many fields of human activity. So perhaps I was on to something.

You can read a very abridged version of my essay on Page 3 of today’s Financial Times. An interview with me will be broadcast on Radio 4’s Today Programme very soon (depending on how the News of the World story plays out).

And for the full version of the essay plus a video interview and more background on the think tank, click here.

Jump into the debate and let me know what you think….

The Best Anti-Speeding Campaign Ever?

If Carlsberg did anti-speeding campaigns, they’d probably be a bit like this one from Western Australia.

Forget the tired old shock tactics of yesteryear. Instead of trying to browbeat or terrify people into driving more slowly by bombarding them with gory images of mangled corpses, bashed up cars and severed limbs, the Enjoy the Ride campaign puts the stress on all the benefits that flow from following the speed limit.

Fewer accidents, to be sure, but also: Less money spent on fuel. Fewer toxic emissions into the environment. A calmness that allows you to take in the scenery, listen to music or talk radio, chat to your passengers or just let your mind wander (not too much, obviously.) Your car becomes a Zen refuge rather than a torpedo of road rage.

In other words, Enjoy the Ride embeds the old discussion about speeding in a broader conversation about why slowing down can pay handsome benefits in every walk of life.

Very Slow.

The campaign officially launches today. It is genius. (And I’m not just saying that because I went to Perth to front the campaign.)

Check it out HERE

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.

Speed Demon

I have seen the future of the automobile – and it’s sleek, sexy and fast as hell. It’s also environmentally-friendly.

On Monday, I took part in the annual Eco-Rally from Brighton to London. It’s a showcase for the new technologies that are greening automobiles of all shapes and sizes.

On a day of wind and patchy sunshine, fifteen of us drove a convoy of state-of-the-art sedans, sports cars and vans from the south coast of England to City Hall beside Tower Bridge in London. Our vehicles were powered by everything from solar energy to electricity to vegetable oil – with petrol and diesel often playing a part, too (think hybrids). Many of the cars were built using green materials and methods.

What does all this have to do with Slow?

Quite a lot, actually. We have allowed traffic to blight our towns and cities. A central plank of the Slow revolution is to take back the streets from the automobile.

That means a lot less driving and a lot more walking, cycling, scootering, rollerblading, street football and parties, road hockey, etc. Building a strong public transport network should be a top priority for every politician. As should cutting carbon emissions.

When it comes to cars, less is more.

But let’s be honest: there will always be a need (not to mention a desire) for private automobiles that can shuttle us from A to B. The key then is to make these vehicles as green as possible. And that is were the Eco-Rally comes in.

On Monday, I drove the Lotus Eco Elise. It’s a zippy, no-nonsense roadster with an engine that growls like an irked lion. The interior is lined with hemp and eco-wool.

My passenger was the clever and rather beautiful founder of a green consultancy. So picture the scene: hot car, hot blonde, heading-for-middle-age me at the wheel.

I felt like I’d stumbled into someone’s mid-life crisis. Possibly my own.

But the highlight of the day was taking the Tesla for a spin. There is only one word for this car: Wow! It is totally electric and almost completely silent, which means zero air and noise pollution. It also looks like something James Bond would drive, neatly obliterating the old saw that eco-friendly means boring and worthy.

And did I mention that the Tesla is mind-blowingly quick? We’re talking 0-60 MPH in 3.9 seconds. I have never felt acceleration like it. This is the kind of G-force you experience in a souped-up supercar, or a jet fighter.

The Tesla is a breakthrough. Okay, it costs a small fortune. But it shows that we can build zero-emission cars without sacrificing style, performance or sex appeal. And already a cheaper four-door model is coming to market.

But what about all that speed?

As an advocate of Slow, I certainly felt a pang of guilt climbing into the Tesla. But I have to admit that the unease didn’t last long. After the first surge of acceleration, I was whooping like a teenager on a rollercoaster. It was a bit terrifying, but also hugely exhilarating.

Can drivers be trusted with that kind of power at their fingertips? Can I be trusted? I have my doubts.

Which probably means I should stop fantasizing about getting a Tesla for Christmas …


Just back from nine glorious days in a cottage in a forest by the sea in Sweden. Swimming in the Baltic, soccer on the sandy beach, eating under the stars. It was heaven.

A big part of the charm was that we never once looked at a screen of any size: no email, no Internet, no phones, no TV.

Which made me wonder: is unplugging now the ultimate luxury?

Of course, being online can be wonderful. We are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop.

Being “always on” is exhausting and superficial. It erodes our producitivity. It locks us into what one Microsoft research called a state of “continuous partial attention.”

That’s why a backlash is gathering steam.

Consider the rise of the Slow Technology movement.

Or the response to news that more airlines are planning to allow travelers to use mobile phones and surf the Internet during flights.

You would expect a roar of applause from passengers desperate to stay connected in the air.  But the opposite is true. A recent survey of business travelers – the Crackberry demographic – found that 91.2% were against wiring up flights for phone and Internet use.

Why? Because the plane is now the final frontier, the last place on earth where you can completely disconnect, where you can forget about your inbox and voicemail. A place to doze, doodle and daydream. A place where your time is truly your own.

One frequent flyer I know puts it this way: “I hate flying but I look forward to flights now because it’s the only time when no one can bother or interrupt me. These days I do some of my best thinking on planes.”

And of course there is another compelling reason to resist the wiring up of flights: Can you imagine anything worse than being woken by someone in the next seat shouting ”I’m on an airplane!” into a handset?

For more thoughts on this, check out my piece in the current issue of Vodafone Receiver.

Enough is enough

As recession bites, the excesses of the last boom look that much more absurd. Of course, many of the products sold during the largest spending spree the world has ever seen were designed to save time by speeding up even the most simple chores.

As a judge for the UK Landfill Prize, which compiles a Top Ten list of the most ridiculously unnecessary and wasteful products of the year, I saw some of these gadgets first hand. A few of the nominations were so silly I thought they were a made up. But they weren’t.

The grand winner was the motorized ice-cream cone. This is for people who are too lazy to turn the cone with their wrist. You stick out your tongue and the gadget swivels the ice-cream for you.

Third place went to the motorized fork. Yes, a fork that twirls the spaghetti for you.

One reader has just told me of another product that isn’t on the 2009 Landfill Prize list but would not have been out of place there. Give it up for: Selfy The Self-Making Bed. It was originally conceived for the infirm but its Italian inventor also hopes to sell to the able-bodied. Using a system of rails and runners, Selfy reportedly saves you 15 seconds a day. That’s a whole 105 seconds a week.

I think I’ll stick to Slow bed-making. Which means rearranging the pillows and pulling the duvet back up by hand.

Or not bothering to make the bed at all…



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…