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.

Slow feedback?

Feedback is king these days. Wherever you go online, the pressure is on to pass judgement: Was this site useful? How do you rate this article? Please take a minute to fill in our user experience survey. In the same vein, gamers are forever monitoring their progress on leader boards.

The hunger for feedback is also starting to reshape the workplace. Many younger employees now expect a running commentary on their performance. Not for them the old annual or semi-annual review: they want to know how you think they did in this morning’s presentation, and they want to know now. You can even buy special software to create a round-the-clock feedback loop for staff and clients.

Yet this begs an obvious question:Is being constantly ranked, rated and evaluated a good thing?

True, there is much to be said for knowing what your colleagues and boss think of your work and to hear this more often than once or twice a year. Input from a wide range of people can also enrich many decisions and projects a principle known as the “wisdom of crowds“.

But there are limits. Otherwise the wisdom of crowds can start to resemble groupthink.

We are social animals, after all, so we have a natural desire to fit in, to please our peers – to earn good feedback. Research into online behaviour suggests that other people’s opinions can narrow our horizons. When visiting a site where movies, books, etc are rated, users tend to click on the items with the highest rating first.

It’s like buying a song on iTunes: if there are multiple versions available, which do you listen to first? I know I always click on the one with the highest popularity ranking. I follow the herd, in other words.

This raises the possibility that too much feedback too fast can close down avenues of inquiry and pull us away from the fertile soil of serendipity.

It may also hamper our creativity. Some acts of creation are intensely private. You cannot orchestrate them by committee. A person has to sit alone with his doubts, fears, frustrations, dreams and demons untangling, parsing and processing these at his own pace.

Many creative triumphs have come from someone toiling away alone, free from the tyranny of other people’s judgements. James Joyce wrote Ulysses without a daily critique from his editors; Mozart composed his Requiem and piano sonatas without hourly feedback from his patrons; Picasso only unveiled his paintings to the world when they were finished.

Would these giants have produced the same imaginative breakthroughs, the same revolutions in thought, if they had worked with a constant drip-feed of other people’s feedback? I’m not so sure.

Surely the answer is to strike a balance. Feedback at the right speed: sometimes fast, sometimes slow and sometimes no feedback at all.

It goes without saying that any feedback on this post is more than welcome…

In Praise of Snow…

Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.

This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”

Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.

I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.

How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.

By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.

On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.

Slow blogging

Instant analysis and reaction from the front line. At every conference I go to there are always a few people in the audience, laptops open, screens glowing eerily in the half-darkness, blogging away in real-time while speakers strut their stuff on stage. I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, I love the energy and insights that come from an instant reaction. I’ve read these real-time blogs and the best ones are sharp and profound. But sometimes I wonder how much these nimble-fingered bloggers are really getting out of the speeches – are they picking up all the shades of meaning, the different layers of the message? Might they see, hear and understand more if they gave their full attention to the speech, and then blogged a few minutes, hours or even days afterwards? Maybe what we need is a blend of fast blogging and slow blogging. One blogger has already come to that conclusion. Her name is Michele Bowman and you can read her thoughts on slow blogging by clickingHERE.

Rational exuberance

I’ve just heard that Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, wrote 85% of his new book in the bathtub. Soaking in a hot bath is the ultimate form of slow. Greenspan says that he does his best writing, reading and thinking in the tub. I know the feeling. I love a slow bath at the end of the day. And a lot of my best ideas come while watching the children’s rubber ducks bob among the bubbles.

Slow Reading

I love that Woody Allen joke where he says: “I took a speed reading course. We read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.” So much of the beauty, texture and meaning of a text gets lost when we read in a hurry. And that may be why Slow reading is in the ascendant. Toning down the speed means you get more pleasure and comprehension from the text. Apparently the earliest reference to slow reading is from Nietzsche in 1887. ClickHEREto read a fascinating and thoughtful Wikipedia entry on the subject. It was notwritten by me.

Slow down South

I’m in Buenos Aires at the moment. It’s amazing how the Slow philosophy strikes such a powerful chord here. I have a theory. Well, actually, I have several theories but here’s the one on my mind at the moment. Like others in the developing world, the Argentines feel that drive to catch up with the West as fast as possible, perhaps without even asking whether everything we have is really worth striving for. But Buenos Aires is also a very cultured city, a place where people read books and talk about ideas, which means they are more open to cultural shifts like the Slow philosophy than are other places. Result: a fascinating paradox and an ardent desire to make sense of it all. Just a thought.

Slow photography

Just been to the How We Are exhibition at Tate Britain.It traces British life through photographs taken from as early as the 1840s. Some of the prints are stunning, others are moving or witty. I love the mug shots that were used to identify suffragettes and keep them out of the London art galleries where they had vandalized paintings in the name of female suffrage. Photography is a wonderful art form in the right hands, and takes on more depth, meaning and texture with the passage of time. But the exhibition left me feeling that we have lost something along the way. In the old days, when photography was slow and painstaking, you thought hard about what you were recording and how you were recording it – and then you cherished the print afterwards. In the digital age, photographs are so fast and easy to take that you hit the shutter release without even thinking. And then you leave the images on your computer hard-drive because you’re too busy to make prints. It all feels very disposable.

Slow news

There is nothing a news editor likes less than a slow news day. But maybe that’s exactly what the rest of us need a little more of. In her column in the London Times, Caitlin Moran recently called for a Slow News Movement. By that she means that daily bulletins should clear more space for less dramatic, but more upbeat, news stories: “Something to wean us off bad News Burgers and on to the far more beneficial fruit salad of cheerfulness.” Moran then suggests that the Slow News advocate seek out someone with whom to share the happy tidings. I think she may be stretching the definition of Slow a little here but that’s hardly the end of the world. I for one would definitely welcome less doom and gloom on the evening news.

The party of Slow?

Yesterday I had lunch with the director of the Quality of Life Challenge, a new policy unit attached to the UK Conservative Party. David Cameron, the party’s young leader, has shaken up the polticial landscape not just by changing his hair-style every few days (which he has done) but by stressing the importance of things that never used to register on the Tory radar: the environment, communities, leaving the office in time to be with your children. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher, a woman who once boasted that her kids only ever fell ill on weekends, talking along these lines? The Quality of Life Challenge is looking for ways to phrase the Cameron message in a way that will win over the Conservative grassroots. The director of the Quality of Life Challenge is exploring how the Slow message might be brought into play. I’m not sure how far this will go, or if Cameron can really move the Conservative party into line with his rhetoric, but it seems to me a good sign that even British Tories are now interested in the Slow revolution. The tectonic plates are shifting….