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…


Jobs for the boys (and girls)

I’ve just returned from a speaking tour of the US and Canada (more on that to come), and someone at a talk/workshop I gave in Edmonton sent me this snippet from a blog. It’s amusing in a sardonic way. And maybe the punch line can be read in more ways than one.

Anyway, here it is:

If you think the coming nuclear winter will make the job market tough for employees, you need to hear about the job offer my daughter got recently.
The job has:
  • $0 salary and no equity (you’re supposed to be compensated in experience)
  • no benefits other than vacation and sick time – no insurance, for example
  • no possibility of promotion or raise, ever
  • no job description – just do what you’re told
  • micromanaging boss asks about project status every hour
  • strict hours, starting at 8:30AM sharp
  • if you’re late even a few minutes, your boss sends you to her boss
  • rigid workweek, but then you’re expected to work from home a ton
  • open-desk seating, not even a cube, with a hard chair
  • the work is boring and demeaning, like adding digits and copying text
  • all your useless work gets thrown away
  • if you want to use a computer, you can buy one or just scribble on paper
  • no supplies room
  • my daughter can’t drive so commute was complicated
  • can’t even put the job on your resume until you work there for a decade
I wish this was a joke or I was making it up.
Having consulted with me, my daughter of course rejected this ridiculous offer and is now just working on side projects while looking for a better opportunity.
But millions of other 7-year olds accepted identical offers.

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.

Snail mail in action

An amusing item on the BBC news today. Postal workers in Britain have complained of being forced to walk too fast -four miles an hour or 6.44 km/h – and that some have been fired for being too slow. The Royal Mail denies imposing a minimum walking speed but staff insist that the company’s new computer system forces them to rush through their rounds. One postman claimed his schedule did not take into account long driveways, bad weather or hostile dogs.I’ve blogged before about howwalking speedis a cultural barometer but this case underlines the folly of assuming that faster is always better.

What happens when postal workers are in a rush? Well, like everyone else, they make mistakes. Several times a week, we get mail delivered to our house in London that is addressed to the neighbours, or even to people several streets away. And lots of stuff sent to us never arrives. According to one estimate, the Royal Mail loses over a million letters and packages every month.

Something else gets lost when postal workers work race the clock – the banter on the doorstep, the friendly hello in the street, the watching out for the elderly neighbour, thehuman touch. The postman used to be part of the social glue of the community; now he’s just another service-provider hurrying to meet his targets. The idea of that the postman always rings twice now seems like a quaint memory from yesteryear. When our postman delivers a package, he rings only once, and even then you have to sprint to answer. Dilly dally for a few seconds and he’s already gone. Probably to deliver some of our mail to the neighbours…

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.

Summer’s out…

Another thought to add to my May 24th post about the demise of the summer vacation. One of the rites of passage for teenagers used to be working a summer job – usually something menial like washing cars or bagging groceries. I waited tables, worked on a construction crew, ran a photocopying shop and mowed lawns. None was ever going to be a career choice but I had fun and learned a lot. Today, though, teenagers are turning their back on the dead-end summer job in record numbers. Manydon’t want to work – and don’t have to because their parents are happy to keep paying their credit card bills. Others prefer to burnish their résumés by attending summer school and college-prep programs or by doing volunteer work. Some are setting up their own businesses. All of these are worthy pursuits, but maybe something is getting lost along the way, especially for teenagers from affluent families. Though it may not glitter on a résumé, a menial job can teach some important lessons – that not everyone is as rich as you,that life can be tough and unpleasant, thatsometimes you have to keep on working when you’d rather stop. In arecent article inUSA Today,leading CEOs explained that doing menial summer jobs in their teens gave them a solid grounding for later success. As parents we want to give our children the best of everything, which tends not to include flipping burgersat McDonald’s or cleaning out the toilets at the mall. But maybe it should. After all, nothing punctures that sense of entitlement, that feeling that only the best is good enough, more than getting bossed around at a dead-end job. Instead ofgetting our kids accustomed to the best of everything, perhaps we should be helping them to learn a much more useful skill: how to make the best of what they’ve got. I hear Burger King is now taking applications for the summer…

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.

Can money make us happy?

One big argument for slowing down and working less is that more money doesn’t always make us happier. The roots of this thinking lie in a 1974 study by Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California. He found that the happiness of a nation’s inhabitants rises in tandem with growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but only up to a certain point. Thereafter, getting richer stops making us any happier. This, of course, calls into question our obsession with maximizing economic growth. But over the last 30 years the boom in happiness studies has encouraged other academics to revisit the data. Apparently, two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are about to publish a comprehensive survey of the literature which shows that happiness and per capita GDP continue to rise more or less in unison. In other words, making more money does make us happier. I haven’t read the study yet, but already it raises some intriguing questions. What does it mean for the Slow revolution if working longer and earning more does in fact make us happier? How much does our happiness depend on the kind of work that we do? Do we need to build other criteria, such as health, education and the environment, into any measure of economic growth? How do we even define happiness? Lots to think about here….