Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Slow Down! Quick - Before It Is Too Late!

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who lives abroad and over the weekend that we spent at his place, we got into several interesting debates about a wide range of subjects. On one such occasion (I can't recall the context or the trigger for this discussion) my friend, a man of great erudition, experience and intelligence, talked about the progress made by Man, passionately asserting that it was all good in the final analysis, and that we need more of the same, and faster. I argued that the history (as well as the current state) of the world is not something one could be proud of, since several bad things have happened too over the last several millennia. More so in the last couple of centuries. While he agreed with that my friend predicted with conviction that at some point in the near future, mature change agents -- in the form of individuals or institutions -- will initiate and lead transformation programs on a global scale that would wipe out (or at least mitigate) the bad stuff and enhance the good parts. I, on the other hand, had a different view.

First, I was clear that I would not use the word progress in a general and context-independent sense while describing Man's journey to date. I believe it would be accurate to say that we have made progress in some areas (as long as we confine ourselves to the narrow boundaries of those specific areas, in isolation, without looking at them in totality) but we have been increasingly destructive in others. In my view, the net effect of all Man has done so far is value zero. And I do not share the optimism that the force of human goodness (even if quite plainly, it may boil down to nothing but the survival instinct) would be strong enough to correct our mistakes, solve global problems and set life on the planet on a happy and positive course. I would like to think and hope that it is true, but I do not share the conviction that it will happen. Not that I am a pessimistic doomsday pundit either -- just that I choose not to speculate about how and where the world might end-up, given the way things are going and at the speed with which they are rushing there. That said, my main point of issue was not about whether good would triumph over evil. Instead, it was about whether more / faster 'progress' as currently defined and understood, was indeed a solution. My view was that explosive growth is not progress; only responsible growth could aspire to deliver progress in the true sense, and this cannot be hastened beyond a point. Responsibility towards the larger interests of Mankind requires consideration and contemplation on the part of actors before they act, and that requires time. I would advocate Responsibility over Opportunity, Assimilation over Growth, Pace over Expeditiousness, Sustainability over Efficiency, Quality over Quantity, Wisdom over Knowledge / Intelligence. However, our value systems (as evident through actions, not words) are exactly the opposite. Sadly we have created a culture that rewards "Big Hairy Audacious Growth" and worships the over-achievers who deliver it, as heroes. How many of these heroes, beating their own narrow (but seldom straight) paths to profitability, have stopped to think whether they were creating toxic assets? or toxic pollutants? Or, having thought, have they cared? The few soft voices that call for socially and environmentally responsible behaviour through regulation and moderation are drowned in the melee of quarterly results and market up-ticks.

Later, as I pondered over this particular discussion, I was increasingly convinced that the 3 biggest crises threatening the world today: (1) the global economic meltdown (2) the global environmental deterioration and (3) the world-wide breakdown in security -- have but a few common root causes, all of which have to do with what we have been taught to call progress. All 3 of them have, in some way shape or form, arisen out of an unbridled need, of some rogue individuals/ groups/ organizations/ nations, for achievement of their own self-interests and progress of their cause, which in turn is nothing but complete surrender to the gods of "More / Faster". But this is not new -- the history of human life on earth is full of stories of such behaviour on the part of a few who were either wealthy or powerful or both. What is new is the empowerment of common people, thanks to which small groups or even lone individuals, anywhere in the world (and a far more populous world, at that, compared to even a century ago) can perpetrate such actions; what is new is the scope of the impact their actions can have in terms of geography and number of people affected; what is new is the speed with which these actions can trigger chain reactions across the world. This is new because of the extreme inter-connected-ness that exists today, unprecedented in the history of human civilization. And this is because of technology - the same technology that we keep inventing and putting to much good use in other areas. Where there once was the knife (which, even then, could be used to chop vegetables or to kill people), there is now nuclear power (which could be harnessed to provide electricity or to make weapons of mass destruction). Knife to Nukes: the story of evolution of tools is also the story of evolution of weapons of destruction. So much for "More / Faster"! These mantras, chanted by almost each and every one of us, almost every day of our lives, have overheated the world's engine. The milk of human kindness has begun to turn sour. In each case, of the 3 crises, just one single idea -- the idea of moderation -- could have averted our headlong plunge into disaster. The argument that self-interest in its purest form is adequate to ensure that we will not destroy ourselves, is very weak in the face of the overwhelming evidence of greed, apathy and intolerance underlying these 3 big crises. This argument is predicated on a sense of maturity and responsibility, leading to self-regulation that should go along with self-interest, but which is conspicuously absent in the various actors that have precipitated and are continuing to exacerbate each of these 3 crises, even as you read this. 

I was reminded of this discussion with my friend and my post-discussion pondering, as I watched the news on BBC this afternoon. It featured an interesting story about a new note that was played just today, in a concert that has been playing continuously since 2001 and will continue playing non-stop till 2640. Yes, you got that right - its a 639 year long concert, composed by the late John Cage in the late 1980's. The John Cage Organ Project in Halberstadt, Germany set out, on September 5, 2001 (his birthday) to play his composition "As Slow As Possible". Apparently, when he composed it, he did not specify as to over what period of time it should be played. So the folks in Halberstadt decided to play it, on an organ that was built in the year 1361 (which happens to be 639 years before the year 2000, at the time they were planning this project), for another 639 years. I was intrigued when I learned about this and was also reminded of a related idea, called the Long Now, that I came across some time ago as I was aimlessly surfing the web. It encourages people to think in the very long term, and The Long Now Foundation has built a clock that measures time over a much larger scale than, lets say one year per year. In a sense, the Halberstadt project is an excellent example of a "Long Now" concert - playing a composition called "As Slow As Possible" on a 648 year old organ, over the next 630 years. The Foundation, in their own words, "hopes to provide counterpoint to today's faster/cheaper mind set and promote slower/better thinking". A little more research led me to the Slow Society, whose key message is - eschew speed and embrace slowness, for sustainability. And then on to In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore, who inspired Oprah Winfrey to experiment with living without e-mail for a month, according to a recent news item on CNN which also, by a strange coincidence, I came upon today! 

(In the interests of brevity, I have resisted the urge to elaborate further on the virtues of 'Slow' and 'Long Now' thinking, and would therefore encourage you to click on the links above and read a little more about the 'Slow Movement'. Yet another site worth a visit is The World Institute of Slowness and its connected site Slow Planet. You will find more links to related resources at some of these sites.)

Self-interest is good. It is also all we have by way of a valid, legitimate motive to seek a better life. But it must be tempered by self-regulation, based on responsibility (if not duty), moderation (if not restraint) and pace (if not slowness). Unregulated and immature self-interest will only lead to excesses, extremism and blind speed, which could be catastrophic not just to those who act out of it, but to the whole world. It is time we woke up to the realization that the human race is currently set-up to go nowhere, really fast. Speed kills, in more ways than one. It makes far more sense to lead a richer life at a slower pace than a dangerous one really fast! For one, it will ensure longevity for all of us, as also for our planet.


sxray said...

But tell me - what is the REAL reason for speeding up? Has it got something to do with 'interest rates' and the 'time value of money'. Has it got something to do with the turnover time of capital?

HyperActiveX said...

I think it has to do with 2 things: (1) the psychology of competition and (2) the psychology of scarcity. If you believe that a thing is scarce and that others might get to it (and may finish it) before you do, you will rush to get it. Most of this is perception based.

Imagine a traffic signal. And imagine being stuck behind a car that won't / can't move when the light turns green. Everyone to the left and right of you has moved on and the light is about to go back to red again. How do you feel? Does it matter whether you have a lot of time to get to your destination?

Every time I board a flight I have to deal with the jostling of fellow passengers who must rush in before everyone else ... I used to wonder why till one day I realized that it was to grab as much of space in the over-head storage as possible. Even those who don't have hand-baggage tend to do this - out of sheer habit, or out of watching others rush in.

We live in an age where we thrive on nervous energy. We create anxiety in ourselves and others by rushing, and we love responding to that feeling. We love to grab the last parking spot that was available in a parking lot, beating others to it. We love to win in these contests. We've become an adrenaline-hooked species. And we find any other lifestyle or any other approach to life dull and boring.

I just find this terribly sad. I would want to enjoy every moment of consciousness and derive the last ounce of pleasure out of it before I move to the next. I wish time would move at the rate of 1 second per hour.

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