The Chronicle Review

Speed Kills

Fast is never fast enough

Photograph by Stephen Wilkes courtesy of Peter Fetterman Gallery

October 20, 2014

"Sleeker. Faster. More Intuitive" (The New York Times); "Welcome to a world where speed is everything" (Verizon FiOS); "Speed is God, and time is the devil" (chief of Hitachi’s portable-computer division). In "real" time, life speeds up until time itself seems to disappear—fast is never fast enough, everything has to be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give an edge to a competitor. Speed has become the measure of success—faster chips, faster computers, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster delivery, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster kids. Why are we so obsessed with speed, and why can’t we break its spell?

The cult of speed is a modern phenomenon. In "The Futurist Manifesto" in 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marionetti declared, "We say that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed." The worship of speed reflected and promoted a profound shift in cultural values that occurred with the advent of modernity and modernization. With the emergence of industrial capitalism, the primary values governing life became work, efficiency, utility, productivity, and competition. When Frederick Winslow Taylor took his stopwatch to the factory floor in the early 20th century to increase workers’ efficiency, he began a high-speed culture of surveillance so memorably depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Then, as now, efficiency was measured by the maximization of rapid production through the programming of human behavior.

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With the transition from mechanical to electronic technologies, speed increased significantly. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, and stock ticker liberated communication from the strictures imposed by the physical means of conveyance. Previously, messages could be sent no faster than people, horses, trains, or ships could move. By contrast, immaterial words, sounds, information, and images could be transmitted across great distances at very high speed. During the latter half of the 19th century, railway and shipping companies established transportation networks that became the backbone of national and international information networks. When the trans-Atlantic cable (1858) and transcontinental railroad (1869) were completed, the foundation for the physical infrastructure of today’s digital networks was in place.

Fast-forward 100 years. During the latter half of the 20th century, information, communications, and networking technologies expanded rapidly, and transmission speed increased exponentially. But more than data and information were moving faster. Moore’s Law, according to which the speed of computer chips doubles every two years, now seems to apply to life itself. Plugged in 24/7/365, we are constantly struggling to keep up but are always falling further behind. The faster we go, the less time we seem to have. As our lives speed up, stress increases, and anxiety trickles down from managers to workers, and parents to children.

There is a profound irony in these developments. With the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many analysts predicted a new age in which people would be drawn together in a "global village," where they would be freed from many of the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to pursue their interests. That was not merely the dream of misty-eyed idealists but was also the prognosis of sober scientists and policy makers. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek, and almost a decade later a Senate subcommittee heard expert testimony that by 2000, Americans would be working only 14 hours a week.

Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us, networks that were supposed to unite us now divide us, and technologies that were supposed to save time leave us no time for ourselves. Henry Ford’s adoption of the policy of eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, eight hours of rest seems a quaint memory of a bygone era. For individuals as well as societies, these developments reflect a significant change in the value and social status of leisure. During the era Thorstein Veblen so vividly described in The Theory of the Leisure Class, social status was measured by how little a person worked; today it is often measured by how much a person works. If you are not constantly connected, you are unimportant; if you willingly unplug to recuperate, play, or even do nothing, you become an expendable slacker.

Nowhere is the impact of speed more evident than in the world of finance. Since the 1960s, information, media, and communications technologies have given rise to a new form of capitalism. Financial capitalism involves a fundamental change in the way economic value is calculated: not by determining the relation of monetary and financial signs to real commodities, products, or assets like inventory, a factory, or real estate, but rather by their relationship to other financial signs like currencies, options, futures, derivatives, swaps, collateralized mortgage obligations, bitcoins, and countless other so-called financial innovations.

With the advent of Big Data and high-speed computers and networks, where more than 70 percent of the trades are algorithmically executed in nanoseconds, financial markets no longer function primarily to provide the capital necessary to keep factories running and businesses operating. The virtual economy of Wall Street has been decoupled from the real economy of Main Street. The value of fungible bits is determined by infinitesimal price differences that human beings cannot recognize fast enough to execute trades. Algorithms can program other trading algorithms to adapt on the fly without human intervention.

Though the importance of high-speed, high-volume trading is widely acknowledged, its political and social implications have not been adequately understood. The much-discussed wealth gap is, in fact, a speed gap.

In the past 50 years, two economies that operate at two different speeds have emerged. In one, wealth is created by selling labor or stuff; in the other, by trading signs that are signs of other signs. The virtual assets scale at a speed much greater than the real assets. A worker can produce only so many motorcycles, a teacher can teach only so many students, and a doctor can see only so many patients a day. In high-speed markets, by contrast, billions of dollars are won or lost in billionths of a second. In this new world, wealth begets wealth at an unprecedented rate. No matter how many new jobs are created in the real economy, the wealth gap created by the speed gap will never be closed. It will continue to widen at an ever-faster rate until there is a fundamental change in values.

One of the most basic values that must be rethought is growth, which has not always been the standard by which economic success is measured. The use of the gross national product and gross domestic product to evaluate relative economic performance is largely the product of the Cold War. As the battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union expanded to include the economy, the question became whether capitalism or communism could deliver more goods faster.

Stephen Wilkes courtesy of Peter Fetterman Gallery

The preoccupation with the rate of growth did not end with the Cold War. In December 2012, Jared Bernstein, former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., concluded a New York Times op-ed entitled "Raise the Economy’s Speed Limit" by arguing, "The first thing to do is to keep applying the accelerator on pro-growth policies that strengthen near-term demand."

There are only three ways markets can expand to keep the economy growing: spatially—build new factories and open new stores in new places; differentially—create an endless variety of new products for consumers to buy; and temporally—accelerate the product cycle. When spatial expansion and differential production reach their limits, the most efficient and effective strategy for promoting growth is to increase the speed of product churn. In fast food, fast fashion, fast networks, and fast markets, time has become money in ways Benjamin Franklin never could have anticipated. The highly touted virtues of innovation and disruption are merely the latest version of Joseph Schumpeter’s "creative destruction," which advocated growing the economy by accelerating obsolescence. Out with the old and in with the new, and the faster the better.

The obsession with speed now borders on the absurd. In the world of high-speed trading, investors in Chicago, for example, can no longer trade on New York markets because of the additional nanoseconds required to transmit buy and sell orders over networks that can never be fast enough. Far from making place irrelevant, speed has made location more important than ever. Financial firms, following a practice known as "co-location," now build facilities for their servers located as close as possible to the servers of the markets on which they trade.

But speed has limits. As acceleration accelerates, individuals, societies, economies, and even the environment approach meltdown. We have been conned into worshiping speed by an economic system that creates endless desire where there is no need.

The world that speed continues to create is unsustainable. Contrary to Thomas L. Friedman’s insistence that today’s high-speed global capitalism creates a flat world whose horizons are infinitely expandable, the world is both literally and figuratively round and, as such, imposes inescapable constraints. On this finite earth, there can no longer be expansion without contraction—any more than there can be growth without redistribution. When limits are transgressed, the very networks that sustain life are threatened.

To understand why we are approaching the tipping point, it is necessary to take a systemic approach. Financial capitalism is an example of a general principle for highly connected complex systems. Every such system has, as a condition of its possibility, that which eventually undoes it. In this case, the commitment to the policies of growth that has enabled the U.S. economy to prosper for decades now threatens its collapse. High-speed, high-volume markets have created unprecedented wealth for the .01 percent, but, as the 2008 financial meltdown and the 2010 Flash Crash demonstrate, they have also made the global economy much more volatile.

The problem is not only, as Michael Lewis argues in Flash Boys, finding a technological fix for markets that are rigged; the problem is that the entire system rests on values that have become distorted: individualism, utility, efficiency, productivity, competition, consumption, and speed. Furthermore, this regime has repressed values that now need to be cultivated: sustainability, community, cooperation, generosity, patience, subtlety, deliberation, reflection, and slowness. If psychological, social, economic, and ecological meltdowns are to be avoided, we need what Nietzsche aptly labeled a "transvaluation of values."

As a lifelong educator, I would like to think that this process might begin in the classroom. Unfortunately, many of the developments that have changed our economic system have also transformed our educational system. People often ask me how higher education and students have changed in the four decades I have been teaching. While there is no simple answer, the most important changes can be organized under five headings: hyperspecialization, quantification, distraction, acceleration, and vocationalization.

As I have noted, technologies that were designed to connect us and bring people closer together also create deep social, political, and economic divisions. The proliferation of media outlets has led to mass customization, which allows individuals and isolated groups of individuals to receive personalized news feeds that seal them in bubbles with little knowledge of, or concern about, other points of view. This trend also infects higher education.

Since the early 1970s, higher education has suffered from increasing specialization and, correspondingly, excessive professionalization. That has created a culture of expertise in which scholars, who know more and more about less and less, spend their professional lives talking to other scholars with similar interests who have little interest in the world around them. This development has led to the increasing fragmentation of disciplines, departments, and curricula. The problem is not only that far too many teachers and students don’t connect the dots, they don’t even know what dots need to be connected.

The emergence of the Internet creates the possibility of eroding these barriers and breaking down divisive silos, but the vested interests of nervous administrators and tenured faculty members committed to obsolete ways of organizing knowledge and teaching have blocked that promising prospect. Rather than expanding universes of discourse, networking technologies have, in many cases, narrowed the boundaries of conversation. Dealing with the problems created by a wired world will require a radical restructuring of the educational system at every level.

The growing concern about the effectiveness of primary, secondary, and postsecondary education has led to a preoccupation with the evaluation of students and teachers. For harried administrators, the fastest and most efficient way to make these assessments is to adopt quantitative methods that have proved most effective in the business world. Measuring inputs, outputs, and throughputs has become the accepted way to calculate educational costs and benefits. While quantitative assessment is effective for some activities and subjects, many of the most important aspects of education cannot be quantified. When people believe that what cannot be measured is not real, education and, by extension society, loses its soul.

Today’s young people are not merely distracted—the Internet and video games are actually rewiring their brains. Neuroscientists have found significant differences in the brains of "addicted" adolescents and "healthy" users. The next edition of the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will very likely specify Internet addiction as an area for further research. The epidemic of ADHD provides additional evidence of the deleterious effects of the excessive use of digital media. Physicians concerned about the inability of their patients to concentrate freely prescribe Ritalin, which is speed, while students staying up all night to study take Ritalin to give them a competitive advantage.

Rather than resisting these pressures, anxious parents exacerbate them by programming their kids for what they believe will be success from the time they are in prekindergarten. But the knowledge that matters cannot be programmed, and creativity cannot be rushed but must be cultivated slowly and patiently. As leading scientists, writers, and artists have long insisted, the most imaginative ideas often emerge in moments of idleness.

Many people lament the fact that young people do not read or write as much as they once did. But that is wrong—the issue is not how much they are reading and writing; indeed they are, arguably, reading and writing more than ever before. The problem is how they are reading and what they are writing. There is a growing body of evidence that people read and write differently online. Once again the crucial variable is speed. The claim that faster is always better is nowhere more questionable than when reading, writing, and thinking.

All too often, online reading resembles rapid information processing rather than slow, careful, deliberate reflection. Researchers have discovered what they describe as an "F-shaped pattern" for reading web content, in which as people read down a page, they scan fewer and fewer words in a line. When speed is essential, the shorter, the better; complexity gives way to simplicity, and depth of meaning is dissipated in surfaces over which fickle eyes surf. Fragmentary emails, flashy websites, tweets in 140 characters or less, unedited blogs filled with mistakes. Obscurity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, which are the lifeblood of art, literature, and philosophy, become decoding problems to be resolved by the reductive either/or of digital logic.

Finally, vocationalization. With the skyrocketing cost of college, parents, students, and politicians have become understandably concerned about the utility of higher education. Will college prepare students for tomorrow’s workplace? Which major will help get a job? Administrators and admission officers defend the value of higher education in economic terms by citing the increased lifetime earning potential for college graduates. While financial matters are not unimportant, value cannot be measured in economic terms alone. The preoccupation with what seems to be practical and useful in the marketplace has led to a decline in the perceived value of the arts and humanities, which many people now regard as impractical luxuries.

That development reflects a serious misunderstanding of what is practical and impractical, as well as the confusion between the practical and the vocational. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the humanities and social sciences, "The Heart of the Matter," insists, the humanities and liberal arts have never been more important than in today’s globalized world. Education focused on STEM disciplines is not enough—to survive and perhaps even thrive in the 21st century, students need to study religion, philosophy, art, languages, literature, and history. Young people must learn that memory cannot be outsourced to machines, and short-term solutions to long-term problems are never enough. Above all, educators are responsible for teaching students how to think critically and creatively about the values that guide their lives and inform society as a whole.

That cannot be done quickly—it will take the time that too many people think they do not have.

Acceleration is unsustainable. Eventually, speed kills. The slowing down required to delay or even avoid the implosion of interrelated systems that sustain our lives does not merely involve pausing to smell the roses or taking more time with one’s family, though those are important.

Within the long arc of history, it becomes clear that the obsession with speed is a recent development that reflects values that have become destructive. Not all reality is virtual, and the quick might not inherit the earth. Complex systems are not infinitely adaptive, and when they collapse, it happens suddenly and usually unexpectedly. Time is quickly running out.

Mark C. Taylor is chair of the department of religion at Columbia University. His latest book, Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, is just out from Yale University Press.