On Living Fast

Sometimes it seems like our minds race to keep up with the pace of technology, that the flood of information overwhelms us. The reality, argues Tom Vanderbilt, is the reverse: technology is actually racing to keep up with us.

Our senses are voracious, taking in and processing the world at a rapid clip. It takes only 25 milliseconds for a flash of recognition to light up our brains and a quarter-second to understand what we’ve seen. That is the pace at which we experience life. Recent studies show that we enjoy running at the speed of mind. When the information we receive through our senses and the tools that deliver them are keeping pace with our brain, we experience a certain degree of pleasure. We’re in a groove.

So when, say, movies speed up their delivery of visual stimuli, we seem to quite like it, which translates into greater demand. And our wish is Hollywood’s command. Movies have steadily and relentlessly offered up quicker scenes, moving from a ten-second average in film’s mid-century “golden era” to today’s five-second scene (or the 1.7 second bludgeoning of Quantum of Solace). That is why action films like The Bourne Ultimatum seem to have a more visceral quality; their frenetic pace is moving more in step with our minds.

Yet for this we pay a price. Our brains are less able to weave these strings of rapid-fire stimuli into sustained experiences that linger in our memory. We then beg for more technologies that allow us to enjoy experiences and our rapid paces. Or, Instagram. Here’s Vanderbilt:

The “technical” acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a “social” acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a “compression of episodes of action”—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning. What is the temporal experience of reading several hundred Tweets versus one article, and what is remembered afterwards?

Vanderbilt’s essay isn’t about answers, but instead offering the sort of clarity that begs further questions. It seems undeniably good that Google is able to offer search results at precisely the speed with which our brains demand it—less than 300 milliseconds. Or that our desire for communication and connection is no longer frustrated by the tools we’ve created. We can refresh our Twitter feed with a long drag and a “pop” of release. Like an itch being instantly scratched. It feels good. We want more. Now.

Perhaps this is also why we sense withdrawal when we’ve been away from technology’s instant gratification for too long, or feel frustrated when other devices (or people) in our lives don’t offer the same immediacy.

Do we need to carve out time to refresh and reboot ourselves? Do we go cold turkey or slap on a patch to satiate our desire for speed?

Today’s speed is useful, no doubt. Our brain enjoys it and longs for it. Yet we must remain mindful of what may be lost: the deep remembrance that our soul desires.

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  • Paul

    But living fast is just the present time extension of the foundational impetus/momentum of the American dream or more correctly air-conditioned nightmare.
    If it moves shoot it, if it grows chop it down.
    As depicted in this one stark image, and the mural altogether.
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel21.html
    Speeded up by TV, the “culture” of which now rules the entire world. That “culture” is of course completely indifferent to the well-being of human beings, the non-humans, and the biosphere altogether.