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Rethinking the Speedy World

An international conference dares to ask, 'Is it time for the world to slow down?'
"Speed is good." That simple statement has been a guiding philosophy of Western technological development at least since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Certainly it is a central tenet of the current computer revolution, and the mantra of many a user anxious to zip around the World Wide Web. But does speed really make our life better? Should our society be examining new paths to development that do not force our lives to run faster and faster?


John Thackera, director of the Netherlands Design Institute, organized a conference that was billed "more as a play than a lecture."

Those unorthodox questions were raised recently at Doors of Perception 4, the latest in a series of interdisciplinary conferences organized by the Netherlands Design Institute in Amsterdam. Speakers included such luminaries as artificial-life guru Tom Ray and architect Rem Koolhaas, as well as a diverse collection of artists, technologists, demographers and historians. Over two days and more than 45 presentations, the participants debated the meaning of speed, the merits of speed and the possibilities of controlling it.

John Thackara, the director of the Netherlands Design Institute and organizer of Doors of Perception, wisely cautioned that the conference would function "more as a play than a lecture"--an approach that generated more than a little confusion but also an abundance of creative comment.

Much of "Doors 4" focused on the ways that speed is manifested in Europe and the U.S. Rick Prelinger, a film archivist, focused on the most familiar aspects, the role of speed in Western industrialization. He introduced a series of clips from corporate movies celebrating the breakneck pace of the industrial age (these are available on a series of CD-ROMs called "Our Secret Century"). A 1937 Chevrolet film proudly showing its workers as roboticized automatons provoked uncomfortable laughter from the audience. John Adams of University College London cited one of the central paradoxes of industrial development: as access to cars increases, so do the problems of congestion and urban sprawl. The result is what he calls "fast lives with low resolution." And Judith Donath of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wittily pointed out that even the rate of fashion has steadily accelerated along with social mobility and information flow in the West.

But as several speakers observed, issues of speed are often more acutely seen in the non-Western world, where access is generally more limited but change can be even more abrupt. In a dour but eye-opening presentation, Koolhaas described how swift economic and population growth in China has created a kind of runaway architecture. Buildings are redesigned even as they are completed; cities and airports are being constructed for populations that have not yet arrived; and China's architects, responding to this pressure, have achieved a pace and efficiency of design utterly unknown in the West. Ray talked about the difficulty of establishing long-term protection of the natural habitat in Costa Rica, where he has worked as a conservation ecologist. Producer Kayoko Ota and writer David d'Heilly reflected that catch-up industrialization in Asia is favoring the promotion of consumer rights over civil rights--in Singapore, for example.

Not all was doom and gloom, however. Several participants, especially those from the developing world, moved to disperse the air of pessimism about the perils of an ever-faster world. Ravi Sundaram of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India, eloquently defended modern telecommunications (the Web in particular) from a Muslim point of view; he praised the emergence of a "cyber-public realm," a new kind of community that obliterates political boundaries. Sam Pitroda, a former vice president at Rockwell International and chairman of the Telecom Commission of India, spoke in a more down-to-earth vein. He noted that in countries like India, information technology is not just a luxury. It is vital to basic activities like bringing food to market and preventing drought; it is also a major source of new jobs and wealth.

The wildly diverse viewpoints at the Doors conference came into sharp relief again as speakers asked what--if anything--should be done to control the speed of our society. Wolfgang Sachs, project director at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Energy and the Environment in Wuppertal, Germany, took the European Green position. He argued that the fast life is environmentally unsustainable and so must be decelerated--for instance, governments might regulate the top speed of autos and trains. Andrew Ross of New York University formulated a liberal critique of speed, urging designers to think about how to utilize technology to create new jobs, not to displace labor; he did not indicate whether such a goal could or should be forcibly achieved. Jacqueline Cramer of Phillips Consumer Electronics offered a mild, industrial solution: design products with greater durability to combat our resource-intensive, disposable culture. On the far radical fringe, artist Claude Gaignebet of the University of Nice recalled the French riots of 1968 and declared that the time had come for people to rise up, "stop and decide you are free!"

Others urged, far more calmly, that technology be reshaped so that it follows art, storytelling or the rhythm of biological life. The specific examples were largely unconvincing, however. A "virtual airport" project commissioned by Japan Airlines produced three competing proposals for how to use Web-like interactivity to make airline travel more pleasant--each was more jarring than the one before. Possibly the most bizarre proposal came from Danny Hillis, a founder of Thinking Machines. He outlined his half-serious idea for a "millennium clock," built in some secluded area, that would tick once per year and chime once per millennium in order to stretch our perspective of time.

One option, of course, is simply not to choose speed. Juliet Schor of Tilburg University reported that many people seem to be doing just that. Her research shows that more than one quarter of all Americans say they have made choices in the past five years that reduced their income in return for increased leisure time. Oliver Morton, the editor-in-chief of Wired UK, dryly noted that the proponents of a slower world were mostly those who had already had a chance to taste as much speed as they desired. Indeed, the developing-world presenters mostly endorsed information technology as both culturally and economically enriching

The lack of firm conclusions was not at all surprising; "Doors 4" was conceived from the start as a place to raise questions, not to arrive at final solutions. Even so, the prevailing mood was a striking one of fascinated impotence: the elite thinkers at the conference recognized their very limited power to do anything more than register and report on the steady acceleration of life. As Derrick de Kerckhove of the University of Toronto concluded, "All we can hope for is that it turns out to be calming, not explosive."

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