Do you ever wonder why we're surrounded with things that help us do everything faster and faster and faster? Communicate faster, but also work faster, bank faster, travel faster, find a date faster, cook faster, clean faster and do all of it all at the same time? How do you feel about cramming even more into every waking hour?
Well, to my generation of Americans, speed feels like a birthright. Sometimes I think our minimum speed is Mach 3. Anything less, and we fear losing our competitive edge. But even my generation is starting to question whether we're the masters of speed or if speed is mastering us.
I'm an anthropologist at the Rand Corporation, and while many anthropologists study ancient cultures, I focus on modern day cultures and how we're adapting to all of this change happening in the world. Recently, I teamed up with an engineer, Seifu Chonde, to study speed. We were interested both in how people are adapting to this age of acceleration and its security and policy implications. What could our world look like in 25 years if the current pace of change keeps accelerating? What would it mean for transportation, or learning, communication, manufacturing, weaponry or even natural selection? Will a faster future make us more secure and productive? Or will it make us more vulnerable?
In our research, people accepted acceleration as inevitable, both the thrills and the lack of control. They fear that if they were to slow down, they might run the risk of becoming obsolete. They say they'd rather burn out than rust out. Yet at the same time, they worry that speed could erode their cultural traditions and their sense of home. But even people who are winning at the speed game admit to feeling a little uneasy. They see acceleration as widening the gap between the haves, the jet-setters who are buzzing around, and the have-nots, who are left in the digital dust.
Yes, we have good reason to forecast that the future will be faster, but what I've come to realize is that speed is paradoxical, and like all good paradoxes, it teaches us about the human experience, as absurd and complex as it is.
The first paradox is that we love speed, and we're thrilled by its intensity. But our prehistoric brains aren't really built for it, so we invent roller coasters and race cars and supersonic planes, but we get whiplash, carsick, jet-lagged. We didn't evolve to multitask. Rather, we evolved to do one thing with incredible focus, like hunt — not necessarily with great speed but with endurance for great distance. But now there's a widening gap between our biology and our lifestyles, a mismatch between what our bodies are built for and what we're making them do. It's a phenomenon my mentors have called "Stone Agers in the fast lane."
A second paradox of speed is that it can be measured objectively. Right? Miles per hour, gigabytes per second. But how speed feels, and whether we like it, is highly subjective. So we can document that the pace at which we are adopting new technologies is increasing. For example, it took 85 years from the introduction of the telephone to when the majority of Americans had phones at home. In contrast, it only took 13 years for most of us to have smartphones. And how people act and react to speed varies by culture and among different people within the same culture. Interactions that could be seen as pleasantly brisk and convenient in some cultures could be seen as horribly rude in others. I mean, you wouldn't go asking for a to-go cup at a Japanese tea ceremony so you could jet off to your next tourist stop. Would you?
A third paradox is that speed begets speed. The faster I respond, the more responses I get, the faster I have to respond again. Having more communication and information at our fingertips at any given moment was supposed to make decision-making easier and more rational. But that doesn't really seem to be happening.
Here's just one more paradox: If all of these faster technologies were supposed to free us from drudgery, why do we all feel so pressed for time? Why are we crashing our cars in record numbers, because we think we have to answer that text right away? Shouldn't life in the fast lane feel a little more fun and a little less anxious? German speakers even have a word for this: "Eilkrankheit." In English, that's "hurry sickness." When we have to make fast decisions, autopilot brain kicks in, and we rely on our learned behaviors, our reflexes, our cognitive biases, to help us perceive and respond quickly. Sometimes that saves our lives, right? Fight or flight. But sometimes, it leads us astray in the long run.
Oftentimes, when our society has major failures, they're not technological failures. They're failures that happen when we made decisions too quickly on autopilot. We didn't do the creative or critical thinking required to connect the dots or weed out false information or make sense of complexity. That kind of thinking can't be done fast. That's slow thinking. Two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, started pointing this out back in 1974, and we're still struggling to do something with their insights.
All of modern history can be thought of as one spurt of acceleration after another. It's as if we think if we just speed up enough, we can outrun our problems. But we never do. We know this in our own lives, and policymakers know it, too. So now we're turning to artificial intelligence to help us make faster and smarter decisions to process this ever-expanding universe of data. But machines crunching data are no substitute for critical and sustained thinking by humans, whose Stone Age brains need a little time to let their impulses subside, to slow the mind and let the thoughts flow.
If you're starting to think that we should just hit the brakes, that won't always be the right solution. We all know that a train that's going too fast around a bend can derail, but Seifu, the engineer, taught me that a train that's going too slowly around a bend can also derail.
So managing this spurt of acceleration starts with the understanding that we have more control over speed than we think we do, individually and as a society. Sometimes, we'll need to engineer ourselves to go faster. We'll want to solve gridlock, speed up disaster relief for hurricane victims or use 3-D printing to produce what we need on the spot, just when we need it. Sometimes, though, we'll want to make our surroundings feel slower to engineer the crash out of the speedy experience. And it's OK not to be stimulated all the time. It's good for adults and for kids. Maybe it's boring, but it gives us time to reflect. Slow time is not wasted time.
And we need to reconsider what it means to save time. Culture and rituals around the world build in slowness, because slowness helps us reinforce our shared values and connect. And connection is a critical part of being human. We need to master speed, and that means thinking carefully about the trade-offs of any given technology. Will it help you reclaim time that you can use to express your humanity? Will it give you hurry sickness? Will it give other people hurry sickness? If you're lucky enough to decide the pace that you want to travel through life, it's a privilege. Use it. You might decide that you need both to speed up and to create slow time: time to reflect, to percolate at your own pace; time to listen, to empathize, to rest your mind, to linger at the dinner table.
So as we zoom into the future, let's consider setting the technologies of speed, the purpose of speed and our expectations of speed to a more human pace.