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Hurry Up and Wait: 6 Futurists Explain Why Slowness Might Be as Important as Speed

Jennifer Leonard/Good

February 24, 2010

According to some of the world’s most prominent futurists, slowness might be as important to the future as speed. We’ve asked them to explain why. Here are their answers.

Julian Bleecker

Julian Bleecker, a designer, technologist, and co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, devises “design-to-think experiments” that focus on interactions away from conventional computer settings. “When sitting at a screen and keyboard, everything is tuned to be as fast as possible,” he says. “It’s about diminishing time to nothing.”

So he asks, “Can we make design where time is inescapable and not be brought to zero? Would it be interesting if time were stretched, or had weight?” To test this idea, Bleeker built a Slow Messaging Device, which automatically delayed electronic (as in, e-mail) messages. Especially meaningful messages took an especially long time to arrive.

He says the SMD experiment is a reminder of a time when love letters were handwritten and posted by mail, often having to cross continents and oceans before reaching the recipient. “I wanted to revisit that experience of anticipation and uncertainty.”

He also wanted to observe the patterns in flows of people in the urban environment. So he conducted a research experiment with video cameras placed atop “a super long pole, looking down.” In postprocessing he obscured the fast-moving people, high-lighting what moved slowly or simply remained still.

“This became a visual reference to how much we normally don’t notice. Slowing down affords a different kind of understanding and sense of yourself in the world. Sometimes when I’m in Manhattan I decide that I’m just going to slow down and pay attention to different things.”

Bleecker follows the slow movement through Carolyn Strauss and her slowLab. “I like how a shift to ‘slow’ pushes us to reconsider the importance of time,” he says. “There’s a natural pace to things, and that includes a natural human pace. I hope the slow movement is not a fad, but broadens in a way to bring a different pace to the world.”

Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson notices the present in a way others don’t. Take a building, for example. “One will say it’s red with two stories,” she says. “Another will say it’s made out of wood, two hundred years old, with a pointed roof. And I will say, ‘Here’s the building. This is where the stresses are and here is where the floor is sagging.’”

Much of Dyson’s skill in spotting tensions can be traced back to her early economics studies at Harvard. “I felt it was a good way to understand the world. Economics is a fundamental mover, and it has helped me concentrate on the structure and dynamics and interactions of things.” She says one of the problems in business right now is its short-term thinking, which is spurred by the speed of the stock market. “When you can measure economic activity minute by minute, it makes it difficult, unfortunately, to not sacrifice long-term investment for short-term results.”

If it were up to Dyson, slowness would be invited into business and define gross domestic product differently, especially in relation to education and health care. “Our health-care system right now is all about repair. If you thought long-term, you’d be good to your body, which is good for the economy.”

Maybe the best way to slow down
is to sleep a little more, and pay more attention when you’re awake.

Dyson, a cosmonaut in training with a background in journalism and IT start-ups, is good to her body—and to her mind. She spends an hour swimming laps every morning while considering the things she didn’t have time for the day before. “It’s not about delaying thinking. It’s about assigning a time to things when I can give them my full attention.”

Sleep is also part of it, she says. “People aren’t getting enough. They say they were up late watching TV, but TV doesn’t force you to watch it. It’s a choice. Maybe the best way to slow down is to sleep a little more, and pay more attention when you’re awake.”

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