Saturday, January 21, 2017

Too Fast?

At one point in the distant past my wife and I shared an office. It was the early days of personal technology, when computers were an exotic and expensive tool. And so we had just one PC that we shared, located on a Lazy Susan between our desks (Side note: her name is Susan. She hates, hates HATES that term.) Eventually the price dropped, and we got another, but we still only had a single printer. If you wanted to print something, you flipped a switch one way or the other, and out came your document.

The one we had was a dot matrix model. If you are unfamiliar, they made a sound like a phalanx of angry bees as they went line-by-line down the page. Eventually it finished, you ripped off the paper as if you were in a newsroom circa 1942, and looked it over while the next page printed out. But as with everything else, things got better, and we finally we bought a laser printer and installed it in the same spot.

I configured each of our machines and showed her the new settings. On its maiden voyage, she finished what she was working on and hit print. A few seconds later her document started to spool out quietly and quickly. She grabbed the first page to proof it, just as the second one began to emerge. She looked up, thrown from her normal routine. "Wait!" she said, "I'm not done reviewing this page!" Faster, yes. Better, yes. But it was a new order, requiring a rethinking of her routine.

I had the same sense the other morning of what I'll call acceleration displacement when I went to make a cup of coffee with our new electric kettle. For years we had used your standard kettle that we kept on the range. I would fill it with water, turn it on, then putter around getting the press set up, munching on a banana, reading a bit of the paper, deciding which type of jam I wanted with my muffin. I had a several minute buffer and more for all that activity while the water heated up. Now, from the time you press the little lever to the time the water starts to boil is a mere fraction of what it was. I have to cram the banana down my throat, race to scoop out the coffee and slam the muffin into the toaster to get it done before the water is ready to be poured. Of course, there's no rule that says it has to all be finished by then, but old habits and all that.

Unrelated and unimportant anecdotes, until it struck me that they are emblematic of so much that is happening these days.

With technology, with politics, with public discourse, things are coming at us faster than ever before. To be sure, there's a positive side to that: we have information and tools at our fingers almost instantaneously. A few taps on your pad or phone, and anything we need to know appears before our eyes. No more waiting days or weeks for the data needed to make decisions or judgments.

Then again, that is also the problem: there is no buffer. News cycles are measured in hours, response times in seconds. And yet in so many cases, it would be better to slow down, consider the landscape, then decide on a course of action. How often have you fired of a reply to an email or text and thought twice about it? How often has a news story caused you to comment on it, only to have the basic facts change and your comment rendered superfluous or even foolish? Like unwanted features in an app, just because you can react quicker doesn't mean you should. The rub, of course, is figuring out when fast helps, and when it hurts.

Just over 50 years ago, Ralph Nader proclaimed that the auto industry was "Unsafe at Any Speed." In the case of how we do things today, it isn't how fast we're driving, but how little time to consider what to do when we get there. Perhaps we need to reformulate Nader's mantra: slowing down might not be a bad idea, because sometimes speed can be not unsafe, but unwise.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to go more slowly when he can. Sometimes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: