Book Review - In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed

Is our current infatuation with speed inefficient?  Has speed reduced all value? Does it destroy relationships and community? Increase fear? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

 In his delightful, surprising, inspiring—and subversive—new book, In Praise of Slowness, Canadian journalist Carl Honoré explores these issues and more. The Slow Cities movement means urban planning and architecture that encourage walking, mingling and smelling the roses—and brilliant but simple stuff like staggering starting times for school and work. Slower living builds community, which creates a sense of belonging and calms people down. In other words, it reduces fear—and probably crime, something Honoré does not address.  

 We do find essays about the Slow Food and (I am not making this up) Slow Sex movements, as well as work, leisure, children and alternative medicine.  We learn slow is chic in Japan (home of the Sloth Club), where advertisers now use the world “slow” spelled out in English to sell everything from cigarettes to apartment blocks. The Japanese are studying the “Dutch model” of employment, where one person in three works part-time. The world, likewise, is studying the “Finnish model” of education, where “slow-learning” students outperform those in other  OECD countries.

 Aesop was right. The tortoise beats the hare. But the human brain is “hardwired” for speed. “We get a kick from the danger, the buzz, the thrilling, throbbing, heady surge of sensory input that comes from going fast,” Honoré writes.

 The other reason for the cult of speed is control. By, you guessed it, corporations.  

The clock is the “operating system” of industrial capitalism, “the thing,” Honoré writes, “that makes everything else possible—meetings, deadlines, contracts, manufacturing processes, schedules, transport, working shifts.” Before the clock, of course, humans lived by what he calls Natural Time. Our internal rhythms determined when we ate, and time was set in individual towns by the solar noon, that time of day when the sun was directly overhead. As late as the l880s, New Orleans was 23 minutes behind Baton Rouge, only 80 miles away. Not until 1911 was most of the world on the same clock.

 It was no easy task getting workers to live by the clock. According to Honoré, the ruling classes set out to turn punctuality into a moral virtue and civic duty.   In the early 1900s, Frederick Taylor, a management consultant for the Bethlehem Steel Works, implemented “scientific management” to determine how long each task should take—to the nearest fraction of a second.  “In the past, the man has been first,” Taylor declared. “In the future the system must be first.” A pariah of the unions, he was later fired. Workers quit, complaining of stress and fatigue.

 But, as Michael Schwarz, who produced a television documentary about Taylor, told Honoré, “[Taylor's] ideas about efficiency have come to define the way we live today, not just at work but in our personal lives as well.”

 Work has spilled into our personal time. It used to be only “workaholics” worked anytime, anyplace. Now it's common—and expected—that we work 24/7.

 One result is that we don't reflect—we react. Fast Thinking, which is linear and logical, is what we do under time pressure. Slow Thinking, which we do in the shower or walking the beach, results in insight and creative epiphanies. Slow Thinking, in other words, is unpredictable. Free.

 But if the ecstasy produced by speed, when abused, becomes downright undemocratic, it is also inefficient. For example, Honoré writes about the “false economies” of fast food, which has contributed to our epidemic of obesity and diabetes—and a health care system that promises to bankrupt America. 

 There is so much food for thought here that I cannot recommend this book enough. That said, it's not perfect. The chapter on alternative medicine perpetuates the common assumptions that no alternative therapies have been scientifically shown to work and that all orthodox therapies have been scientifically proven. Neither is true. Honoré's case for slowness likewise would be stronger had he footnoted the many provocative studies he cites.  

 Most of all, I wish Honoré had connected his own dots. Again and again, he shows us why slowing down makes economic sense. But in the final analysis, he asks if we can afford to do it. The truth is: We can't afford not to. But that's another book.