Speed Limits: Where time went and why we have so
Mark C. Taylor
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
THIS book makes some big claims about some big issues. Mark C.
Taylor is seriously worried about what we are doing with "time".
Human ingenuity has produced ever more efficient systems in every
area of life, but we seem to have less time than ever before. We
have tried to accelerate our way towards greater leisure, but we
have also created new communication technologies that eat up our
spare time faster than we can save it. The problem is serious, and
the only solution is to slow down.
Taylor's thesis is that our Western obsession with speed and
productivity is out of control. Financial markets are now automated
virtual systems that make trades in fractions of a second. But
these super-efficient systems are prone to perverse information
loops that can cause markets to spiral and crash. Similarly, Taylor
argues, the environment is also subject to similar vicious cycles:
global warming is accelerating as the permafrost melts, and carbon
dioxide and methane are released, adding fuel to the greenhouse
This is not all: we are also suffering from cultural
attention-deficit disorder, as mobile phones and the internet
increasingly shorten our attention span, atomising knowledge
systems. The individualism of the Protestant West has now been
super-charged by the "personalisation" of knowledge, leaving human
culture in fragments.
If we do not arrest these processes, Taylor says, the result
will be a catastrophic global "meltdown" of our financial,
cultural, and environmental systems.
Taylor's analysis will resonate with anyone who has felt
overwhelmed by the storm of information that arrives through the
proliferating digital interfaces, or by cultural and technological
"progress" that seems to leave too little time for reflection and
evaluation. Some readers, however, may not be so convinced by the
sweeping connections that Taylor makes between the thawing
permafrost, financial markets, and the growth of the internet.
As someone who has followed Taylor's writing for the past 30
years, I read this book as a "conservative" turn in his thought.
There is nothing in this book of Taylor's earlier celebration of
postmodern "undecidability". And I wonder whether he is as
enthusiastic now as he was in the 1980s in his preference for
"fragmented" rather than "systematic" knowledge.
Speed Limits is also infused with an older man's
nostalgia for bygone days. Taylor recalls his father laboriously
ploughing a field, his grandfather's workbench where he
painstakingly repaired watches, and his own degree at Harvard, when
he spent a whole semester studying just 14 pages of Hegel's
Logic. Compare this with Taylor writing in the mid-1980s:
"When nostalgia is gone and waiting is over, one can delight in the
superficiality of appearance" (Erring, 1987).
There is also very little theology in this book, and religious
practice is never suggested as an antidote to our speed obsession.
This is surprising, because liturgy does slow us down, taking us
briefly away from the need to be useful. Taylor's analysis of the
problem of time is original, but the injunction to "slow down" and
pay attention is as old as Christianity itself.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Director of Development
and External Affairs for IntoUniversity.