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Slow down, you move too fast

03 July 2015

This author, Hugh Rayment-Pickard  says, regrets today's hectic pace of life

Speed Limits: Where time went and why we have so little left
Mark C. Taylor
Yale £18.99
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 effect.

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.

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