In 2018, I will be focusing on a project that has incubated in my mind for years – a book-length consideration of the impacts of technological speed on human existence. A huge amount of work has been done on this subject, by many gifted writers and thinkers. But I have my own two cents to add, and we have new advances to contend with, including cryptocurrency, autonomous cars, and social media.
In broad outline, you’re probably familiar with the reshaping of space by technology. Railroads, automobiles, telegraphy, television, jet transportation, and smartphones have all had related impacts – knitting the world more closely together, making economies more efficient, and, arguably, contributing to the decline of large-scale violence.
They have also, of course, alienated people from their communities, amplifying fissures within societies that may have festered for centuries. They’ve amplified inequality and anxiety. They have pushed us further and further away from our fundamental species-being.
We live as no other people ever have – and, maybe, as no others ever will. We are bizarre creatures, ensnared in an infinitely complex and powerful web that we in no way comprehend, though we ourselves created it. We are goldfish who do not know we are in enchanted water. We also may not notice that we are being boiled in it.
This post is a starting attempt to identify a few lines of inquiry that will help me organize my efforts. The following list is not even remotely exhaustive – it is a seeding of initial nodes that will grow into a deep web of vectors and intersections. They will accelerate and intensify. Within each, there are the stories of individuals taking action, or being acted upon.
If you are part of any of these stories, please get in touch. Your contribution is invaluable.
The Impacts of Speed: A Litany
Productivity – Speedy communication helped open borders and weave the web of trade that has made humankind increasingly wealthy, numerous, and productive (though not necessarily increasingly healthy or happy). That’s primarily because it allows different regions to specialize in different productive activities that suit their unique geography, populace, or relative position in the world system (i.e. low wages become a part of this equation as they weren’t, explicitly, for Adam Smith). This is the single most important impact of technologies of speed, in terms of breadth of influence. All of the other impacts on this list stem from or, at least, run through this one.
Relationships – Transportation and communication create the possibility of direct, human connections over long distances, and across great cultural divides. However great the horrors of the 20th century, its technologies have led to a sense of global common weal that has no historical parallel. We have seen into the homes of our enemies’ children, watched them living lives much like our own. This is why the conflicts of the great nations are mostly played out over television or Twitter – because we regard our enemies as human, and most of us understand the reality of war well enough to hope to avoid it.
Dis/Connection – But even as international relationships become more constant, subtle, and widespread, the ties that bind countrymen to each other begin to fray. The long-distance connections in various ways come at the expense of the natural, human connections of proximity. In particular, regional urban centers may have closer relationships to one another than to the less dense and vibrant areas that surround them.
Isolation – There is a personal parallel to the strange dissociation of country from city. The fast person is also the isolated person. Slowness is oxygen to the fire of relationships, cooperation, and support. The man in the suburban home who telecommutes and takes occasional jet excursions to Atlanta is an alien to his neighbors, to the other residents of his city.
Power – Paul Virilio argued that speed is a determining factor in the structure of societies. At the very least, it’s correlative – the wealthiest people in a capitalist society have access to the fastest and most frictionless forms of transportation and communication (though interestingly, in the modern U.S. the divergence in communications access seems superficially to be shrinking). By the transitive property with the two above points, the rich are more likely to be fast, powerful – and isolated from their neighbors.
Regionalization – Bridging distances, somewhat ironically, helps make mid-sized regions more uniform in their culture and identity, above all through consumer goods and entertainment. This is not states, but nations and even collections of nations. Zones of ‘sameness’ are larger and more cohesive – though instabilities can and do emerge within these uniform spaces, in the form of subcultures that react against the sameness and generate difference. These subcultures can grow and either in whole or (more often) in part penetrate and become part of the cultural superstructure that beams over the wires and air.
The Compression of Time – Most of the preceding lines of inquiry are geographic or relational. But transportation and communication have also transformed the texture of the individual’s subjective life. We do more, we experience more, we learn vastly more, than those humans who came before us. We live many lives, instead of just one – both because we constantly form new connections that set us off on new trajecories, and because even in our most relaxed moments, we are absorbing and processing the experiences of others, which we regard as a form of entertaining distraction.
Transcendence of Nature – Before the arrival of fossil fuels, most transportation and communication moved no faster than the fastest animal – the horse, or the carrier pigeon. Mankind no longer has limits set by other living beings, or even by the landscape in which we move. At most, we are limited by the laws of thermodynamics.
Ecological Devastation – The first trains were compared to dragons. They consumed wood and coal in quantities that destroyed men and forests on a mass scale. Their legacy – the demand of speed they induced – led to a global breakdown in the mechanisms of heat distribution and the resulting weather patterns. This development may yet prove devastating for the lives of the humans who, again, created the machines in the first place.
This is, obviously, a wildly diverse list. It isn’t a list of chapters or even necessarily themes, just starting places.
Look for much more to come.