A Manifesto for Speed

My favorite limerick of all time came printed on the bottom of a coffee cup:

All hail the goddess Caffeina!
She hangs out by the coffee machina.
We’re all on the run
But we get more work done
Since coffee came onto the scena!

Yes, this anonymous ditty breaks the rules of limericks, principally by mangling the meter and using made-up words like “machina” and “scena.” But it’s the sentiment that appeals to me. I do get more work done because of coffee. If the sprightly elixir was good for Voltaire, who is said to have consumed 50 cups a day, I figure it must be good for me.

I also get more work done because of e-mail. And because of the Web, and RSS feeds, and Google, and Twitter, and my iPhone and my MacBook and my Kindle—all of the tools, in short, that are melting our brains and impoverishing our communications, according to a circle of naysayers who have been very busy lately publishing books and articles with titles like Digital Barbarism and The Cult of the Amateur and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Technology criticism is an invaluable strain in our culture that stretches back to such brilliant writers as Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jane Jacobs. But to tell the truth, I don’t give much more credence to the recent anti-digital jeremiads than I do to the periodic warnings—always swiftly overturned by medical authorities—that caffeine is bad for your health.

The latest addition to the curmudgeon’s club is John Freeman, the acting editor of the UK-based literary quarterly Granta, who published a so-called “manifesto for slow communication” in the August 21 Wall Street Journal. The essay, which was adapted from Freeman’s forthcoming book The Tyrrany of E-Mail, argues that living in such close and constant proximity to our e-mail inboxes stresses us out, cuts us off from the physical world, and undermines our communication skills. Freeman thinks that spending all day writing and answering e-mail amounts to “simulated busyness” rather than genuine productivity. And he believes that the only way to restore sanity is to “step off this hurtling machine,” jabber less, and think more. “We need to learn to use [e-mail] far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives,” Freeman writes.

There are certainly days when I’d love to ignore my e-mail. Thursdays, for example, when I’m supposed to be writing this column. As Freeman rightly notes, “We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean,” and it would be wonderful, on those days, to have a few uninterrupted hours to take his advice. But I know that closing the e-mail tab in my browser would be as unwise as … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “A Manifesto for Speed”

  1. Bill Ghormley says:

    Right on, Wade.
    Caffeine + Cable + Communication at light speed = Exponential Connection to a Compelling Cosmos (more poetry, too)
    I learned the “bliss of the empty in box” from Bruce Bullen, now acting CEO at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
    Bruce actually takes it a step further — he never leaves for home until his ENTIRE inbox is less than one screen in length, which means he opens and processes all but a dozen holdover emails daily. Noting Bruce’s effectiveness when working with him, I try to get to a zero inbox at least 2-3 times a week. (;-> Wag

  2. We’re all different aren’t we? For me, 5 days in a row of constant interruptions & information, followed by 2 days of being unplugged, works well. Freemen seems to need a different environment. The key is figuring out what environment works for you and how to find it.

  3. Craig Roth says:

    I’m happy to see voices of reason popping up here and there among the din of “information overload is destroying your brain” messages. I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here that needs to be managed and that many people don’t have dysfunctional message processes. I use reason to mean applying skepticism and objectivity (as Chris does above pointing out each person has a different environment). Information overload comes across too often with evangelical zeal. That’s why I recommend avoiding the “information overload” term and its negative associtations entirely and describe it in terms of a management issue (enterprise attention management).

    More on the “attention management” tag of my blog: