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In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speedby Carl Honore
We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.What is the very first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Draw the curtains? Roll over to snuggle up with your partner or pillow? Spring out of bed and do ten push-ups to get the blood pumping? No, the first thing you do, the first thing everyone does, is check the time. From its perch on the bedside table, the clock gives us our bearings, telling us not only where we stand vis-à-vis the rest of the day, but also how to respond. If it's early, I close my eyes and try to go back to sleep. If it's late, I spring out of bed and make a beeline for the bathroom. Right from that first waking moment, the clock calls the shots. And so it goes, on through the day, as we scurry from one appointment, one deadline, to the next. Every moment is woven into a schedule, and wherever we look — the bedside table, the office canteen, the corner of the computer screen, our own wrists — the clock is ticking, tracking our progress, urging us not to fall behind.
In our fast-moving modern world, it always seems that the time-train is pulling out of the station just as we reach the platform. No matter how fast we go, no matter how cleverly we schedule, there are never enough hours in the day. To some extent, it has always been so. But today we feel more time pressure than ever before. Why? What makes us different from our ancestors? If we are ever going to slow down, we must understand why we accelerated in the first place, why the world got so revved up, so tightly scheduled. And to do that, we need to start at the very beginning, by looking at our relationship with time itself.
Mankind has always been in thrall to time, sensing its presence and power, yet never sure how to define it. In the fourth century, St. Augustine mused, "What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know." Sixteen hundred years later, after wrestling with a few pages of Stephen Hawking, we understand exactly how he felt. Yet even if time remains elusive, every society has evolved ways of measuring its passage. Archaeologists believe that over twenty thousand years ago European ice age hunters counted the days between lunar phases by carving lines and holes in sticks and bones. Every great culture in the ancient world — the Sumerians and the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Chinese, the Mayans and the Aztecs — created its own calendar. One of the first documents to roll off the Gutenberg printing press was the "Calendar of 1448."
Once our ancestors learned to measure years, months and days, the next step was to chop time into smaller units. An Egyptian sundial dating from 1500 BC is one of the oldest surviving instruments for dividing the day into equal parts. Early "clocks" were based on the time it took for water or sand to pass through a hole, or for a candle or a dish of oil to burn. Timekeeping took a great leap forward with the invention of the mechanical clock in thirteenth-century Europe. By the late 1600s, people could accurately measure not only hours, but also minutes and seconds.
Survival was one incentive for measuring time. Ancient civilizations used calendars to work out when to plant and harvest crops. Right from the start, though, timekeeping proved to be a double-edged sword. On the upside, scheduling can make anyone, from peasant farmer to software engineer, more efficient. Yet as soon as we start to parcel up time, the tables turn, and time takes over. We become slaves to the schedule. Schedules give us deadlines, and deadlines, by their very nature, give us a reason to rush. As an Italian proverb puts it: Man measures time, and time measures man.
By making daily schedules possible, clocks held out the promise of greater efficiency — and also tighter control. Yet early timepieces were too unreliable to rule mankind the way the clock does today. Sundials did not work at night or in cloudy weather, and the length of a sundial hour varied from day to day thanks to the tilt of the earth. Ideal for timing a specific act, hourglasses and water clocks were hopeless at telling the time of day. Why were so many duels, battles and other events in history held at dawn? Not because our ancestors were partial to early rises, but because dawn was the one time that everyone could identify and agree on. In the absence of accurate clocks, life was dictated by what sociologists call Natural Time. People did things when it felt right, not when a wristwatch told them to. They ate when hungry, and slept when drowsy. Nevertheless, from early on, telling time went hand in hand with telling people what to do.
As long ago as the sixth century, Benedictine monks lived by a routine that would make a modern time manager proud. Using primitive clocks, they rang bells at set intervals throughout the day and night to hurry each other from one task to the next, from prayer to study to farming to rest, and back to prayer again. When mechanical clocks began springing up in town squares across Europe, the line between keeping time and keeping control blurred further. Cologne offers a revealing case study. Historical records suggest that a public clock was erected in the German city around 1370. In 1374, Cologne passed a statute that fixed the start and end of the workday for labourers, and limited their lunch break to "one hour and no longer." In 1391, the city imposed a curfew of 9 p.m. (8 p.m. in winter) on foreign visitors, followed . . .
The foregoing is excerpted from In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore. All rights reserved.
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