This speedy world



It’s a cliché of ageing. Everything seems to speed up, they say. We say. Our childhood seemed to go on for ever. Our teens took a glorious age to spin out. Then the decades get faster, your thirties and forties go past in a blur, and thus it continues.

Rather annoyingly, this phenomenon has now been found to have some factual truth to it, at least it has since the digital age began. It’s more profound than merely digital magic, says Robert Colvile, in his forthcoming book The Great Acceleration; we operate swifter nowadays across the board; we eat faster and we walk faster, running to catch the bus which we pay for by simply tapping in. No more faffing around to look for cash in our pockets or collecting tickets. That’s all yesterday’s behaviour. In our yearning for convenience, the market itself has quickened. We digest stuff quicker.  Fashion arrives and is replaced by a new look when that delivery sells out. Films open on  Friday and can close a week later. Our computers used to take minutes to crank up; they now take miliseconds and are online 24/7. Predictive text guesses what you want to say before you have thought of it. Meanwhile, the majority of humanity chooses to live in cities – where speed is of the essence –  rather than the countryside where life can be still frustratingly tied to the pace of the seasons.

Colvile thinks this is all rather good stuff which will make us lots of money, and when I figure that I can achieve a weekly food shop for a family of six in 12 minutes, so do I. As I send an email or a What’s App message I sometimes imagine living in Georgian Britain, when everyone, from boss to lover was obliged to communicate by snail mail. Did that make the sentiments any more profound?

Yet if we are not going to be mown down, or left out, by inexorable acceleration, we must acquire new skills. The first is self-control. This means the ability to pause, whether over reading a novel, looking at a painting by Botticelli,  or the simple pleasure of an Easter Egg Hunt with your children. The second is flexibility. If the world is changing, we have to go with it.

We should marvel at the fact that news and communication can cross the world in the touch of a button, relish the accessibility of, well, everything, and delight in the fact that (say) children living in remote parts of the world can now learn maths online via solar powered tablets. Some things however will always take a long time. It took me less than a minute yesterday to order the official violin Grade 7 syllabus for my daughter. “Oh God!” she said dramatically when the book and its Bach, Handel and Stravinsky pieces turned up this morning. “This will take me a YEAR to master.”


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