Commentary: Taking time to make the world slow down

The Rock Hill HeraldDecember 11, 2011 

I'm reading a great book, "Moonlight Mile," a thriller by a terrific writer, Dennis Lehane.

It's superbly written, gripping, a real page-turner. It's one of those books you can't put down.

Except that I have. Numerous times. I've been plugging away at it for a month or so now, and I'm about halfway through.

This has nothing to do with Lehane's talents or the quality of the book. It has everything to do with my reading habits and my diminishing attention span.

I tend to pick up books just before going to sleep. That means I'll read a few pages before nodding off. The next night, I'll have to reread those pages to recall what I read the night before.

And that means getting through any book is like waiting for glaciers to calve.

Fatigue, no doubt, has something to do with that. But I also wonder whether that old nemesis - societal change - could be partially responsible.

We don't communicate so much in sentences and paragraphs anymore. We chat in sound bites.

Teens tweet, often shortening the process even more by using code words. Even graying elders know how to text short notes over their cellphones.

As a result, most of what we read is no longer than an email - and even emails sometimes seem too long. Come on, give it to me quickly; I don't have time to stand around reading the equivalent of "War and Peace." Like a letter or something.

We have become accustomed to getting information in short, hot bursts, often accompanied by pictures and other visual aids. We don't have the patience for anything that drones on for more than a few seconds.

If you are old enough to remember what a black-and-white TV is, you probably remember the 60-second commercial. For example, a refrigerator commercial from that era would feature a spokesman to tell us about the many virtues of this appliance.

Standing nearby would be an attractive woman who was there to smile, open the refrigerator door and point at the ice trays. By the time the ad was over, you knew how to take the fridge apart and put it back together.

These days, advertisers know how to give us vital information in a matter of nanoseconds. And we have come to accept this as the normal way to absorb information.

If it takes too long, we get bored. And if we get too boring, we switch the channel to one of the hundreds of other cable offerings, and we end up watching three minutes each of 15 different shows.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, I sat down with some members of my extended family to watch a classic English "comedy" from the 1950s. It was interminable.

The setups for the mild stabs at humor took forever. And the outcome was predictable from miles away - or, since this was an English film, from kilometers away.

Current movies, comedies in particular, are using the same tricks as advertisers - and video game designers and anyone else working in a visual medium. They deliver information more quickly and in shorter spurts.

Go watch an old Mel Brooks movie. We remember them as a constant barrage of gags, but by today's standards, they are slow. Much slower than, say, "The Hangover."

Higher speed is an essential component of almost any new technology. We want all of our electronic equipment to start up, download, cool down and do all their other essential tasks faster.

It leaves more time for ... using other electronic devices.

I'm not saying that living in a faster world is bad. In many ways, it is wonderful, especially if you are old enough to have made the transition from a slower world. Kids grew up in a speedy environment; they don't know slow.

But we might be sacrificing something. We might be losing some of our capacity for nuance, reflection or just staring into space and wondering.

Then again, maybe we simply are learning to think and communicate faster. Maybe we're evolving for the better.

I just hope I can slow down long enough to finish my book.

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