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THE UNFORESEEN CONSEQUENCES OF A FAST-PACED WORLD

03.04.21

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Overview from TED

Why does modern technology promise efficiency, but leave us constantly feeling pressed for time? Anthropologist Kathryn Bouskill explores the paradoxes of living in a fast-paced society and explains why we need to reconsider the importance of slowing down in a world that demands go, go, go.

"To my generation of Americans, speed feels like a birthright. Sometimes I think our minimum speed is Mach 3. Anything less, and we fear losing our competitive edge."

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Kathryn Bouskill

Anthropologist | Social Scientist

Kathryn Bouskill is an anthropologist at the RAND Corporation and associate director of the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security, where she applies ethnographic methods to understand the human dimensions of systems analysis and policy research.

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MY TAKE...

Given the current climate, I didn’t expect to find Kathryn Bouskill’s TED Talk – “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Fast-Paced World” - to be quite as insightful as I did. Delivered in November 2018 at TEDxManhattanBeach, it’s surprising how many of Bouskill’s sentiments still resonate – especially seeing as “life in the fast lane” couldn’t be further from reality for the majority right now.


Back in 2018, my role took me all over the world. I was regularly taking long-haul flights for face-to-face catch ups. Darting from airports to meetings to conference calls. What little free time I had was taken up by the demands of my two young children. I barely stood still.


But now, as time stands still, I find myself busier than ever – and technology is to blame.


I’m incredibly lucky to still be working. Whilst millions of people across the UK have been furloughed due to the temporary closure of businesses, my job remains - for the most part - unchanged. I still work from home. I support my team remotely. I spend hour after hour on video conference calls. The “new normal” for me is, in many ways, the “same old”.


You’d be forgiven for thinking the “fast-paced world” that Bouskill speaks of has all but disappeared amidst the pandemic - what with limited travel, empty high streets and no social contact… But you’d be wrong. It hasn’t disappeared. It has merely moved online…

FASTER, FASTER, FASTER

We love speed, Bouskill states, but it doesn’t come naturally:


"Our prehistoric brains aren't really built for it, so we invent roller coasters and race cars and supersonic planes, but we get whiplash, carsick, jet-lagged. We didn't evolve to multitask. Rather, we evolved to do one thing with incredible focus, like hunt -- not necessarily with great speed but with endurance for great distance. But now there's a widening gap between our biology and our lifestyles, a mismatch between what our bodies are built for and what we're making them do. It's a phenomenon my mentors have called 'Stone Agers in the fast lane.'"


I find that concept fascinating, especially when you consider how much technology has advanced in the past century alone.


When you consider our ancestors from the Stone Age, they don’t appear that different to you and I. Sure, they wore less clothes and had limited conversational skills, but they also had eyes, a nose, a mouth, arms, legs… and their basic human needs were the same – to eat, drink and procreate for the survival of our species. And they did so without smartphones, FitBits, Bluetooth, video doorbells, cars, jet engines.


As you read this sentence, our world is the most technologically advanced it has ever been. But have our brains and bodies caught up?


As Bouskill rightly points out, if we have technologies that operate at faster and faster rates, why do we still feel so pressed for time? Shouldn’t the devices that allow us to communicate, cook, clean and generally live life at a quicker pace alleviate some of life’s stresses? It would appear not. We haven’t evolved to a state of serenity – our old stresses have simply been replaced with new ones: how quickly we can reply to emails, answer the phone, download that data….


Bouskill explains:


"All of modern history can be thought of as one spurt of acceleration after another. It's as if we think if we just speed up enough, we can outrun our problems. But we never do. We know this in our own lives, and policymakers know it, too.


"So now we're turning to artificial intelligence to help us make faster and smarter decisions to process this ever-expanding universe of data. But machines crunching data are no substitute for critical and sustained thinking by humans, whose Stone Age brains need a little time to let their impulses subside, to slow the mind and let the thoughts flow."


After all, fast decisions aren’t always the best ones.


If you’ve ever made a snap decision at a restaurant, then you’ll know how frustrating food envy can be. You could be tucking into that mouth-wateringly tasty seafood platter, but you chose pasta… again. Why? Because you’ve acted on autopilot:


"When we have to make fast decisions, autopilot brain kicks in, and we rely on our learned behaviours, our reflexes, our cognitive biases, to help us perceive and respond quickly."


Bouskill continues:


"Oftentimes, when our society has major failures, they're not technological failures. They're failures that happen when we made decisions too quickly on autopilot. We didn't do the creative or critical thinking required to connect the dots or weed out false information or make sense of complexity. That kind of thinking can't be done fast. That's slow thinking."


Now, “slow thinking” about what to eat for dinner would be overkill - it’s not a life or death situation, after all - but it goes to show how humans make rash, detrimental decisions because of our ever-increasing need for speed.

TIME TO HIT THE BRAKES?

Not necessarily.


As Bouskill points out, trains that are going too fast aren’t the only ones that can derail. Rather than hitting the brakes, we need to better understand our relationship with speed and our ability to control it:


"Sometimes, we'll need to engineer ourselves to go faster. We'll want to solve gridlock, speed up disaster relief for hurricane victims or use 3-D printing to produce what we need on the spot, just when we need it. Sometimes, though, we'll want to make our surroundings feel slower to engineer the crash out of the speedy experience. And it's OK not to be stimulated all the time. It's good for adults and for kids. Maybe it's boring, but it gives us time to reflect. Slow time is not wasted time."


I can’t say I’ve ever pondered the concept of “slow time” in any level of detail before today. I’m an “always on” type of person. It doesn’t come naturally to me to just sit back, relax and watch the world go by. My mind is always on other things; buzzing with new ideas, yearning to learn as much as possible about the topics that interest me. 


But maybe that’s part of the problem that Bouskill is alluding to – the unforeseen consequences. I have no idea what impact that “always on” mentality is having on my brain and body, or on the decisions that I make – in work or in life.


Bouskill concludes:


"We need to master speed, and that means thinking carefully about the trade-offs of any given technology... If you're lucky enough to decide the pace that you want to travel through life, it's a privilege. Use it. You might decide that you need both to speed up and to create slow time: time to reflect, to percolate at your own pace; time to listen, to empathize, to rest your mind, to linger at the dinner table."


A while back, I wrote a piece about taking a digital detox during lockdown. I talked about setting realistic targets, and the importance of 'down time' away from devices. As I anticipated, it’s easier said than done. But Bouskill’s talk has renewed my belief in the importance of slowing down.


According to Bouskill, many would "rather burn out than rust out", for fear of becoming obsolete if they slow down, but arguably it’s not slowing down that poses the real risk. We exhaust ourselves getting to grips with the latest technologies. Perhaps it’s time we re-learn how to switch off instead, before it’s too late.

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