Not too long ago, a series of commercials (shown above) was run by AT&T to sell some phone or service or something (I'm pretty bad at watching TV to know which it is). Goodness, they're funny commercials.
And unfortunately, I am afraid that they highlight, with pretty precise accuracy, a thick, juicy root of one of my generation's Giant Redwoods of problems.
It's Not Complicated; or, The Anatomy of a Commercial
I can't decide what the tone of this campaign is. On the one hand, it could be taken as sarcastic: "These little kids obviously don't know how ridiculous their answers are, but they make a good point, so here you go! Bigger, faster products! Such little snots."
On the other hand, it could be snooty: "Even KIDS understand that bigger and faster is better. Clearly, our competitors don't get that either, so we went ahead and gave it to you for them. You're welcome."
I could probably wax conspiracy on you for a while and expound on a theory of hive-mind or the worship of corporations, but that's not what you're here for. (*Note to self: New book; call it "Confessions of a Closeted Foil-Hat"*) Instead, let's talk about what this commercial says, what it sells, and how it affects you, shall we?
"Which is better: bigger or smaller," asks the charming, amused lead product-seller to a group of children around a hilariously small desk.
"Bigger!" Chimes the chorus of Kindergartners.
"Which is better: faster or slower?"
"What's something that's slow?"
"My grandma," cutely, candidly replies a child.
"Would you like it better if she was fast?"
"I bet she would like it if she was fast."
They are hilarious. Heartwarming, in a Kids-Say-The-Darndest-Things sort of way. The commercial wraps up with the articulate, snappy narrator: "It's not complicated; bigger is better."
I mean, bigger IS better, unless you're talking about tumors. Or kidney stones. Or asteroids hurtling towards Earth. Or children being birthed. Or overdue assignments. Or problems. Or goldfish. Or toothaches. Or paper cuts. Or calorie intakes. Or distances between you and the athlete in front of you. Or black holes.
Faster IS better, unless it's about the beastie chasing you. Or the oncoming flood. Or the mutating virus. Or the passing of the hours on your peaceful day off. Or the consumption of milk. Or baking bread. Or sipping whiskey. Or finishing a section on your SAT.
So, okay, maybe bigger isn't ALWAYS better. Faster isn't ALWAYS superior. That may be the case sometimes, but what I am suggesting is this: the instances in which it is better to have bigger, faster, whatever, are the exceptions that prove the rule. Perhaps simple is preferable to complex, steeping to instant, absorbing to injecting.
But this a tricky position to defend, especially nowadays. Allow me to try.
Progress, and Its Relation to FAST!
If I may tip my hand a bit, I've a book in the works. Following is an excerpt from the first incarnation of the introduction:
"I am, however, going to tell you a story, and take my time in doing so, because the best of things are meant to be enjoyed slowly: with many breaks for coffee or tea, for interruptions from well-timed, much-appreciable breezes, for long draws on pipes between sentences so that the stillness of the moment creeps past the rising smoke and settles in the pit of your stomach, where contentment and dread can both reside. The art of back-porch conversation has been all but forgotten in the middle of a swirling, tech-fueled frenzy of fast-paced information where punchlines trump exposition.
Men are not machines, built for speed and efficiency and soulless task-slavery, but rather we are souls built for connecting with something immeasurable. Immeasurability drives machines crazy, but it is the very essence of things that give us reason to keep on ticking: the itch in your nose from the irresolution in the overture of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the coat of fuzz inside your stomach from a change of clothes, hot chocolate, and a stove-fire after playing in the snow, the relief of a lovely face after a day full of stresses on stresses. Machines may have circuit minds, but humans have flesh hearts that can be taught to discern what is fast from what is right.
So let us be people, you and I and we will see what comes of it."
Much has been done in the name of progress, and much good, at that. If ever there has been a species adept at finding the most streamlined way of getting done what we need to get done, it is humans. Perhaps you could say that it's encoded in our bones. "Cook that food with fire" becomes "How can we make the fire better, so that we can therefore cook our food better?"
"Plow that field" becomes "I've invented this machine to plow the field more precisely, wasting less corn and time, and without need for slave labor."
We are skilled at doing things with more efficiency, and we have crafted a world that doesn't just depend on it, but it thrives on it. Efficiency has permeated every aspect of business, trade, production, consumption, industry, and social interaction; nothing is left untouched by our bottomless search for Better! Faster! Stronger!
It's not all bad. I'm typing on a machine that is a result of that quest. I'm wearing clothes made by it. I'm thinking thoughts cultivated by (even if just in opposition to) it.
But I have come to a point where I hardly feel comforted by it. And when I feel discomforted by something on a deep level, I begin asking questions of it.
We've gotten the ball to roll faster with each push, but are we able to run alongside it?
We are good at progress, but have we progressed our minds and spirits enough to be able to keep up?
I do not posit that we have. We have seen a rise in publication, abundance of thought, skill of production, and apps for making more efficient the everyday tasks of life, but the publications have become monotonous, the thought shallow, the production ubiquitous, and the tasks swampingly pervasive.
I do not know that there has ever been a time when more people have been able to toss out into the massive conversation their thoughts. If you possess a computer and access to a couple hundred dollars for reproduction, you can self-publish a book. For the cost of a Macbook and enough sticktoitiveness, you can produce a record and sell it on iTunes. At the cost of a couple hours of your time, you can send off a blog about how you're tired of everything being fast and have it read by as many people can find it to click on it.
Gone are the days when, if you had a thought about something - be it about God, the nature of reality, or what you had for breakfast today - you had to share it with somebody. If I text 40404 from my phone with any message less than or equal to 140 characters, my thought is read by anybody on Twitter wanting to read it. I can do it all day - and I can see how my particular thought about God or Reality or Breakfast stacks up with any number of people thinking about the same thing.
I may argue (I'm not sure yet; just go with it for now) that the most important invention of the modern era was the assembly line, with the notion of interchangeable parts, during the Industrial Revolution. From this idea came workers of specialty in minutiae, leading to designers of machines to replace those people, leading to designers of machines to multi-task, leading to all-out factories that run on mechanical innovation and electricity. There is not a thing that exists which we cannot replicate, whether it be in a 3D plastic model, in a closely-monitored laboratory, or in a high-definition rendering on a computer screen. Come up with a design for something, find someone willing to get the right machine to mass-produce it for you, and you're suddenly a Kickstarter-funded small business.
I don't know how they all got there, but I have seven apps on my iPad for note taking. I searched the store just now and found 25+ pages of more apps for note taking. We have the unbelievable capability, within our pockets, to hold gigabytes worth of music, a calendar stretching to infinity, every shred of social data that can be collected from us, a GPS locator, credit card and bank information, a checkbook, writing prompts, a journal, access to the constantly-updated, collective sum of human thought, and the movie listings for the theater right down the street. There is even a section of applications designed to enhance your productivity:
The Problem and a Defense of Slow
Do you know how the human brain reacts when presented with a thousand options that all do the same thing? It shoots straight for the most attractive, simplest option. We're Occam's Razor corporeal. It follows: publishers will grow their production wide, polish it up to make it shiny and catchy, and often sacrifice depth. Turn on the radio for 5 minutes, read 3 different books in the same literary genre, or examine the trailers before the next film you view and you will find a staggering amount of sameness. It's become so prevalent that "unique" and "original" are actual praise for something that humans create.
Perhaps you glossed over that last sentence: we praise people bold enough to create something previously unexplored. Is this not a problem? The assumption in that praise is that the film, book, essay, article - whatever - in question is in some way a contrast to the sea of things around it. Praising uniqueness is, by necessity, acknowledging sameness in the rest of it.
The other three categories I mentioned above all fall alongside this distressing observation: prevalence, quantity, and availability do not foster quality.
That is, they do not foster quality unless specific pains are taken to resist the agents of FASTER!
Answer me this: what are the things that are done better quickly?
Answer me this as well: what is an application for efficiency but a band-aid atop a gaping wound in need of stitches?
Good books are slaved over, poured over, attacked with persistence and perspiration. Good coffee isn't from a Keurig, it's from the barista confident in her touch at the burr grinder, her tamp of the espresso, her frothing of the milk. Good thought isn't an impulse, it's an infant: suckled at the mind, teethed against counterpoints, taught to speak until it can learn to speak for itself. Good musicians are slaves to years next to a ticking metronome. Good whiskey is aged in cedar barrels for decades. Good recipes are written by cracked, floured hands sore from kneading.
We want overnight success, we want the Sparknotes version, we want 5-second vines, breathing edited out of Youtube videos, rapid-fire, nonstop entertainment from our televisions. All because we want things faster. We've not cultivated thought in so long that when we're alone with the possibility of it, we whip out our phones and find something to refresh. We stand in lines waiting for corporate coffee and are terrified to look as though we aren't doing something, even if it's just scrolling through instagram.
The Newest, the Best
Thus, we arrive. This week, a device fully aware of the state of affairs, launched. "Bigger than bigger," it promises, "and better in every way." How does it say that it's better? I'll let you read for yourself:
Hear what it's saying: It's better because it's larger. It's better because it's thinner. It's better because it's power-efficient and still powerful. It's better because it has an HD display. It's better, indeed, by any measure.
Are we to be the pinnacle of human thought through the ages, the culmination of the ideas of intellectual giants who spent long nights at writing-desks, the children of an age where anything in the entire universe is possible to us, and believe that it is a device that makes us great? That it's a promise of "More! and Faster!" that gives us worth? That tweeting equals thinking? That understanding is easy? That faith comes without wrestling, wrangling, and strangling doubt into submission?
Efficiency isn't from a device, it's from a mind that has been taught how to streamline its processes through long hours of practicing at it. Quality isn't something that is checked by a Lab Coat with a clipboard, it is something that is strived for and wept over in frustrated practice. Productivity isn't a section in the app store, it's mental fortitude developed by learning how to prioritize, block out the not-yet-important, and craft each response to a task with excellence.
Slower is not worse; worse is worse. Silence is not weakness, weakness is weakness. Emptiness is not a mark of shame, it's a badge of honor that comes from having spent every ounce of what you have making the things that you do, the thoughts that you think, the products you slave over, great.
Do not mishear me: the evil is not in the iPhone or the apps that assist in streamlining your tasks. The problem is when we assume that better can be bought.