Hurry Up (To Go Slow)

I once knew a real estate broker in Vancouver, Canada. The poor fellow was dying of cancer. I remember sitting with him at lunch as he mulled over whether to have dessert. “I may as well just order it”, he said. “I don’t know how many more desserts I will get.”

I began to realize that the reason I spent so much time with him was that he was completely focused on enjoying the time he had left. He had long ago stopped making excuses. He also saw things more clearly than most people. He was much less distracted, oddly enough.

He and I were trying to wrap up a lease for a type-A personality named “JS”. This guy was always going a million miles an hour. He talked fast. He walked fast. He drove like a maniac. But he never seemed to get anything done.

One day, in a moment of exasperation, my real estate buddy shrugged his shoulders, pointed at JS and sighed, “hurry up — to go slow.”

My friend has long since passed. But his observation rings in my ears every day.

We Can No Longer Absorb What We Experience Each Day

Every time I sit down to eat at even most modest restaurant, I find myself surrounded with television sets. I try to ignore them. If I actually watch one of them, I don’t understand what is happening because the sound has been turned off. Instead, atrocious muzak blares from all parts of the room. This is meant to make the place feel “alive”. My stomach asks for a quiet meal and I get a marching band along the road to my next stop, injestion-land.

Like any other fool, I have brought my “smart” (dumb) phone with me. A friend sends me clever texts:

hau

boss is pod

idc fh

g2r

c u l8r

I scratch my head and text back:

I’m not sure what you just said. Can you repeat your thoughts in English?

It takes quite a bit of time to add the proper upper-case letters, apostrophes, and such. I realize that I am spending too much time on it. I miss talking with my friends. It occurs to me that if we had just gotten on the phone we could have had a fun, productive conversation in about half the time that we spent texting. But nobody wants to participate.

r u kidding

dywmtgf

By the end of my meal, after much toil, I realize that I have just been asked, “do you want me to get fired?” {sigh}.

Back in the day, when you couldn’t talk for free on the phone, we used to write letters. Sometimes they the letters would only travel a hundred miles, and they would take days to get there. But all of that effort made everyone sending or receiving one felt vitally connected to the other person. I still have the letters of my youth. When I read them, I feel like I have not aged a day. Every thought, every emotion, is as fresh as a flower. But the paper trail ends shortly after I bought my first computer. I wonder: where will I store all of these texts that I get these days? Then I think: what’s to save? Over time, we’ll all forget what we meant by any of it. Besides, my handy phone gets rid of them for me, so I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

The same thing happened to photographs. I can’t say the words “photograph” any more because nobody even remembers what it was like to get a whiff of developing solution after cracking open a fresh envelope of Polaroid film. I also still have all of my old photographs. They hit me even harder: I can feel the air, the sounds, of every instant. I also stopped taking real photographs some time back. Now I have images in the cloud. But they don’t seem as sharp and genuine. A few weeks ago, a friend send me an Instagram of an amazing dusk scene at Yosemite Falls. I wanted to frame it. But I got tied up, and by the time I tried to look at the image again, it had been erased. It was “just a moment”, he said. Maybe we should destroy all of those amazing Renaissance paintings, too. They’re just old moments that we don’t understand anyway.

We Are So Distracted That We Miss Most of What Happens Around Us

At lunch, in my finest diction, I asked my waiter for:

  • A one-third pound burger made from grass-fed beef.
  • Cooked on the juicy side of medium.
  • No sauce; extra mayo on the side.
  • Extra tomatoes on the side.
  • On sourdough; this is not on the menu, but the chef can use slices of sourdough bread that are normally intended for breakfast.
  • Red onions, very thinly sliced.
  • Half and half of (a) The standard lettuce blend; and (b) organic greens.

As I proudly finished this description, I realized that the waiter was staring at me. This was clearly not the same thing as listening to me.

“You want a burger and what?”, he stammered.

The horrid background muzak was just loud enough to justify his deafness. But he was a young guy, with perfect hearing. The fact was, no matter how much racket was bouncing off the walls — or even if none at all — my waiter didn’t understand my order because he wasn’t prepared to hear it. That required careful attention and patience. People don’t have much of that to spare any more.

I couldn’t get angry; I have found myself doing the same thing at times. It’s as if we must first acknowledge that a person really needs our attention, which we resist. Then, we finally give up and focus on them. But they have already said their piece, and we missed it.

It took three attempts to get the order into the waiter’s brain. But the chef suffered from all of the same syndromes, so when the burger arrived, it was over-cooked, the onions were in big chunks, and they had forgotten both the extra mayo on the side as well as the tomatoes. So all of that had to be redone.

As I left the restaurant, I realized that the owners of the mall had, in their divine wisdom, piped the obnoxious audio throughout the entire plaza. In this way, no one could say the place was “dead”. I was not amused. But most people did not seem to mind. They were much better at tuning it out.

We do this sort of thing every day. Just look at how we read. I grew up reading. I poured through classic science fiction before I was twelve years old. And I do mean: I absorbed ever single word of it. Today “reading” means that we look at something that has a bit of text attached to it, which we generally ignore.

I often send detailed emails to my colleagues. I use the same sorts of tricks as I have here: I keep the paragraphs short. I use bullet points. I repeat key thoughts. I ask questions. I make conclusions.

When I get an answer back, the person almost never responds to the entire email. They had only skimmed the thing, perhaps on their “smart” phone (and how smart is that?). Reading takes time, which they don’t have. The more they read, the more they have to work. So that’s another excuse.

This is hardly what we can call “efficient” communication. Each time I get a partial response back from an email I have to write back and ask again. This eventually rubs someone the wrong way, since they do not imagine themselves to be sloppy, careless or irresponsible.

When was the last time you wrote to some company’s tech support department via a web form or via email? No one is even mildly surprised that these communications are ignored. That’s the new norm. Of course we have an easy target: the people answering the email or phone are usually foreign workers. They don’t understand enough English to thoroughly comprehend and respond to the fine details of a complex issue. So they read off of a tired script that is intended to pat us on our butts and send us on our way — with nothing resolved. Ironically, in their own language, they are quite fastidious and well-studied — unlike us.

We Are Too Busy To Make Real Friends

 As we get better at tuning out noise — which includes most other human beings — we become starved for attention and approval. We try to fix this by increasing the number of contacts we have, and nervously chattering with them. We don’t even have to take the time to speak or write English. We have weblish, the new language that has no spelling or pronunciation rules. You know, like when you were two years old.

We communicate with our new “friends” in one-way utterances. To avoid wasting unnecessary time, we tweet our every thought. Now there’s a smart company: they force us to say something in 140 characters or less. They have cynically calculated the exact length of our attention span.

In today’s high-speed, virtual world, we can say anything about ourselves and it becomes an instant reality, even without proof. The proof is in the utterance. The proof is in how many people listen to us. That lends to the illusion that they believe in us.

It’s like drug addiction: when we’re high, we have a ton of energy. We can’t shut up. But we also can’t focus, and we lose our boundaries. So we interrupt, we ignore, we brag, we posture. But we never make a genuine connection with another human being, because that would require us to be completely present. To begin with, we’d have to stop taking drugs.

The drug I’m talking about is not cocaine or heroin. It’s our cell phone. It’s the only companion we really need. What else is really always by our side? What else can we not live without? What else always makes us feel important — “I have to take this call” — ? What else allows us to interact with another person without real personal involvement, without risk, and still call them our “friend”?

One can foresee a future in which we will not need real friends. Instead, we’ll have robots that do everything with — and for — us. They will never argue with us. They will rely on us completely. Oh. Wait a minute. Isn’t that a dog? Well, these new dogs will not make us follow them around with a plastic bag around our left hand. In this new reality, we won’t need human beings any more. And nobody else will need us.

This answers the question: if we were stranded on a desert island, and had to decide between having a smart phone with a permanent battery and a clean internet connection *or* a human companion that we had never met (and whose behavior we could not predict), which would we choose?

The problem is: what will this do to the quality of life on planet Earth?

When I was a teenager, I took a 1500-mile bike ride. I was seriously ill the whole way back. My best friend said he would meet me downtown and ride home with me. I was supposed to get into town at 6 p.m. I was four hours late. This was in the days when you had to use a “phone booth” to call another person, so we had no way to reach each other. But that didn’t matter to my buddy. He wasn’t trying to “do” something or “go” someplace. He wasn’t in a rush. He had given his word that he would wait. At ten p.m., in the pitch black night, I pedaled up to him and shook his hand. I can still remember the sheer joy of seeing my best friend, of having him by my side, as I finished that trek. Once you’ve experienced that reality, anything less feels utterly false.

I won’t exchange my world for this new one. I am hiding out.

Hang on. My phone is ringing.

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