Fast-Free Living

What Americans would do if they were serious about stopping to smell the flowers

--> s the American lifestyle slowing down, in a visceral response to national trauma and the onset of war? Judging from commentaries by cultural analysts and newspaper columnists, the answer is yes.

A Boston Globe editorial looked back on a hard year: "But it brought growth, too, and a deeper understanding of just how fragile life is, and how what we often take for granted—the kiss goodbye in the morning, the chat with a friend, the Saturday soccer game—is what matters most." An observation from The Washington Post: "People seem to walk more slowly. They are off their brisk, self-important stride ... Motorists are driving better. They lay off their horns. They don't jump lights." From The Dallas Morning News: "Americans are ... experiencing a sort of 'cocooning of the heart,' cultural experts say. They're using this time to reconnect with their families and friends." From The Oregonian: "Get ready to hunker down ... Something deep inside has shifted."

A new term has entered the language: "layoff lust," the sudden desire to be sent away with a severance package, providing time at last to search for meaning and cultivate the soul. The food columns of The New York Times have for months been devoted to home-cooked comfort food that requires hours of slow, therapeutic preparation. ("The food is not really the thing," one writer explained. "It's the making of it that gets you through a bad time.") The Contemporary Simplicity Movement, a collection of grassroots study groups devoted to new visions of the good life, seems to be experiencing a surge of interest.

So the verdict seems to be decisive. And the verdict, I would argue, is incorrect. A longer view and a soberer assessment come from the historian Stephen Kern, the author of The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, a study of the technology-induced revolution that forever altered notions of speed, distance, and the pace of social change. "The historical record is clear," Kern has stated. "The world has never opted to slow down."

During a period when Americans are supposed to be experiencing a "cocooning of the heart," one would expect to see, for example, a slump in the use of the Big Three prefixes: "mega," "hyper," and "power." Nothing of the kind has occurred. Articles have continued to cite the mega-farm, the mega-yacht, the mega-filibuster. They have pointed out the hypercapitalism of professional sports and discussed the emergence of the United States as the world's sole hyperpower. They have invoked the virtues of power yoga, power eating, power dating. The opposite of "hyper" is "hypo," and one might think that in a decelerating age its moment had finally arrived; but "hypo" is as scarce as ever. Nor has the idea of the Impotence Lunch taken hold.

If Americans really were beginning to slow down, the Contemporary Simplicity Movement would not be adding another meeting or two a month to our schedules. The antidote to a frenetic work life wouldn't be something called "power leisure." The attendant at Starbucks wouldn't give me a "tall" when I ask for a "small."

The celebration of the New Slowness may not reflect reality, but it surely does reflect some degree of yearning. Is there a role here for public policy? Social engineering, with its micro-management of everyday life, holds no appeal for a free people. Yet there may be a few bold steps we could take to get us on the path to fast-free living.

Backpacks. The task of slowing the country down must begin with efforts aimed at prevention. A tendency toward what the anthropologist David Harvey has called "space-time compression" begins early, as an inspection of any schoolchild's backpack will reveal. These encumbrances typically have a capacity of one and a half cubic feet and hold loads of forty pounds. The contents, unpacked and spread out like a GI's battle kit, represent hyperachievement in microcosm. A simple yet revolutionary reform would be to decree that the capacity of school backpacks be reduced by two thirds.

Drive-thru windows. The whole point of these amenities is, of course, speed, and without some sort of intervention drive-thru service will only get faster. According to The Futurist, McDonald's will soon introduce e-mail billing at some of its drive-thru facilities in southern California. Other chains are experimenting with an E-Z Pass system, similar to the one used for bridge and highway tolls; a transponder in the car would permit purchases to be deducted automatically from prepaid accounts. One brutally effective way to counter this trend would be to insist that drive-thru windows be staffed exclusively by former employees of Friendly's or Sears—institutions that have held the line when it comes to speedy service. If there are any such personnel left over, they could be used to man the twenty-four-hour help-lines at ATMs.

Time zones. America's current time-zone system, with four zones spread across the continent, is an unrelenting source of heat under the national pressure cooker. Many people in the West must get up early because the East has already started doing business. Many people in the East must work late because the West is still on the job. Deciding that the entire country should be on Central Time would mean adjustments on the fringes—Atlantic mornings would always be a little brighter than they used to be, and Pacific mornings would always be a little darker. But having the entire country work from the same clock would restore a sense of coherence and stability. It might also lure people back to the temporal "normality" of the rapidly depopulating heartland, where life is slower anyway.

Electric light. Another issue related to biorhythms is the seemingly inexorable drift toward a 24/7 economy. The rule of thumb is that if anything can be done twenty-four hours a day, it will be; day-care centers and dentists' offices are now open at midnight. Almost by definition, the maintenance of basic diurnal rhythms is essential to a humane way of life. Political arithmetic may forever doom a significant rise in the gasoline tax, but what about levying a ten-cents-a-watt tax on light bulbs? One happy consequence might be a shift back to daytime baseball.

Computer keyboards. Yes, computers have made many aspects of modern life more tolerable, enabling stupendous feats of calculation, storage, and management. But they are also an attractive nuisance, putting unimaginable amounts of sheer capability—to buy, to pry, to surf, to meddle—into the hands of people unaccustomed to its wise use. Shouldn't one have to cross some threshold of thought or resolve before exploiting such power? One way to raise the threshold would be to decide that every computer must have two separate keyboards—one with all the vowels and the other with all the consonants.

The measures outlined above would be a start. Should more impetus be needed, we could ban cup holders from cars, demand that breaking news be delivered only by mail, and add a ball and a strike to the standard at-bat. If Americans intend to take slowness seriously, they need to start picking up the pace.