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Slow Down and Think About It

Barely having had the patience to finish my undergraduate education before busting out to grab hold of my adult life, I’ve missed the exchange of ideas that is (even-higher?) education in general and the academic conference in particular. Through the years, friends have related to me their agonies and triumphs as they prepared, submitted, and delivered lectures in their subject areas among small groups of colleagues on campuses around the globe. In contrast, during this same era I was preparing 400 word recaps of CDs and concert events meant to briefly engage a broad general audience. The content, no matter its quality, generally hit the recycling bin within days. It’s a fate I wouldn’t try to argue was inappropriate.

I’m not quiet sure “Sex, Hope, and Rock n Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis,” an event I attended last Saturday, was quite your average academic conference of the sort I’ve come to know entirely through third-hand accounts, but it got me thinking. First of all, about the enduring work of Ellen Willis, of course, with whose writing I am sad to say I had only a passing familiarity beforehand. I could tell you more about what I was able to learn about her and the new anthology of her work that’s just been published (a recycling of a more productive sort), but there’s already a much deeper perspective to be found here, so I highly recommend you take in those thoughts instead.

In a broader sense, however, it provided me with a glimpse into a world where people are engaging with information on a different timescale than I do most days. It reflected a balance issue in my own life, or rather an imbalance regarding the information my brain processes every day. Something I had always suspected was true–that the volume of information I was constantly consuming in brief online snippets was eroding my deeper intellectual instincts–turned out not to be quite so, but shot up a warning as I left the conference hall. Friend, conference organizer, and all-round lady-with-the-big-ideas Daphne Carr caught up with me just outside, and I confessed that I loved the event but was more personally struck by the depth of the on-stage conversation among the panelists. If I was going to continue to grow and develop, I had to slow down already, at least some of the time, and make room to think more deeply, more critically. I didn’t feel dumb, exactly, but I did feel depleted and distracted. The instinct wasn’t dulled, but the well was a little dry.


  1. All together, I think the Internet has raised the level of journalism. The web can be many things. One can find in-depth articles, and occasionally intelligent, sustained discussion. It also provides a forum for deeply analytical voices we would not find in the mainstream media.

    Regarding “brief online snippets,” I worry about the long-terms effects Facebook might have now that it dominates the Internet. The format encourages superficiality. Wall posts are limited to about three sentences, and the little boxes underneath seem to encourage little more than wisecracks.

    For a more positive example, I have found that following the links on Wiki has allowed me to discover a lot of information I would never have otherwise found. Information is now interconnected in ways that open new worlds. (And I try to check the references to make sure I’m not reading nonsense.) Pandora Radio is similar because it introduces me to music I had never heard, and sometimes real treasures. Anyway, I hope you won’t be afraid to occasionally write more in-depth blogs. Let’s see what you have under the hood…

  2. Thanks for sharing. I see this issue popping up a lot these days. I assume there were warnings issued and worrisome trade-offs contemplated when radio and TV reached their saturation points in societies around the world. My take is that the evolution of communication technology mirrors our own evolution in a sense. We can’t seem to help developing tools that reduce friction and inefficiency in the way we communicate. Of course how we use that tech is another story. Not sure if radio was ever considered addictive, but given the lack of mass communication options at its introduction I’ll bet a few people were addicted to it. But content and hardware are different things. We all know about how shallow TV shows can rot your brain. But better content from TV as a device helped to broaden the tastes of entire countries. In fact, all of these technologies in spite of the negative effects from their abuse, helped expand our awareness of each other as human beings, and made the world more easy to navigate intellectually and physically. I think the web and mobile tech are doing the same for us today, taking us into yet another era of both awareness and complexity. So we must learn to use it intelligently. It’s still new. It’s addictive, shallow, deep, frightening, delightful, useful. Like anything this compelling, moderation is a best practice. And while deep thinking is often positioned as their direct opposite, I’m hoping both the web and mobile tech as tools will be incredibly useful in leveraging and enhancing our deep thinking, going forward.

    • This is very true. There was an article in the Times the other day (“Quality Time, Redefined“) that has stuck with me for a lot of the illustrations of the issue it brings up, but particularly this one:

      THEN again, this is not the first time that the appearance of home media has caused an outcry — perhaps needlessly, in hindsight.

      If you go back 200 years, there were similar complaints about technological devices, but it was books at that time,” Dr. Koepnick said. “The family room filled with different people reading books created a lot of concerns and anxiety, particularly regarding women, because all of a sudden they were on their own, their minds were drifting into areas that could no longer be controlled.”

  3. agree totally. for perspective, try a full day with no external info input… no web/tv/radio, not even newspapers, mags or books.

    the harder it is to do, the more you need it.

    and as for time: see the video “Slow Is the New Fast”:
    (watch in slo-mo-pause to catch the fast subtitles on perceptions)

  4. I’m with the too-much-of-this-technology-is-making-for-superficiality turn of mind. Attention spans, particularly in people under 25, is noticeably shorter these days for those who live in countries where the internet is rampant.

    Re Mike Suarez’ comments, there is also a tendency for people to believe that just because they are reading news from around the world, they understand the world and understand the people of the world. I go back and forth between two countries (USA and Spain) and find a huge difference between them. In (southern) Spain, people are not in such a rush, and they are much less inclined to spend so much time on the internet or in front of computer. In fact, many middle aged and older people I know don’t own a computer and don’t know how to use one. And they are culturally different from the Americans who we find blogging, who have their web sites up, who are generally technologically hip.

    Living slower as they do in southern Spain (although that’s changing as people try to become more “modern”) is a different experience. I’m sorry it’s so little enjoyed in the United States.

    What do I mean by “living slower?” Well, for a start, most places are closed from Saturday mid-day until Monday morning. And during the week, other than government offices (which open at 9am and close at 2pm) most businesses other than cafes, bars and restaurants close down from 2pm-5pm. You are supposed to go home, eat lunch, and have a siesta. I’m not kidding. In the hot months (6 months out of the year) it’s much, much too hot to work during those hours and it makes great sense. Then people come out onto the streets after the work-day closes (it closes round 9pm except for government workers), and (up until the economic crisis began) enjoy themselves.

    Am I trying to say that the Spanish way is better? No–they have their weak points, just as we do. But they do take more time to think about things and enjoy life. And we, in the US, do tend to live with sound bites, a very small number of purveyors of information, and a huge rush to go somewhere else.

  5. Molly – I read this post with great interest. I’m coming at things from the opposite direction. I’m a music academic, trying to take my message to a broader general audience. Professional conferences can be very rewarding, but also esoteric. I suppose it depends on whether the topic of any given session is of interest to me. But I also enjoy talking music with non-academic and “untrained” musicians, music fans, and those who consider themselves non-musical.

    Anyway, I really enjoy your posts and plan to visit more in the future.

    • Welcome, Bob! I hope you’ll share more of your thoughts and perspectives as you read along. I’m a musician and journalist, but definitely on the other side of that academic fence, so it would be great to compare notes.

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