I hate to admit it, but despite spending years working around its edges, I've never read Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. I'm finally reading it, and it's great-- though it also reveals how challenging it is to talk about slowness and deliberation in an age that assume speed is an overriding virtue.
For one thing, while it's an entertaining and thoughtful book, I'm certain there are people who reject out of hand something with the word "slow." Someone who is smart is "a quick study" or a "fast learner;" deep thinkers are not described as slow. A slow computer is one you replace, not one you value. On the other hand, the term slow is one everyone understands, even if it has a greater depth than they first realize.
It's also really easy to confuse "slowness" as an external property, or slowness as leisure or lifestyle, with the kind of slowness that I think many readers of Honore's (and one day, the gods and Little Brown's marketing department willing, my) book will appreciate. "Slow" usually means slow pace: things that travel slowly, or take their time. The steam train puffing alonside a river is slow compared to a 747, the pace of life in small towns is slower-- by choice-- than in the big city.
But there's also the kind of slowness that reflects an ability to control your experience of time. As Honore puts it,
In the war against the cult of speed, the front line is inside our heads.... The brain can work wonders in high gear. But it will do so much more if given the chance to slow down from time to time....
The greatest thinkers in history certainly knew the value of shifting the mind in to low gear. Charles Darwin described himself as a "slow thinker." Albert Einstein was famous for spending ages staring into space in his office at Princeton....
Of course, Slow Thinking on its own is just indulgence without the rigors of Fast Thinking. We have to be able to seize, analyze and evaluate the ideas that surface from the subconscious-- and often we must do so quickly. Einstein appreciate the need to marry to the two modes of thought: "Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination."*
The first two are, in effect, things that you can consume or experience; the latter is one you have to cultivate yourself. (It's much like the term calm: it can mean several things.) In February I was at an event-- a salon, really (yes they still exist)-- on slow technology, and came away from the evening convinced that "'slowness' is a psychological thing, not a purely technical one:"
It's the kind of slowness that comes when you're so engaged in something you don't notice the time passing: you look up and four hours have passed, and it's surprising and blissful. The exercise of skill that challenges (but doesn't overwhelm), immersion of attention, time slowing… We've all seen this before. It's Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's definition of flow....
[L]ooking for slowness in the technologies themselves, or evaluating slow technologies on the basis of whether they're "really" slow or not compared to today's technologies or their contemporary competitors, misses the point. The slowness is experiential, and it's the simplest expression of a bigger set of phenomena that emerge when you're able to engage mindfully and skillfully with technologies. It's psychological, a product of your active use of a technology, not something the technology lets your consume.
Things like Slow Food and the Citta Slow movement can help create environments that may encourage that kind of slow thinking. If you want to be slow like Darwin, it helps to have a place that supports deliberation and thoughtfulness; but then comes the work of being slow, not just being around slow.
* Though information architect Ben Shoemate questions whether Einstein ever said that. I love the quote, but it sounds a little unlikely: Even though he was no stranger to digital computers-- the Institute for Advanced Study had one designed by John von Neumann-- I'm skeptical that by the time Einstein died in 1955 it would have done enough interesting stuff to suggest the kind of symbiotic relationship the quote describes.