The Speed Trap

Historian Stephen Kern, a professor at Northern Illinois University,
whose book The Culture of Time and Space (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1983) chronicled the soaring velocity of life between 1880 and
World War I, pointed out that new speeds have always brought out
alarmists. In the 1830s, he noted, it was feared that train passengers
would suffer crushed bones from traveling at speeds as high as 35 miles
an hour. Kern considers the current concern about the effects of our
speeded-up lives a similar form of hysteria. Technologies that promote
speed are essentially good, he said, adding that the historical record
is that humans have never, ever opted for slowness.

Hillis, who pioneered the conceptual design behind high-speed
super-computers, disagreed with Kern, warning that our obsession with
speed forces us to lose sight of the future and remain trapped in the
present. He recommended cultivating what he calls a new aesthetic of
slowness. To illustrate what that might look like he told a story about
how Oxford University recently replaced the gigantic oak beams in the
ceiling of one of its dining halls. When the beams began to show signs
of rotting, university officials were concerned that they wouldn't be
able to find lumber large and strong enough to replace them. But the
university's forester explained to them that, when the dining hall was
built 500 years ago, their predecessors had planted a grove of oak
tress so that the university could replace the beams when the time came.

In that spirit, Hillis is now at work with musician Brian Eno and
others on designing the world's slowest clock, which will chime just
once a millennium. He hopes that at a conference 3,000 years from now,
people will look back on our time and see this clock as a symbol of the
moment when they took responsibility for the future. When they stopped
believing in just now.

    – adapted from Jay Walljasper, Speed Trap

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