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September 19, 2015

Fast, Faster, Fastest: Why the Rush?

Ralph Nader


Socrates and Plato were not in a hurry. Neither was Aristotle nor Heraclitus. They took
time to think deeply. As far back as twenty-four centuries ago, they offered insights
and observations about the human condition, character, and personality that are as
true today as they were then.

Fast forward to our fast-paced society. Many people think if they talk faster, people
will think they’re smarter. Talking fast is not talking smart. Evening TV news interviews
of individuals may average five or less seconds, called sound bites, while they
averaged about eighteen seconds in the nineteen-seventies. Standardized tests put a
premium on how fast you can answer the questions, putting an emphasis on speed
and memory rather than understanding. With standardized testing, deeper learning
never really had a chance. Marketers aim for your instant gratification when selling
you junk food and other impulse buys. “One-click ordering” has taken this system to a
completely new level. Smart traders surrender to computerized trading, speculating in
split seconds on the stock exchanges. I could give you ten reasons why this is a bad

You can now hear the evening news on National Public Radio in just three or so
minutes—an absurdity. There are radio segments called the “academic minute” and
the “corporate crime minute,” dedicated to shrinking attention spans.

To state the obvious, there are fast food outlets everywhere—so many that a modest
slow food movement is underway. Many hospitals have been known to admit women in
labor and discharge these new mothers less than twenty-four hours after they have
given birth – exhibiting a corporate form of “attention deficit disorder.” Advertisements
for drugs and other consumables end with warnings of adverse effects that are
described so swiftly that they are simply incomprehensible. A top sushi restaurant in
Tokyo charges by the minute, not the amount ordered—running you about $300 for a
thirty minute meal.

Ever count how many images flit by in an ordinary TV news show while it is being
narrated? Play it again – does the viewer even have a chance to absorb and mentally
react? TV advertisements are, of course, more emotionally charged this way.

Then there is Twitter with its limited 140 character tweets, the ping-pong exchanges of
text messaging scores of times throughout the day, and the constant immersion in
video games. Back in 1999, Barbara Ehrenreich, in her view of James Gleick’s book
“Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything,” pauses to ponder: “What we
lose, as ‘just about everything’ accelerates, is the chance to reflect, to analyze and,
ultimately, to come up with moral judgments.”

Not quite everything in our society, however, is speeding up. Rush hour speeds have
slowed to ten or fifteen miles per hour in many cities. Banks, in a computer age,
deliberately take days to clear checks, maybe hoping to penalize you with a $35
bounced check fee. Try getting through to a business or another institution on an
automated phone line. You may have to work through ten levels of “press one, press
two…” After choosing, you may only have the opportunity to leave a voicemail

As a society, it has taken far too long to implement proven policies that could address
and abolish poverty, including raising the minimum wage that has been long gutted by
inflation. As a society, we are too slowly expanding mass transit, confronting climate
change, converting to renewable energy, and improving the miles per gallon of our

Except for Medicare reimbursements, physicians know how long it takes for insurance
companies to pay up. Our companies and governments take a long time to clean up
their own pollution or respond to complaints from consumers and citizens. These
days, it’s looking like a contest of who can care less.

On the other hand, a bizarre, frantic emphasis has emerged to get the packages you
order delivered faster and faster. Amazon is following through on their wildest dreams
and even thinking about using drones to make deliveries. Likewise, Walmart is
gearing up to deliver to your homes and businesses as fast as they can. Pretty soon,
people won’t have to go to stores; they’ll just order everything online and never see
any other shoppers or have chance meetings with friends and neighbors. Let’s hear
the applause from those people who haven’t thought through these “improvements”
and the resulting destruction of communities.

Entertainment is a bubble waiting to burst. People do not have more than two eyes,
two ears, or twenty-four hours in a day. In the nineteen-fifties, there were three
national television networks. Now, there are hundreds of cable channels and over-the-
air TV stations, not to mention the avalanche of internet-based programs and
diversions. The pressure for ratings is starting to implode on its vendors. In an article
published on August 31, 2015 in the New York Times titled “Soul Searching in TV
Land,” reporter John Koblin, sums up the “malaise in TV these days,” namely, “there
is simply too much on television.” Too much is colliding with too fast and our
technological wonderland is fraying.

Hewlett Packard (HP) has just started an advertising campaign with the headline: “The
Future Belongs to the Fast.” The text includes this message: “HP believes that when
people, technology, and ideas all come together, business can move further, faster.”

By contrast, fifteen years ago, Bill Joy, the famous technology inventor/innovator
wrote an article titled “The Future Doesn’t Need Us,” citing the oncoming converging
technologies of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.

So which is it? Got a minute to think about it? Hurry! Oops, you’ve just lost 63
nanoseconds already trying to decide.