JOE GELONESI: Have you upgraded your 1000-megahertz
MARK KINGWELL: No I haven't actually. In fact it's sitting here
right in front of me and it's become the bane of my existence. I'm
just about to go on a long research trip and I've been struggling
with the decision whether to buy a new laptop and get a little more
speed in my life.
JOE GELONESI: That's unfortunate. I wanted to know whether it
felt better - getting a computer that was faster.
MARK KINGWELL: Well I can answer the question because my desktop
at work was upgraded last year and I think it's a very interesting
thing about the speed of computers because it's emblematic of speed
in general. It's a relative situation so that when one speeds up there
is for a short time anyway a noticeable increase in the ones happiness,
because things that formally were taking too long are now going at
a better speed. That wears off very quickly though and I think we've
become accustomed to the higher speed, that's the idea that I called
'velocitisation'. And so you only notice that speed then when it's
gone. So for example when you have to come down in level of technology,
whether you're using another machine of yours or somebody else's machine
or something of that kind, that's like coming off the highway after
you've been going at 140-kilometres for four or five hours.
JOE GELONESI: That's interesting. You link directly happiness
to speed - that one becomes less happy when one realizes that their
conditions are slower than they could be.
MARK KINGWELL: Yeah I think it's very much characteristic of
the times. The ease of use and perceived achievement of efficiency
is linked deeper to our sense of our own happiness. So if we set ourselves
tasks we want those tasks to go as quickly as possible so that we
can move onto the next one. It's also a matter of the very basic almost
neuro-chemical reactions about stimulus and response. So we want the
stimulus stream to be as broad-band as possible because as our brains
become excited by the introduction of stimulant, we feel the lack
of stimulus then as a loss.
Whereas we wouldn't have felt that in an earlier time probably,
once you have been raised up in the level of ingestion of stimulus
it's very hard to go back down.
JOE GELONESI: Yes this is the concept of velocitisation that
you speak about. Why are we speeding now. Is it a consequence of over-communication,
new technologies allowing multiple connections at a dizzying rate?
Is that what it's about?
MARK KINGWELL: No I think in one sense we've always been speeding
I think the human race has always been moving as fast as it can. I
think that is characteristic of the 20th century is this deep curve
that technological advance gets on to, I would say in the main because
of socio-economic and political events like the world wars which have
the noticeable effect of raising the technological level worldwide in
really sharp ways. So we now have tools that allow us to do things
to annihilate space and time - which is what speed is really all about-
in much more powerful ways than were previously possible. So I think
the craving for speed in this general philosophical sense that I'm
talking about has always been with us humans. But I think what we
now have are the tools and the means to satisfy that
craving, faster and faster.
Now of course I say it as though there is such a thing as genuine
satisfaction. This is not clear to me because I think we have seen
no real evidence to indicate that there's an upper limit to how much
of this we're actually willing to tolerate.
JOE GELONESI: This idea that we've always wanted to annihilate
space and time through speed - that it's just been a matter of time
for the technology to catch up - that's an interesting thing to say,
that somehow deeply planted inside us is this seed to speed along.
MARK KINGWELL: To go back to an earlier point, in a way it's
a function of brain capacity which in expressed in human projects
like the transportation of our bodies and our materials from place
to place, or like the waging of war. If you look at the history of
human civilization these are the places where speed has been prized
most highly because the faster army is the more successful army on
average. The faster manufacturer is the most successful one and so
on. But I think it is more deeply rooted just than in those things,
I think it's deeply rooted in the way we are made up, and that there
is this capacity which gets fed and that stimulation really is a kind
of, I don't know how to put it, it's a sort of deep well of our embodiment.
So yes I do think that this is part of what it is to be a human.
JOE GELONESI: What about the consequences of this urge to be
human - now that the mediating tools can get us to go faster and faster?
MARK KINGWELL: You ask the big question here which is the question
of technology more generally. The speed that we've been talking about
comes out of some kind of complex of human desire. What becomes difficult
to understand sometimes and certainly difficult to control are the
unforeseen circumstances. So take an example like
the jet airplane. Clearly the jet airplane allows us to do all kinds
of things that are purely constructive and positive human experiences,
moving ourselves from place to place around the globe, having experiences
that were literally impossible to imagine to generations previously.
Of course at the same time the jet airplane is used to bomb nations
halfway around the world to have imperialistic adventures and intervention.
We don't really know when we start feeding a certain aspect of
our complex desires how it's going to play out because we can't always
predict the effect of technology. In fact we rarely can.
Computing power is a perfect example because the dominant forms
of computing power in the world today which are in general use were
not predictable. The PC which we have on our desk was not designed
for a specific task, it's a kind of generalized operating system typically
which we use in our different way. But we really don't know where
that's pushing us. We only generally perceive as it goes along what
kind of changes it's bringing upon our own sense of self.
So that to me really is the question of technology and it's the
same question that was asked 50 or more years ago by Martin Heidegger
but also a hundred years ago by other philosophers and go back further,
two-thousand years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers. Anybody
who's paying attention to the way human civilization works has to
notice how technology changes us.
JOE GELONESI: You remind us that the Italian futurist Marinetti
speaks of speed, finding its perfect politic in fascism. Is that because
speed doesn't tolerate difference or complexity? It's a striving for
a perfect form, for annihilation of time and space and difference
MARK KINGWELL: Certainly in the hands of somebody like Marinetti,
and the other futurists, his futurist manifesto which was published
in 1909 became a kind of rallying point for a tendency within modernity
to annihilate anything that was ambiguous or rough-edged or soft in
favor of the mechanistic aesthetic that was coming to the fore in
the first part of the century.
So the clean lines of the racing car which was just at that time
becoming a constituent of the new paved highways, the sleeker buildings,
jet airplanes, all these things become part of that kind of modernist
fantasy of strength and elegance. And again we have to see the double
side of this, some of the most beautiful things this century has produced
have come out of that aesthetic.
At the same time I think politically it did lead to fascism.
It certainly did in Marinetti's mind but I think the idea itself is
fascistic because as you say it does have a tendency to eliminate
difference. It certainly has within itself a tendency to eliminate
anything that doesn't conform, anything that doesn't lie along those
straight clean lines is considered alien. And even the human body
of course is a troubling fact from the point of view of the futurist.
Marinetti liked to speak of the 'moralization' of the human body,
the body becoming metal, and of course the body isn't metal so there's
this kind of soft/hard conflict that is woven into that fantasy of
JOE GELONESI: You identify the twin conditions of lethargy and
speed as central to modern life. The move to speed is paralyzing,
or should I say the move to speed as perhaps trying to get away from
the paralyzing fear of boredom. It's an interesting twin condition
isn't it, that you've got this need to speed on one side and on the
other side pure lethargy.
MARK KINGWELL: That's the thing that I've become most fascinated
by I think when it comes to the question of speed because it shouldn't
be the case. It's paradoxical that this is the case, and it's true
in prosaic ways as well as in profound. One is never perhaps more
bored than when one is moving 500-miles an hour in a trans-Atlantic
or trans-Pacific aeroplane. That's probably where most of us are actually
moving the fastest in our lives and yet there is something, sometimes
hideously boring about those experiences. I quote the Canadian political
theorist Arthur Croker who says the condition at the end of the century
is we're speeding up to a standstill, and I think that's nicely put
because I think what we have often is that feeling of boredom. And
we try to combat that by going faster and faster only to discover
that our boredom in a sense comes along with us. We can never really
escape it, it's a shadow.
And in fact if you look at the history of some of these ideas
going back again to the turn of the century the very same paradox
was being noted then by people who were concerned about where we seem
to be going in this increasingly desperate attempt to get away from
ourselves. And I think that's really what boredom is. It's a sort
of deep unhappiness or restlessness with the fact of one's own existence.
Speed isn't the answer because it simply doesn't solve the problem
but of course it's very difficult to see that when you're in the grips
JOE GELONESI: Just to go back to the question of the technology,
you mentioned in your writing the 'dead media project', Bruce Sterling's
web page which is devoted to defunct media technology, like the teleharmonium
or the stereopticon - what is this all about and what does it say
MARK KINGWELL: It's a fascinating project that Bruce started
some time ago. He just had the idea and a number of independent researchers
have been pursuing this project for a number of years now and have
made an exhaustive catalogue of all of these communications technologies
that at one point existed or even were very popular and have simply
disappeared from use, and they want to make a record of this so they
don't disappear forever from memory.
I think it shows something about what I was just saying, this
sense of restlessness. We're always looking to improve our technology,
perhaps especially communication technology and we go through all
kinds of contortions trying to find workable hardwares to make communication
work. And some things succeed and some things fail. The reasons they
do of course are very interesting. They're not necessarily superior
technology, this is the first thing the 'dead media project' made
it clear, many of the defunct technologies are in fact superior technically
to the ones that beat them out. The classic example of that is VHS
video tape versus beta video tape format - the beta format which has
been completely eliminated from consumer use is superior technology
to VHS, and yet that didn't matter because of market's power and reach
and so on. So we learned a lot about how technology is embedded in
economic facts of life by looking at this, but I think more deeply
we learned about this relentlessness of our desire if I can put it
JOE GELONESI: Where does slowness fit in now? Can we ever experience
slowness again, are we trained to be dissatisfied with our toys so
quickly and so often that slowness just cannot come back?
MARK KINGWELL: I wouldn't go so far, I do think that slowness
is a discipline we have to learn anew. I think it's not in the spirit
of the time, and so it requires a kind of training. And I think if
you look at some of the cultural manifestation of dissatisfaction
with the current culture, so I'm thinking of things like the so-called
voluntary simplicity movement or the off-grid projects, people who
are eliminating technology from their lives, people who are getting
rid of television and radios and going on media fasts or engaging
in what's called culture-jamming. All of these trends I think come back to a kind of
point of resistance. People are trying to put the brakes on this fast
world that they find themselves in.
And some of those projects will succeed and some of them won't.
I think they're all rooted in a desire to slow things down, and that's
how I see it. And I don't think it's a Luddite project as many of
its critics would claim. I don't think it is doomed to failure. I
think that thoughtful advocates of slowness would argue that it's
something that needs to be added back into our experience. Why do
we see celebrations of things like gardening or certain kinds of experimental
holidays where we go to places that are far from the urban centers
that most of us live in? I think we're trying to get to a more reflective
space, and trying to open up some time in our lives which are so much
ruled by making deadlines and carving up the available time. We don't
want to miss it because we know that in a bigger sense time is short.
So we're all beholden to that kind of speed, the speed of life as
mortals and I think we have to pay attention to that, we have to follow
that desire and not let some of these other things overtake us.
JOE GELONESI: Just finally Mark, is there something to be worried
about? Are we in exciting intoxicating times of new technology and
speed and multiple meanings or are we heading for a crash?
MARK KINGWELL: I think that the possibility of a crash is certainly
very real. I don't like to be alarmist about it and I don't think
that it's something that is ever going to be in the purview of government
policy, I don't think that's what it's about. I think the crash if
it comes is going to be within ourselves, We're going to lose something
valuable about our own lives and what we are. And we can strap ourselves
in as tight as we want and just press the accelerator down, and there's
much to be said for that, I'm not anti-speed, there's a lot of excitement
to be had that way. But I think we also have to make sure that we
carve out some time where we're not doing that, where we're moving
as slowly as possible and in a sense getting inside our boredom, we
have to listen to our boredom and try to figure out what it's saying
to us, listen to the things that it's teaching.