How Soon is Now?

At risk of sounding curmudgeonly, the world is speeding up and I don’t like it.

Our human ancestors walked out of Africa, and eventually walked all over the entire planet. Or built boats and floated to the parts they couldn’t reach on foot. Granted, it wasn’t one continuous trip, it took millenia. But they were in no particular hurry. Those bipedal hominids’ feet were made for walking. And that’s just what they did. Today we express surprise when someone walks a 10K race for charity. Yet our earliest ancestors did nothing but walk. They had no alternative.

Over the past few centuries the pace of our movements, of our lives, has been steadily increasing. Humans have developed a psychotic and insatiable need for speed. From sail to steam to jet to rocket power, we have decreased the amount of time needed to get from point A to point B dramatically. And I recently saw a story about a new type of jet engine that could travel so fast that a person could theoretically reach any part of the planet in four hours’ time. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrendous jetlag that would ensue. But more importantly, why? Why should anyone be in such a hurry to get to someplace else?

When my grandparents were born the automobile was in its infancy. The Wright brothers made their first flight only ten years before my grandfather was born. But by the end of his life man had walked on the moon. In less than one lifetime we went from that first tenuous 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk to space exploration.

Often I crave a slowdown. A return to slower and simpler times. Rather than suffering the stale air and cramped conditions of a trans-Atlantic flight, I yearn for a cramped cabin on a boat blown by the trade winds. Trading prepackaged snack packs for hard tack and grog. Trading jetlag for seasickness. Rather than jumping in the car and racing 3 or 4 hours to somewhere for a weekend trip, I yearn for a 3 or 4 day horseback trip, or a slow clacking train trip.

Why are we in such a hurry all the time? Sometimes I find myself speeding on the drive to work. Why am I in such a rush to get to the office only to sit on my ass all day? How do we stop this madness? When will it end? When Star Trek fiction becomes reality and we can beam ourselves instantly to anyplace in the galaxy, when will we ever just sit still? Breakfast in Paris, brunch in Alpha Centari, lunch on Jupiter, dinner in San Francisco, five minutes of cryogenic sleep simulation; lather, rinse and repeat.

When my great-grandfather made his voyage from Le Havre to New York in 1895 it took over a month by steamship. By the time he died the trip took less than 4 hours by Concorde. Twenty years ago I could not have imagined the existence of an “internet.” And today the internet rules our lives. Pop culture has become ephemeral. Go offline for a week and you’ll miss hundreds of lolcat memes and YouTube sensations, but your life will be richer for this, I’ll wager.

Someday people who can beam themselves from New York to Paris in a nanosecond will look back and laugh at my quaint naivety when I expressed horror at the thought of traveling anywhere on the planet in under 4 hours. But truly, is life better because of all this speed? Or are we just filling our lives with more clutter, more noise?

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