Slow Down, You’re Rocking the Boat

red shoes

The title of the song, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” from Guys and Dolls is a bit different but, with a slight change, fits today’s post. There is also, again, a eerie sense of synchronicity at work. A few days ago, I got a comment on one of my posts about the London riots that also had a link to a few articles and authors concerned with complexity. Out of curiosity, I looked up one of the names, Paul Cilliers, and discovered and downloaded a very interesting article entitled, "On the Importance of a Certain Slowness." Today as I was heading home from a couple of errands, the local public radio station started to air an old session of the Cambridge Forum. The speaker was Carl HonorĂ©, speaking about his book, In Praise of Slowness.

Honoré opened with a reference to Slow Foods and Slow Cities and slow sex, topics that I thought I had read about in Cilliers piece. Indeed, Cilliers had started his piece with these items. On closer examination, Cilliers had credited Honoré, but the timing was way off. With a little research, I found the broadcast was an re-airing of a talk in 2005, when the author was promoting his then new book. Weird coincidence.

It’s not synchronicity I want to discuss today, rather it’s the importance of slowness. Cilliers argues that, “A slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better.” Much of his excellent, readable paper is an explanation about why we have come to have a distorted view of time. I am more interested today in the consequences of those distortions.

Complex systems are often characterized by nested systems of processes each moving at its own speed, ranging over as much as several orders of magnitude from the slowest to the fastest. The interactions between these levels maintains the sustainability of the overall system to exhibit the same general structure over time as conditions change. (See Panarchy, Gunderson and Holling, eds, Chapter 3.) In their words,

The fast levels invent, experiment, and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful surviving experiences. The whole panarchy [nested set of adaptive cycles] is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combine learning with continuity. That defines the meaning of sustainable development. Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity. The phrase, sustainable development, is therefore not an oxymoron but represents a logical partnership.

This discussion uses the words “sustainable development” in a very different sense than does the Brundtland definition which implies continuing growth. Unbounded growth is impossible in the living systems that spawned the notion of panarchy. The text refers to other cultural systems in which include nested cycles. Large institutions have, in order of fast to slow processes, operational rules, collective choice rules, and constitutional rules; similarly economies have individual preferences, markets, and social institutions; societies have allocation mechanisms, norms, and myths; and knowledge systems have local knowledge, management practice, and worldview. In each case, the slow processes provide memory and act to conserve the overall structure. When we lose or degrade the slow processes, the system becomes unstable and more subject to gross alterations in its structure, which is equivalent to what we often call regime change.

A second important reason for retaining slowness in the way we act in the world comes out of one of Cilliers’ opening paragraphs.

There are a number of very important issues at stake in these examples, but in what follows, the focus will not be on these social movements as such, but on the underlying principles which make the debate on slowness an important one. Through an analysis of the temporal nature of complex systems, it will be shown that the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one. A slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better.

The last sentence, which I quoted above is key. Since complexity means that we cannot describe the system analytically nor can we predict its future states, the only way to guide the operation of the system is by some kind of pragmatic framework. We can start from a place where our theories, imperfect as they might be, lead us to, but once there we can only watch, learn, and adjust as we go. Slowness is inherent in watching and reflecting on what we experience. While this statement is true of big systems like the economy or global climate system, it is just as valid for each of our individual lives. Each one of us is a part of a complex system. Success in living is just another way of saying that we have effectively coped with the constant change that envelops us. Most of the coping we do is unconscious and transparent, but is guided by a constant reflection (feedback) on what has just happened. If life speeds by too fast, the ability to reflect, adjust, and learn cannot keep pace and the future our actions intended to create will struggle to come forth. The picture that comes to my mind is the dance scene in the movie, The Red Shoes, where the heroine steps into a pair of magic red dance slippers that whirl her through life, passing by every place she wanted to be.

There’s another reason to be conscious of slowness. Several of the 11 essential domains of care in the model of human ontology I build suggest that slowness will facilitate satisfaction. Idleness/leisure, an element in caring for oneself, is often used as a metaphor for slowness or repose. Practice in this domain is important in providing a break from the hurly burly of much of life to enable reflection. Learning/understanding, another domain, happens in one of the slower life processes. Modern technology has revved up the pace of acquiring information, but that is not the same as learning, quite the opposite. The faster we are bombarded with bytes, the less likely we are to learn much. Authenticity, action coming from the “self” rather than the voice of society, needs time to avoid the instant responses triggered by the incessant flux of incoming messages telling one what to do.

The erosion of security brought on by the political malaise in the US, the financial straits that so many have fallen into, or visible signs of inequality tends to turn up the velocity of the treadmill. Many try to run faster to reach the place they were or hoped to be, or outrace the impending disaster they sense. Technology almost compels us to go faster and faster. I have to confess that I recently bought a new iMac that is many times faster than the already fast machine I bought some years ago. At first I marveled at the instantaneous way it booted up and opened applications, but I quickly discovered that I was the slowest of the nested set of processes making up the complex system of my computer, office, printer, and me. All that new speed doesn’t really matter. My slowness in thinking and typing (I’m a two-finger typist) paces the work and produces whatever sense comes forth.

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