The speed craze

Speed has become a modern addiction. Fast cars, fast food, fast talk, fast bucks; subtlety suffers for the sake of speed. Not only small, but also slow is beautiful.
By Jay Griffiths
Take the cow. It can be hard to understand the deification of the cow in Indian villages. But pause. In westernized Delhi or Bombay, amid the fizzing pandemonium of the fast lane, watch the awesome cow in awesome slowness chew. Then you know.
Speed is something of a holy cow to modern westernized cultures. On the international foreign exchange markets, up to £200 million can be turned over in little more than a minute. News media can communicate events all but instantaneously. Computers can perform 307 gigaflops per second. Transport policies sacrifice any number of Sites of Special Interest to it, and Brands Hatch is a temple to it.
The attraction of speed is only partly the exhilaration of acceleration; much to do with competition, with overtaking. The thrill is not in going fast, but in going faster then the rest. Mark Marchant, professional racing driver at Brands Hatch, says: "Overtaking, you begin to feel invincible."
Overtaking is a cultural emblem. In global financial terms, the kick is not for a company to be wealthy, but to be wealthier than its competitors, streamlined, like a car, to overtake. Products, too, are designed to overtake, to supersede previous models, and to do so more and more quickly.
In the recording industry, 78 were in pole position for 61 years, LPs for 26 years, cassettes for seven, and CDs, so far, for three. Language, too is driven faster and faster, markets become supermarkets become hypermarkets. Words are pressed not to supersede but to hypersede themselves.
One consumer desire overtakes another. Consumerism's drug-like hallucinations of happiness rely on the fact that once needs are met, desires must be aggrandized.
Faster and faster rates of acquisition of unnecessary products and their faster disposal feed, first, manufacturing industry, then landfill sites.
Bulimia is indeed a disease of today: consumer society speedily scoffs food beyond need, speedily reaches for the laxatives, and speedily excretes.
In a socially competitive — overtaking — world, speed is an index to status. The poor travel more slowly; their time is considered less valuable. They are overtaken by the rich and powerful, who are not to be kept waiting; for them the faster cars, high-speed trains and plane shuttles. Oh, what transports of elites.
Besides competition, Mark Marchant articulates another attraction of speed control. "Being on the ragged edge of the limit of control is exciting. You're not far away from the ultimate of not being in control."
In racing terms, this is never truer than at the approach to corners. Is it chance that there is an acute cultural anxiety about a perceived lack of control at the next corner — the 21st century — approaching?
Speed-velocity is as hallucinatory as speed-amphetamine, and that is another part of its allure. It is only relative, but its siren call masquerades as an appeal to an absolute. Absolute instantaneousness, the white speed of thought or light, the Zen moment of inspiring, breathing in the breath of life.
But the danger of speed is in its black opposite, in the instant of expiring — the stock market crash, the racing crash, the computer crash, a culture speeding up to its expiry date, the darkness over the event horizon, the moment of death.
Both absolutes share the fascination of the almost unimaginable. The mind can barely hold the understanding for more than a split second, whether it be "seeing" a koan or imagining a black hole.
A cultural lust for speed mimics the excitement of inspiration, but in effect it is the morbid excitement of expiry, atrophy accelerated, final and fantastic, the Global Black Monday.
The foreign exchange market is a speed-conscious place, and talking to one dealing at HSBC Midland in London is like meeting Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit. Hyperalert, fast of speech, eyes darting and breath jerky, he is high on speed, but he takes no drugs; the job is drug enough. He follows 70 or 80 scrolling headline newsflashes per hour, monitors a constantly changing aural environment, can turn over £50 million in 2-3 minutes, and trade with twenty banks in less than 60 seconds.
He says he is "addicted to adrenalin," works "in hypermode", and admits "if you don't enjoy the rushes, you can't do the job." He is a man in love with speed. He describes his faults as speed-related: being easily frustrated by people, short-tempered and intolerant. His personal calls last, on average, 5 seconds. Are his friends intimidated by the speed he's going at? "Maybe, yes, but half the time I don't notice. I'm going too fast."
Personal relationships need to develop over time, with time, and speed destroys them, even while it provides a substitute.
Speed itself is the hallucinatory friend. Speed stimulates, speed stops you feeling bored or lonely. If you can do a ton up on the motorway while eating chocolate, who needs sex?
Speed bosses the White Rabbit and he bosses Alice, tetchy and intolerant. He has no friends, but he has his watch for company.
If speed destroys relationships with others, it can also destroy your harmonious relationship with yourself; travelling too fast gives you a sort of spiritual jet lag. Bruce Chatwin notes the white explorers in Africa forcing the pace of their African porters, who, within sight of their destination, sat and refused to move, waiting, they said, for their spirits to catch up with their bodies.
Travelling slowly offers more avenues, more choices, more possibilities for meandering or stopping at will. The faster the traveller the less autonomous they are, the more reliant they must be, for safety, on strict, exterior laws and directions of systems. Speed fosters passivity. Driving at speed, the individual is driven by roads.
Socially worrisome, individuals accustomed to being told what to do in one arena are more biddable and malleable in other walks — or drives — of life.
Gentle motion — the relaxed pace of the traditional street, for instance — is hurt by speed. Jean Chesneaux, author of Brave Modern World, writes: "The street as an art of life is disappearing in favour of traffic arteries. People drive through them on the way to somewhere else."
And John Whitelegg, director of Eco-Logica Ltd, an environment and transport consultancy, says: "English has no positive word for lingering on street."
His point applies to the social effect of transport, but can be taken further: in English, slowness in general is often treated with pity ("retarded"), derision ("sluggish"), or with suspicion ("loitering").
It is Latin which will yield the wisdom of slowness — festina lente (make haste slowly) — and it is Italian which will dignify it with largo (to be performed slowly and broadly) or offer the radiant serenity of dolce far niente (literally, sweet doing nothing).
Diction reveals "speed approval" in our cultural perceptions. Visual perception tells another story. At speed, perspectives are falsified. To speak to the driver, simple little commands of an emasculated language lie in elasticated letters on the road. Spun fast, colours bleed into each other.
At speed, foreground is slapped up flat onto foreground. Variations of rhythm and pace are lost, surprise is a hazard, oddness evened out. Subtlety suffers for the sake of speed.
Very like an apple. Chesneaux writes: "The range of cultivated plants has dramatically declined as a result of the race for grossly profitable varieties, for rapid growth.
In 1985, 71% of French apple production came from the Golden Delicious variety alone." This is the 20th century's "Golden Apple", the booby prize in our culture's race against nature, that clich in the language of fruit, that pappy apology for an apple. Atalanta eat your heart out.
In news media, speed must be a virtue. The press pressed ahead for so long in Fleet Street. But the increasing frequency of bulletins on radio, or CNN's rolling permanence, penalizes pride at its speed.
The concentration span shortens. Sound bites bite the hand of ideas which feeds them. These messengers of news, like the original marathon runner, take risks: not so much form drawing level with content — "the medium is the message" — but speed overtaking content — the marathon is the message.
The runner drops dead, the race run, but the message dying with him.
Speed adversely affects language; at speed you can afford no margins of irony, no space for play. Fast language is a faddy fashion victim, buying buzzwords, flavours of the month, overused, worn out and discarded.
Verbal speeding short-changes language. "Be brief," Would that it were as common to see "Be prolix. Be funny. Digress."
For the sake of efficient, streamlined transmission, you lose loose intuited allusive nuances. Speed insists on the clich, the verbal path well beaten, the motorway.
Language wants to take the scenic route, but freedom to roam is made trespassory offence and language is taken prisoner by speed, let out only occasionally on parole.
Skim-talking and skim-reading promote skim-thinking. Thoughts summoned at speed are likely to be not the best thoughts but simply the first, the habitual response, thoughts automatic as opposed to thoughts idiomatic, reflective or ruminative. (The root of which, of course, is "chewing the cud". Respect to that cow.)
The subtlety of place variation, too, is lost at speed. You could be anywhere if you're on a motorway. Speed blurs concepts of near and far, leading to what Whitelegg calls a "loss of place particularity" — the homogeneity of tourist spots.
Slowness, by contrast, the length of time taken to reach a place, operates a "time penalty, protecting place distinctiveness and culture".
Fast travel is a kind of visual consumerism, offering constant replacement of one view with ensuing, newly identical, views. Travel replicates the model of consumer desires; once first wishes are met, desires must be augmented.
As Whitelegg says: "People consume the benefit of speed by spending it on distance." Transport studies show that time saved in one journey is used to make additional journeys not previously considered. Mainly in cars.
But as Whitelegg points out: "The congestion, costs which motorists impose on others are not borne by car drivers."
According to Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, increased public transport investment isn't the answer.
"Emphasis should be put on walking and cycling. And if that leads to more limited travel," he goes on impishly, "so — fine."
The pollution caused for the sake of the car's speed is also not paid for by the driver. According to the Hillman imp, there is a way to get car drivers to take a taste of their own emissions:
"Cars manufacturers should be required to design vehicles where the exhaust pipe terminates within the vehicle."
But there is a "green" car. It runs on tap water and toasted tea cakes, and has an in-built gym. It is called a bicycle. "It is far more sophisticated and useful than anything NASA has ever done," Whitelegg sights.
In terms of energy consumption per metre versus body weight, he points out, self-propelled lemmings and passenger aircraft are the least efficient. A bod on a bike is the most efficient.
Car drivers get their benefits — speed and comfort — paid for by other road users in the coin of fear, injury, pollution and congestion.
Emotionally, fast drivers get the excitement of speed while their passengers feel the drawbacks; anxiety and powerlessness.
There is an analogy with westernized economic structures, where those in the financial driving seat get the reward of the system, while the dispossessed, without access to the controls, suffer the pain of job insecurity and poverty.
Signs are that many passengers are suffering speeding sickness, and these dizzy dissidents of speed are calling for the vehicle of society to slow down, most wisely and wittily in the road protest movement.
Environmentalists see our pace far outstripping nature's speed — we pollute far faster than nature can clean, and we plunder more than it can renew.
Nature is one victim of speed, and children are another — from traffic accidents to unnaturally speeded up life stages.
In Japan, education is compressed, a massive, metaphoric G-force, squeezing the childhood out of the child and provoking the highest child-suicide rate in the world.
Our far ancestors depended on a need for acceleration, in fight or flight. Our children's survival, by contrast, depends on our judicious, and speedy, use of the brakes.
The trouble is that the car is being driven by a 17-year-old, hooked on speed, seeing the world's resources as something to be used up before anyone else gets to them.
Fatuous adolescence gives us all a spin in its souped-up Ford Capri sooner or later but modern westernized society is characterized by unrelenting adolescence.
It is a culture ignorant of the past and viciously refusing to plan for the future, respecting not the old, cherishing not the young. Its exports are adolescent: fast cars, fast food, fast talk, fast bucks.
Fast in everything, puerile and premature, modern westernized cultures could never have produced the Kama Sutra, would never pause to consider the point of orgasm maintained for hours.
In contrast to the duration of love, and the love of duration, the West's great love affair is with adolescence.
Jejune in its desire for greed above need, speed above subtlety, it crashes up through the gears, cornering too fast, flinging grit in the eyes of the ancient cow, in ancient slowness chewing. In rumination still. — Resurgence (No. 174)