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Living at the speed of light

OK, so you got me. Even light doesn’t really travel the speed of light except through the vacuum of space, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that information really does travel the speed of light, since it’s carried on light waves.

And with information traveling so fast, everything else in our lives seems to have sped up to keep up. When I was growing up, a TV dinner took 30 minutes in the oven to prepare. Not fast by today’s standards, but much quicker than a home-cooked meal made from scratch, and definitely no where near as tasty. Today, we have meals that go from your microwave to your mouth in less than two minutes, and often they are quite palatable. If that’s not fast enough, there are plenty of restaurants catering to the hurrying-up lifestyle, from fast food to “Hot & Ready” to “Car Side To-Go”.

Of course, with all this information flowing so fast, we need instant access to it. I can still remember research in the library. We used the Dewey-Decimal system to look up books in a card catalog. Now, we skip the trip to the library altogether. We use a search engine to locate electronic documents using our phone or tablet. If we’re good researchers, we’ll find articles and book chapters from a scholarly or peer-reviewed source, but many people trust the first resource they happen upon without bothering to check the credibility or currency of the source.

Because information is moving so quickly, there doesn’t seem to be enough of it to satisfy people, so even trivial information is consumed in mass quantities. Facebook posts and Twitter feeds recount the meaningless and the mundane, and Instagram becomes an electronic version of someone’s vacation slides.

Of course, the speed has advantages. January isn’t even over yet, and I have all my tax documents. Filing electronically is easy these days with more than one service offering free e-filing, and if I select automatic deposit, I could have my tax refund in a few weeks.

I’m teaching this semester in addition to the two classes I’m taking. I will not have to leave my home for either of these ventures, but I still have the option of meeting my students during our first week or holding office hours, and I see and speak with my instructors and the other students in my classes once a week. Modern online education is nothing short of a miracle.

Publishing has changed to. My daughter found a typo in my book. Fixing it cost me a half-day of potential sales as I pulled it off distribution long enough to submit my change, wait for my review copy to come back, approve it, and wait for it to go live again. Half a day, and the change was live. Zero cost to me. Even just a couple of years ago, a typo in a book would have been a very costly mistake.

I recently watched a TED talk by Carl Honoré about his book, In Praise of Slowness. Carl talked about how infectious this hurry-up lifestyle can be, until it begins to affect our relationships, our health, and even our happiness. Carl began to realize he had a problem when he started looking for ways to speed through his bedtime ritual with his son. Now he tours the world touting the benefits of slow living, something he measures his personal success with in terms of the time he spends with his son.

After my heart-attack eleven years ago, I stopped taking a lot of things for granted. I realized that no one is promised a tomorrow and that we never no what breath might be our last. Since then, I’ve tried to make every day count, and I’ve tried to remember to make sure the people I love know how much they mean to me. But just like everybody else, it’s easy for me to get sucked into this faster-than-light lifestyle. I get busy, and then I forget to slow down and take time for myself, my family, and the things that really matter.

Science Fiction used to predict that technology would one day free mankind from his labors so we could be more enlightened. We would have more time to read, appreciate and practice the arts, refine ourselves and be with the people that mean the most to us. Instead we’ve become slaves to the technology, working harder to serve it, always at its beck and call. It divides us from the ones we love, and becomes a facsimile to replace real relationships. It steals our leisure and fills our mind with useless information rather than enlightening us. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s master the tools. Let’s learn to put down the tablet and pick up our kids. Let’s try one night where instead of social networking, we take our significant other out on a real date, no phones allowed. Let’s turn off the television and interact over the dinner table instead. Let’s try picking up a book, not an eBook, and reading it to learn something new, or take the family to a museum or on a nature hike.

Try unplugging, even if it’s just for a little while, and slowing down to focus on yourself and your relationships. This new year, that’s my only resolution. I resolve to be a slower person.

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