"We live so fast ... there's no time to think." Who among us hasn't held the thought, at least for a fleeting moment?
We've been here before. The quote above comes from the American literary critic Irving Babbitt, who uttered those words in 1908. Babbitt's dizzying period of time-saving, pace-quickening inventions included assembly line production, electric washing machines, windshield wipers, hair dryers, and Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback's "Hookless No. 2," debuted in 1914 and soon famously known as the zipper.
Indeed, there was frustration with the tempo of things even earlier. "The art of letter-writing is dying out," lamented an American paper in 1870, "[as] we fire off a multitude of rapid short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper."
Letter-writing and the fate of real things figure in director Spike Jonze's new film, "Her." Employed by a company called "BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com," protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes lovely, heart-felt letters for those who don't have time. In a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, the lonely, alienated Theodore finds his heart's desire. He takes up with Samantha. The two fall in love, a matter slightly complicated by the fact that Samantha is a down-loaded "Operating System 1," an advanced version of iPhone's Siri. "Talk to Siri as if you were taking to a person," says the Apple owner's manual. That's what Theodore does with Samantha. She is a good measure more sophisticated than Siri.
Samantha devours fiction, composes music, and brings Theodore out of his shell with witty banter, companionship, loads of empathy, and hot sex. Samantha soon becomes seemingly more complex and interesting than Theodore. "I love the way you look at the world," he tells her. With an ear piece and small hand held device -- often tucked in Theodore's shirt pocket so Samantha can accompany him -- the two experience life together. They enjoy the beach, a picnic with friends, walks through the mall, chit chat during commutes, late night pillow talk.
In his brave new world, Theodore has found happiness. Or so he thinks.
If technology and the pace of things mean we have less time to think, we also have less time to see things clearly and gain proper perspective. I'm taken by Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts who requires her students to sit with a painting for three hours. Says Roberts:
"It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous--which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. But what students learn in a visceral way in this assignment is that in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive."
Perhaps we've all begun to experience a kind of collective agnosia. That's a condition, usually associated with brain injury or neurological illness, that entails the loss of the ability to recognise things. We still see everything, but we can't make sense or order out of what we're seeing. Theodore's thinks he knows Samantha and believes he's getting what he needs.
The psychologist and philosopher Rollo May once said, "Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it."
We won't slow technology down. But we can give ourselves the assignment to think, look at things carefully and contemplate as we proceed. That's what the Slow Science Academy in Berlin has in mind. In a manifesto published in 2010, "the accelerated science of the early 21st century" is applauded. The authors of the declaration insist, however, that science needs time to think, to read, to research deeply, and to fail. "We cannot continuously tell you," they continue, "what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don't know yet."
We all need time to absorb the opportunities as well as the peril of progress.
Again, it seems we've been here before. A century ago another Theodore -- this one, the American President Theodore Roosevelt -- was warning of an excessive faith in science and technology. Wrote Roosevelt at the time: "there is superstition in science quite as much as there is superstition in theology, and it is all the more dangerous because those suffering from it are profoundly convinced that they are freeing themselves from all superstition."
In "Her," Jonze's sensitive soul Theodore gets himself into trouble because he has faith that his O.S. can satisfy all his needs. This is until he discovers that his dear love Samantha is maintaining numerous other similar relationships. Eight thousand three hundred and sixteen to be precise. In 641 cases, Samantha admits to Theodore, she's even similarly "in love."
It all went so fast, poor Theodore had no time to think.