Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When things change quickly an appropriately speedy response may be warranted – especially in cases where delaying for too long may result in the opportunity to act being missed. The velocity with which alterations may potentially zoom by results in a situation where reactions come too late, and thus one is often forced to act in preemptive anticipation. Such is certainly the case when it comes to technological shifts where it can easily feel as if that against which we are reacting has already passed us by. This bears more than a passing similarity to stargazing – we try to pick out patterns in the sky but the points of light are actually unfathomable distances apart and millions of years old; by the time the light reaches us the actual star has moved on.
For several months activists, businesses, academics, journalists, Internet Service Providers, (ISPs) and many who fall into the too-vague heading of “Internet users” have been waiting for the unveiling of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) new rules that will potentially kill, revitalize, or significantly hobble that which goes by the name of Net Neutrality. It is quite possible that in the weeks or months ahead the Internet will undergo something of a transformation into a tiered system wherein the sites/companies that are able to pay will see their money provide them access to a high-speed lane whilst those with shallow pockets will be left to putter along in idling traffic. In preemptive response to the new FCC rules an assortment of activist groups are calling for a day of action on September 10th (2014) for an “Internet Slowdown” to demonstrate the negative impact that the death of Net Neutrality will have for much of the online world. After all, the kneecapping of Net Neutrality would undermine one of the longstanding utopian tales about the Internet – that the Net provides a vast digital frontier where hierarchies have been flattened so as to permit even ground for all comers. Thanks to the principle of Net Neutrality the website for a small community’s library loads as fast as Amazon, a local online radio station loads as fast as CNN, and upstarts that would challenge the supremacy of Facebook or Google will have their sites load at a competitive speed – this could all be about to change.
A scenario in which Net Neutrality goes the way of the pager does not seem to be one of which many Internet users would approve – and though many of the ISPs may be salivating at the thought of the money they will be able to pull in, there are many companies who also seem wary of seeing Net Neutrality altered (even if these stances largely serve propagandistic purposes). To put it simply: speed is important online, and steps that will alter the speed at which packets get delivered will have a lasting impact. And yet one can still be completely in favor of Net Neutrality, totally opposed to the creation of a tiered Internet (which is just a more polite way of saying a more corporate Internet or an oligarchic online) – but still recognize that perhaps there is something to be said for a general slowing down.
Perhaps it is our very love for speed that is part of the present problem.
Since the arrival of the Internet into the lives of most people the trajectory of its delivery has been – to put it simply – ever increasing speed. Faster, is the only acceptable rate of today’s speed in comparison to yesterday’s speed. The annoyance that greets an Internet user today when a site loads slowly is remarkable seeing as the slow speed that causes annoyance today would have been viewed as wonderfully quick ten-years ago. We have gone from the era of dial-up to a time when people simply assume that they will have access to high-speed wi-fi everywhere they go. From downloading music to refreshing headlines to streaming video to reloading a stream of tweets or news feed items – the expectation is that it will be fast, that it will be instant, that there will be no need to wait. To see that a stream is buffering or to be greeted with a loading icon is to experience frustration that swiftly turns into rage – we come to expect things to be fast and feel betrayed should they dare to occur at a speed which would still have been considered fast ten years ago.
This is not simply a matter of the Internet, for technological society – of which the Internet is merely a facet – knows only one speed: faster. It is under this guise that principles and catch phrases like “disruption” and “permissionless innovation” can best be understood, as they paint themselves as breaking through the slowness of older ways and delivering newer services (or the same services for that matter) faster. To claim that those who cannot adapt will be left behind is merely to suggest that adaptation means moving faster. From the always on smartphone to the “one-click” buy to the 140 character tweet or the crunching of language down into garbled abbreviations and emoticons – the focus is always upon quickness, condensing time and increasing speed. As the packets of information that are bounced around online strike us as ephemeral, it leads us to easily believe that they should zoom through the pipes at uncanny speeds, and we quickly grow disappointed with the rate at which they zoom along. Yesterday’s uncanny speed, is today’s granny speed. Our love for speed online gradually bleeds into a demand for speed offline as well – for anything that slows us down there must be an app – why wait to hail a cab, why take the extra two minutes to call in an order for food, why not condense dating into swiping left or swiping right – we come to expect the physical world to correspond to the speed of the online realm. It is against this speedy backdrop that Google and Amazon’s attempts to build delivery drones can best be understood – for what these drones offer is that what you buy can be delivered to you faster; regardless of whether or not a person truly needs the item that very day. The philosopher Paul Virilio, who has written extensively about the societal focus upon speed (dromology), describes the present situation in these words:
“The accumulation of time and tempo escapes us…Our societies have become arrhythmic. Or they only know one rhythm: constant acceleration. Until the crash and systemic failure.” (Virilio, 27)
Our world and society is rushing forward and we are unsatisfied with the speed – thinking that it is a shame that we are not going faster. As a result we find the debris of this constant movement accumulating behind us – mountains of discarded devices that still functioned fine, unreasonable demands on the eco-system for power wracking the planet, our own sped up and jostled bodies. What is planned obsolescence if not the result of speed? And there are certainly strategists who make and sell a whole range of products who are unsatisfied with the current rate of obsolescence – cannot this too be sped up? While we have all heard the canard about the financial value of time, our emphasis on speed sees us trying to condense ever more into the moments that we have – when everything is instantaneous we grow uncomfortable with having to wait (though luckily we can be instantly entertained by our various devices). The download must be faster, the stream must not be broken for buffering, the comment must get uploaded quicker, the news feed post must be put up before it becomes old news, the tweet must be fired off while the topic is still trending, if it can happen faster than to hell with our current slovenly pace.
When everything happens at such inhuman speeds we cannot keep up.
The activist movement organizing the Internet Slowdown to raise awareness about Net Neutrality is important and it raises very real questions and problems. After all, a tiered Internet will represent something of an enclosure to the commons-like way in which many people have come to consider the Internet. And yet, the slowdown raises another set of questions that are at once tangential and simultaneously much more important – namely: is our current speed really necessary? It is a question that is worth considering, especially when one considers the negative impacts that our lust for speed has upon the planet, upon other people, and upon ourselves. As a host of recent scientific studies and reports have stated, humanity is rushing towards the point at which climate change becomes irreversible and begins to make its wrath even more fully felt – what if we need to seriously slowdown our society if we want to have any opportunity to address these issues? There is a sort of coincidental humor that emerges here as the Internet Slowdown action comes just over a week before the National Climate March, which aims to raise awareness and galvanize world leaders to take action against the threat of climate change. Swift action is needed – certainly – but perhaps one of the swift acts that needs to be taken is to call for retracting our collective foot from the ignition. We quickly need to slowdown. In a supplementary comment to his work “On the Concept of History” the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote the following words:
“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.” (Benjamin, 402)
Anybody who has a passing knowledge of physics or experience riding on a train (or the subway) knows that when a lengthy train speeding along at a high velocity activates the “emergency brake” that the train does not actually come to an immediate stop. Its momentum carries it forward as it screeches to a halt. At a certain speed it may in fact be that the application of the emergency brake presents a very perilous act. Indeed, if the emergency brake is to be genuinely effective it helps for the train to be traveling at a sane speed to begin with, lest the passengers be thrown about in the braking or lest the train be unable to stop before colliding with whatever is in its path. When the societal emphasis is always upon speed there may be something quietly revolutionary about genuinely slowing down – not for the sake of a one-day act of protest over the prospect of being deprived of speed – but in order to indicate that the speed itself has become part of the problem.
It would be unfortunate for Net Neutrality to be wiped away and for some online content to be slowed down while corporate content is able to reach us even quicker. Yet it is equally unfortunate for us to delude ourselves into thinking that we must have so much speed. If you are traveling to fast it becomes difficult to truly hear those around you, to see what your velocity is doing to the world around you, or to see the obstacles that are on the path in front of you.
Activating the emergency brake can be very dangerous, and though it may be uncomfortable, slowing down presents a serious alternative. We are currently racing ahead along debris-strewn tracks that invite us to travel ever more quickly – even as the conductor tells us we need not worry despite mounting evidence to the contrary. But we keep flitting by switching junctures, and if we slowdown we may well have a chance to continue along a saner route.
Granted, to do so we may have to deal with slower streaming.
However, the buffering time is terrible for everybody amidst the twisted wreckage of a derailed train.
Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings – Volume 4, 1938-1940. Belknap Press – 2003.
Virilio, Paul. The Administration of Fear. semiotext(e) – 2012.
[Image Notes – the picture of the snail is by Jürgen Schoner and comes from Wikipedia, the replacement of the snail’s shell with a computer monitor was done by the Luddbrarian. The background image is of the Train wreck at Montparnasse Station (1895)]