The Speed of Sound

Several years ago, the college where I teach created an
electronic ‘quick mail’ system to reduce our use of paper and to
increase our efficiency. Electronic communication is now standard
in most organizations. The results, however, are mixed at best. The
most obvious is a large increase in the sheer volume of stuff
communicated, much of it utterly trivial.

I have also witnessed a manifest decline in the grammar,
literary style, and civility of communication. People are less
likely these days to stroll down the hall or across campus to
converse. Our conversations, thought patterns, and institutional
clockspeed are increasingly shaped to fit the imperatives of
technology. Not surprisingly, more and more people feel overloaded
by the demands of incessant ‘communication.’ But to say so publicly
is to run afoul of the technological fundamentalism that is now
dominant virtually everywhere.

By default and without much thought, it has been decided for us
that communication ought to be cheap, easy, and quick. Accordingly,
more and more of us are instantly wired to the global nervous
system with cell phones, beepers, pagers, fax machines, and e-mail.
Though this wiring is useful in real emergencies, the overall
result is to homogenize the important with the trivial, making
everything an emergency and making an already frenetic civilization
even more so. We are drowning in unassimilated information, most of
which fits no meaningful picture of the world. In our public
affairs and in our private lives we are increasingly muddleheaded
because we have mistaken volume and speed of information for
substance and clarity.

It is time to consider the possibility that–for the most
part–communication ought to be somewhat slower, more difficult, and
more expensive than it is now. Beyond some relatively low
threshold, the rapid movement of information works against the
emergence of knowledge, which requires time to mull things over, to
test results, to change perceptions and behavior. The clockspeed of
genuine wisdom, which requires the integration of many different
levels of knowledge, is slower still. Only over generations,
through a process of trial and error, can knowledge eventually
congeal into cultural wisdom about the art of living well within
the resources, assets, and limits of a place.

From EarthLight (Spring 2001).
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