Thursday, May 01, 2008

Peak Speed


In 1996, Ivan Illich gave a speech called, "Speed, what Speed?" for the "Speed" Conference of the Netherlands Design-Institute, in which he pointed out that the concept of "speed" is a very recent idea.

Speed arrived in Europe with the locomotive and mechanized travel. Prior to that, humans traveled at an animal's pace, be they humans or horses, camels, donkeys, mules or oxen on land, or at by the strength and direction of the winds at sea. Speed was not a concern, since the pace the animal maintained varied considerably with the nature of the surface on which they traveled, weather, burden and length of time traveling. Sea travel was entirely dependent on the winds, sea conditions and weather.

With the advent of mechanized travel, speed became a factor, as locomotives and steam driven ships could travel without regard to the natural conditions of the place they were moving through. Passengers were less jostled about and arrived at their destination more rested, clean and in possession of greater amounts of baggage and freight.

Speed isolates human perception by annihilating space. Traveling by commercial airplane, one goes to a place identical to other places in other countries and continents, walks, briefly, through a metal tube to sit in another metal tube, while someone or something outside makes strange noises, changes the pictures on the windows and loses your luggage. Hardly anyone travels by ship anymore, other than to go to an expensive resort with a variety of entertainment spectacles, some of which are marginally on dry land. Even travel by private automobile has become a boring, meaningless exercise, as highways and support infrastructure are geared to speed the travelers on their way as quickly as possible, with as little connection to the local fauna as possible and with as little money remaining in their wallets as possible.

We've even noticed it, in the reverse, as we walk and bicycle around our own community. Bicycling allows me to observe the neighborhoods as I ride through, smell the flowers, feel the wind (and rain) and hear the sounds of birdies and humans. I sit upright on my bike, aware of my surroundings, fully involved with the place I'm riding through.

The difference between walking and biking is the same order of magnitude as the difference between biking and driving a car. When my wife and I walk, we are more involved with our surroundings that when I bicycle. The pace is slower, we can stop and smell the roses, listen to the birds, admire the clouds and sky. We don't have to watch for traffic (except at intersections) and we don't have mechanisms between us and the place where we walk (except shoes).

The other thing we've discovered is the perception of distance. When we walk, we discover that 2 miles, 3 miles, 4 miles passes by before we know it. We're engaged in conversation, involved in our surroundings, and POOF! We're there! Amazing. Riding in a car, the distances seems so much farther and the time to get there so much longer.

It's all about scale. When we pass beyond the bounds of human scale, our connection with our bioregion is mitigated such that we lose touch with all that is. Speed is not human, not animal, not natural. "Pace" is the organic equivalent, the varying rate of movement through our world. Speed denies pace, annihilates distance, substitutes an arbitrary measure of velocity for the experience of moving through the world.

The first step to Living in Place, is to stop moving around so fast.