On Slowing Down: Thoughts on the Diminished Returns of an Accelerated Culture

“The Slow Web would be more like a book, retaining many of the elements of the popular web, but unhurried, re-considered, additive. Research would no longer be restricted to rapid responders. Conclusions would be intentionally postponed until sufficiently noodled-with. Writers could budget sufficient dream-time before setting pixel to page. Fresh thinking would no longer have to happen in real-time.”Rebecca Blood: “The Slow Web, Plus The Modern Experience of Film-Watching

 

 

Over the past two centuries, humans have had a technological love affair with speed andefficiency. And while it’s true that we’ve always been heavily invested in our relationship with time, the consequences of living in an accelerated digital culture where the world very often appears to many to be stuck in fast forward are leading some to attempt to reclaim the word ’slow’ as a positive value. In an increasing world of ubiquitous ’fast’, the notion of slowing down, savoring experiences, holding thoughtful discussion, and enjoying richer, more nuanced modes of thought in order to be more creative and productive, is itself fast becoming a premium. If speed and efficiency are everywhere, ‘slow’ begins to enter the realm of being a luxury commodity.

 

Under the guise of multitasking, a fast-paced, dynamic, exciting but ultimately time-starved environment often makes the simple act oflistening much harder. Conventional advice towards better listening, as beautifully articulated recently by Ram Charon in The Harvard Business Review, suggests that simply being emotionally intelligent and available (what some refer to as being ‘in the room’) is often the solution. However, in a culture where shrinking attention spans, perpetual digital distractions and the white noise of media surround us at all times, this can often be a real challenge. As Charon accurately suggests, listening opens the door to truly connecting, and is in fact the gateway to building relationships and opportunities. In many ways, it’s the cornerstone of customer service, and in the DNA of the expectation for what a real estate professional does.

But in an accelerated culture, that listening process can be all but eroded very swiftly; often with the result that it’s much faster and appears to be more efficient if we move to make our decisions based on the information we already possess (essentially providing a higher level of customer service by acting more proactively). This is dangerous decision making as we often don’t have the information we really need when we do this. Listening has begun to feel too passive, like in many ways it’s the opposite of action. Slowing down and replaying the discussion can too often simply feel inefficient. Charon concludes that listening is a central competence for success, and that at its core, ‘listening is connecting’.

 

 

The embrace of many social platforms suffers from this same problem. The bullish stride towards early adoption has seen many casualties, especially within the field of real estate marketing, to the extent that mass confusion is perpetuated by ill-conceived tactical, tip-based approaches, and ultimately the never-ending questions surrounding the return on investmentof these platforms for business. The real estate industry’s embrace (or non-embrace) of Google+ is a wonderfully chaotic example of this in everyday practice.

 

“Technology created the problem. It’s time for technology to fix it. One thing’s for sure: Today’s communications, with its unlimited avenues and no traffic lights or stop signs, is broken. We need technological solutions that allow us to take our smartphones and computers off the hook, and not have anything waiting for us if we do.”

Nick Bilton: “‘Today’s Technologies Need An Off-The-Hook’ Option

 

Yet, as embraced as these social platforms continue to be, the act of truly listening remains a challenge for many online, to the extent that there’s an increasing sense ofisolation fueled by the synthetic sense of virtual connection. As Claude Fischer suggests, for as connected and social as we are, we’re still behind a screen, often alone. This has caused many digital psychological and societal analysts to question if social technology is in fact creating anepidemic of loneliness.

There are tens of thousands of articles online concerning the topic of digital reclusiveness, and what many of them conclude is that it’s not a particularly modern problem. For example, tracing the history of cultural loneliness, Fischer continues that Federal policy makers in the 1950′s were increasingly worried about the isolation of rural farm workers, and the rising suicide rate of immigrants separated by distance from their families. Indeed, quoting the historian Page Smith, Fischer even traces this back to the’cosmic loneliness’ experienced by the early Colonial Americans in being separated from the familiarity of their European culture. In many ways, Americans in particular have always worried about being alone, and while the data is rough around the edges at best, as social connectivity has risen, isolation is agreed upon to also be in decline.

 

A 2006 Duke University study performed two general social surveys on this topic, concluding that the percentage of Americans who felt that they had no one to confide in had tripled between 1985 and 2004 (a percentage rise of 8% to over 25%). The report’s findings, post-publication, were heavily questioned, notably by Fischer himself.  The discussion surrounding the nature of how true social bonds are created continues with some vigor today. Indeed, there might be fewer family dinners happening than 30 years ago, and we might be collectively entertaining fewer houseguests overall, but the idea of group eating and sociability has continued unchanged, it’s just happening outside of the house more as mobility increases, and more localized options become available to wider groups of people. This has interesting implications surrounding the nature of what we define as a “home,” and specifically the role of rooms within the home, with the kitchen often being replaced by the living room, or otherwise room with the television/entertainment center in it as the hearth of the family. Instead of gathering around the dinner table, we’re increasingly gathering around “America’s Got Talent.” If that’s not working, the digital retreat into the conversation that’s happening outside the room, either on our smartphones or tablets, is often a practical, familiar, and welcome alternative that we’re happy to accommodate as we bathe in the digital glow of our devices.

Many question, especially for business purposes, if we are capable of sustaining meaningful, intimate ties (for example with past clients or prospects) online, and Sherry Turkle has provided some wonderful commentary on the torturous self-doubt that results from online friendship. For example:

 

“We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier… We live in an accelerating contradiction; the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

Stephen Marche: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

 

However, the problem isn’t necessarily with the platforms themselves. Just as the telephone and cars were seen as the original “technologies of sociability,” there’s a documented (often assumptive) pattern that introverts go online to avoid seeing people, whereas extroverts go online to see people more often. So, it’s not Facebook or Twitter in particular, rather than the cultural and psychological changes they create. This echoes much of what writer Susan Cain explores in her wonderful book “Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” a beautifully articulated study on the power of introspection. The leading of a rich inner life, full of thought, reflection, and creativity is often frowned upon by modern business culture, which promotes the extrovert, the team player, the collaborator, the go-getter. Cain argues passionately that some of the most important work performed in the fields of science, technology, marketing and even entertainment, has come from those who have been extreme introverts. As Cain touches on, but doesn’t dwell upon, there is an increasing housing trend of more people not only living alone, but deliberately choosing to do so. Those who live alone continue to lead rich, fulfilled social lives, they just do it outside of the environment of the home.

 

 

The climate of accelerated digital culture fueled by increasing societal isolation, has led to the embryonic beginnings of what’s often referred to as the “Slow Web.” In many ways, the slow movement, across many different types of industries, originates with the slow food movement, in reaction to the all-consuming culture of fast food. Slow food defines itself by what it’s not, and was sparked in reaction to McDonalds opening a restaurant in the beautiful Piazza di Spagna in Rome.

In one of the most comprehensive pieces concerning the Slow Web online, Jack Cheng sets the discussion in terms of a comparison. Whereas fast food is unhealthy, consisting of low-grade ingredients that are high in sugar, salt and fat, which are devoured quickly and often in industrial-sized volume, slow food derives from the feeling we get from food. It’s about letting things marinate, home cooking, using aged ingredients, savoringthe moment of eating them, and enjoying them socially. It’s about living in the moment, and making that moment last for as long as it needs to.

Consequently, the Slow Web describes the feeling we get when we consume certain web-enabled things. For many websites, particularly those within the real estate industry, the idea of ‘feeling’ anything at all other than terror and an overwhelming dread of wading through thousands of search results is notably absent. Many online are using the ideas of nostalgia (Instagram), memory (Timehop), waiting (Draw Something) and updates (iDoneThis) to slow down the current experience of digital consumption into a form that’s more timely, and ultimately more enjoyable.

 

“What is the Fast Web? It’s the out of control web. The oh my god there’s so much stuff and I can’t possibly keep up web. It’s the spend two dozen times a day checking web. The in one end out the other web. The web designed to appeal to the basest of our intellectual palettes, the salt, sugar and fat of online content web. It’s the scale hard and Fast Web. The create a destination for billions of people web. The you have two hundred twenty six new updates web. Keep up or be lost. Click me. Like me. Tweet me. Share me. The Fast Web demands that you do things and do them now. The Fast Web is a cruel wonderland of shiny, shiny things.”

Jack Cheng: “The Slow Web

 

As Cheng suggests, the modern equivalent of the Fast Web, the cornerstone on which it is built, is real-time. So much so, that there are increasingly smaller gaps between experience and sharing. For many, a moment unshared is a moment that doesn’t truly happen in a meaningful way any more, and the response time of online customer service is often the deciding factor in a purchase decision. Cheng characterizes the differences between the Slow and Fast Webs as those between real-time and timely. The real-time web is chaotic, unstructured, and a firehose. The Slow Web is timely, and predicated on the idea that things happen when and as you need them to happen. It’s more about serendipity than search. More about discovery, than results.

A wonderful example of the Slow Web is of course, Instapaper, built on the simple and beautiful idea of the deferred web. It’s the “I really want to read this but don’t have time right now” web. It’s the “I will enjoy this on my schedule” web. Cheng describes this experience as ”an activity that would otherwise be impractical can now carry on in a manner more timely for each participant”. It’s not the “do this now” web so prevalent in much contemporary real estate journalism, which has no sense of rhythm – it’s inherently random and chaotic, unstructured and unthinking, and dangerously unmoderated in its advice to those working in a struggling economic climate.

 

 

Rhythm is an important productivity tool, as an expression of moderation, and one of the key culprits of unmoderated digital experiences are, of course, our inboxes. Many modern productivity tools are about standardizing interactions, whereby everyone gets a similar, but immediate response. This approach, as Cheng continues, is destination-based. It’s about the tools and how to use them quickly and most efficiently. The Slow Web is inherently interaction-based. It’s about how the recipient feels upon your note arriving in their inbox. It’s not about how quickly you responded, it’s about the quality of how you responded. Simply put, it’s the creation of memorable, meaningful, thoughtful digital experiences that deliver truly exceptional customer service. Getting a quick answer often means that you’re getting the wrong answer.

The Slow Web isn’t about homepages, search, inboxes and dashboards, it’s about the right information, in the right person’s hands, at the right time. Cheng uses the word “timeliness” in describing this, an accurate word for a world already filled with notifications. It’s the right updates, in the right place, delivered when you need them, not when they are created, and that’s an important difference in slowing the web down to make it more digestible for our customers in particular.

Cheng talks at length about the core ideas of the Slow Web being built upon effectiveness. The Fast Web is built upon page views, scaling and serving the needs and desires of advertisers. The Slow Web is built upon insight, knowledge and learning. Cheng advocates a strong strategy of effectiveness before growth, and using the ideas of content timeliness, rhythm and moderation to truly build trust and brand equity in the mind of the customer.

 

“Behavior change, not growth. Behavior change is about improving the lives of others, scale is about ego. Getting scale after nailing behavior change is easier than nailing behavior change (and thus having a shot at durability) after hitting scale.”

Jack Cheng: “The Slow Web

 

Cheng’s remarks will resonate well with anyone who is a regular reader of the tip-centric social platform advice given to real estate professionals. Ramping up a presence – getting content viewed, growing a footprint, and connecting at scale are items that recur frequently in the posts and articles that appear daily in our Twitter feeds. Almost all of them are diametrically opposed to the fundamental Slow Web ideology of improving other people’s lives, one of the core tenets of the real estate industry. So Cheng concludes ultimately with a discussion of value. The Slow Web unlocks value from deep within the past – it’s closer to how a researcher works with an archive of information. It’s a process that imparts unexpected connections, memorable experiences, and powerful emotional connections. Think about how much of this happens within the echo chamber of technology or real estate blogs that happen within 30 minutes of a press release or keynote presentation. We are right to demand more meat from our industry’s media outlets.

 

 

“We need a slow internet movement along the lines of slow food and slow cinema, if we’re really going to take advantage of the archival nature of the web. It’s not just about being first and fast and superficial; it’s an opportunity to consider a spectrum of arguments and evidence.”

Jim Emerson: “Cinema Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Different

 

Therefore, curating, collating and synthesizing the vast archive with what Rebecca Blood wonderfully terms “measured deliberation” allows us to return to ideas and revisit them in ways that the Fast Web simply forbids or refuses to facilitate. It affords us fresh perspective, and to shed light on otherwise overlooked connections. It allows us to perform a higher level of customer service, and separate ourselves from the competitive herd.

There’s strong evidence to suggest that the oxytocin-fueled Fast Web of perpetual notifications is taking a collective toll on our health, diets, work, communities, memories and relationships. It devalues the true meaning of friendship and undoes the real work necessary to build lasting connections. Many larger corporate organizations are now finding this to be a serious human resources issue, to the extent that IBMrecently launched a ‘slow email’ initiative internally in efforts to allow their staffers to slow down, be more productive, and genuinely thinkabout the business problems they were tasked with.

 ”Sure, you can turn off your smartphone when you want some alone time, but when it’s turned back on, like the grand finale of a fireworks show, the phone will boing, chime, trill, marimba, and vibrate erratically with text messages, voice mail, app notifications, e-mails, and a cannonade of messages from all the social networks you’re connected to.”

Nick Bilton: ‘Today’s Technologies Need An Off-The-Hook‘ Option

 

That dreaded feeling of returning from vacation to a full inbox, and spending the first few days endlessly wading through everything that needs to be responded to or followed-up on is something many of us have experienced. Indeed, there’s compelling neurological evidence to suggest that taking an e-mail vacation, or putting yourself on a Slow Web diet significantly reduces stress levels, as we no longer submit to the tyranny of the digital alert. As Nick Bilton speculates, the notion of technology beginning to address its own shortcomings might be something we’ll get to see a lot more of in the future. For as digitally connected as we’ve allowed ourselves to become, there’s an increasing need for an off switch, free of consequence.

This is a call to action for more of the Slow Web ideals to be used in the real estate industry, but don’t get confused. Responsiveness and the Fast Web are still important, and have their place in our business. It’s not about being lazy, it’s about doing the right things at the right time, and creating amazing experiences for your customers around that idea, for them. It’s about building wonderful, differentiated things that took time and investment, and thought, and energy over a long time to develop. It’s about the long-term equity of meaningful platform experiences. Pace and speed are critical. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about timeliness, rhythm and moderation. This is truly how to separate yourself from your competition, do it in a dynamic way, and allow yourself to have some fun at the same time.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

 

Nick Bilton: ’Disruptions: Life’s Too Short For So Much E-Mail’ (http://nyti.ms/NQyXgP)

Nick Bilton: ’Today’s Technologies Need An Off-The-Hook’ Option (http://nyti.ms/J6oxh0)

Rebecca Blood: ’The Slow Web And The Modern Experience Of Film-Watching’ (http://bit.ly/Lbf6O2)

Johan Brook: ’The Slow Web Movement’ (http://bit.ly/Lbf34y)

Susan Cain: ’Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking’ (http://amzn.to/j1XN1m)

Susan Cain: ’TED: The Power Of Introverts’ (http://youtu.be/c0KYU2j0TM4)

Ram Charan: ’The Discipline Of Listening’ (http://bit.ly/NnLah2)

Jack Cheng: ’The Slow Web’ (http://bit.ly/Ks6AcW)

CL Claridge (& Others): ’Downshifting As A Way Of Life’ (http://bit.ly/86Qk24)

CL Claridge (& Others): ’The Slow Movement: Making A Connection’ (http://bit.ly/ZGWPz)

William Deresiewicz: ’Solitude And Leadership’ (http://bit.ly/ps3jCZ)

Charles Duhigg: ’The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business’ (http://amzn.to/LbgnEO)

Jim Emerson: ’Cinema Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Different’ (http://bit.ly/bg2NhL)

Jim Emerson: ’It’s The End Of The Cinema, As We Know It (Then And Now)’ (http://bit.ly/Lbh5BG)

Michael Erard: ’A Short Manifesto On The Future Of Attention’ (http://bit.ly/19q4vP)

Malcolm Gladwell: ’Priced To Sell: Is Free The Future?’ (http://nyr.kr/3B2yA)

Jenifer Hanen: ’The Slow Web Movement’ (http://bit.ly/Lbfb44)

Carl Honore: ’In Praise Of Slowness’ (http://bit.ly/Mvzfb)

Carl Honore: ’In Praise Of Slowness: Challenging The Cult Of Speed’ (http://amzn.to/NeYmUu)

Steven Johnson: ’Where Good Ideas Come From’ (http://youtu.be/NugRZGDbPFU)

Daniel Kahneman: ’Thinking, Fast And Slow’ (http://amzn.to/LbgjVo)

Daniel Kahneman: ’The Riddle Of Experience Vs. Memory’ (http://youtu.be/XgRlrBl-7Yg)

Daniel Kahneman: ’Google Talks Presents Daniel Kahneman’ (http://youtu.be/CjVQJdIrDJ0)

Jonah Lehrer: ’Imagine: How Creativity Works’ (http://amzn.to/zWvX9P)

Stephen Marche: ’Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?’ (http://bit.ly/HNhYJV)

Brett & Kate McKay: ’The Autonomous Man In An Other-Directed World’ (http://bit.ly/MASLHX)

PBS: ’This Emotional Life: Stress And Anxiety’ (http://youtu.be/J7f1VnEBiFw)

Neil Postman: ’Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business’ (http://amzn.to/LbguQs)

Amanda Ryan: ’Left Brain Vs. Right Brain Shoppers’ (http://bit.ly/N3vmQS)

SlowWeb Tumblr: ’The Slow Web’ (http://bit.ly/42V4Kh)

Transport For London: ’Test Your Awareness: Do The Test’ (http://youtu.be/Ahg6qcgoay4)

University Of Southern California: ’Slowing Down In The Fast New World’ (http://youtu.be/1bIBgckgtbA)

Peter Whybrow: ’Fast Times For Our Brains’ (http://youtu.be/QyIrTSjl5Cg)

Philip Zimbardo: ’The Secret Powers Of Time’ (http://youtu.be/A3oIiH7BLmg)

 

One Response to “On Slowing Down: Thoughts on the Diminished Returns of an Accelerated Culture”

  1. Matthew: This just reminds of the difference I see between Headline News and Sunday morning news discussions. I rarely watch CNN, Foxnews, or local news on a daily basis. I figure, if it keeps till Sunday, then it is probably worth hearing a debate of the various sides of a given news story.

    I can absorb that then draw my own conclusions from there. Great job btw!

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