Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dube
Phil Nixon
Mark Goldfarb
Robert Rotondo
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Emanuel Pordes
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Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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  Noam Chomsky
Robert Fisk
Pico Iyer
Mark Kingwell
Arundhati Roy
John Lavery
David Solway
Tariq Ali
Rochelle Gurstein



interviewed by Joe Gelonesi

Mark Kingwell is the author of six books, including In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac. He is also co-author of the best-selling photographic history entitled Canada: Our Century. His articles and reviews have appeared in many academic journals, and his writing on culture and politics in more than 40 mainstream publications, including Harper's and the New York Times. He is a contributing editor for Harper's, This Magazine, and Descant; and is an opinion-page columnist for the National Post.

Joe Gelonesi has worked as a broadcaster for twenty years. He is currently the Editor of Weekly Talks programs on ABC Radio National, in Sydney, Australia.

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Our lives are tumbling in a free-fall. Speed has become the spirit of the times. We are on a highway seemingly without a limit, with no highway patrol to tell us to slow down. Will we crash at the next hair-pin? Philosopher Mark Kingwell believes it is inevitable. New technologies, encouraging fractured multiple communications, are keeping us out of the path of our greatest fear - boredom. But if you think you can dodge the collision you've got another thing coming.


JOE GELONESI: Have you upgraded your 1000-megahertz notebook computer?

MARK KINGWELL: No I haven't actually. In fact it's sitting here right in front of me and it's become the bane of my existence. I'm just about to go on a long research trip and I've been struggling with the decision whether to buy a new laptop and get a little more speed in my life.

JOE GELONESI: That's unfortunate. I wanted to know whether it felt better - getting a computer that was faster.

MARK KINGWELL: Well I can answer the question because my desktop at work was upgraded last year and I think it's a very interesting thing about the speed of computers because it's emblematic of speed in general. It's a relative situation so that when one speeds up there is for a short time anyway a noticeable increase in the ones happiness, because things that formally were taking too long are now going at a better speed. That wears off very quickly though and I think we've become accustomed to the higher speed, that's the idea that I called 'velocitisation'. And so you only notice that speed then when it's gone. So for example when you have to come down in level of technology, whether you're using another machine of yours or somebody else's machine or something of that kind, that's like coming off the highway after you've been going at 140-kilometres for four or five hours.

JOE GELONESI: That's interesting. You link directly happiness to speed - that one becomes less happy when one realizes that their conditions are slower than they could be.

MARK KINGWELL: Yeah I think it's very much characteristic of the times. The ease of use and perceived achievement of efficiency is linked deeper to our sense of our own happiness. So if we set ourselves tasks we want those tasks to go as quickly as possible so that we can move onto the next one. It's also a matter of the very basic almost neuro-chemical reactions about stimulus and response. So we want the stimulus stream to be as broad-band as possible because as our brains become excited by the introduction of stimulant, we feel the lack of stimulus then as a loss.

Whereas we wouldn't have felt that in an earlier time probably, once you have been raised up in the level of ingestion of stimulus it's very hard to go back down.

JOE GELONESI: Yes this is the concept of velocitisation that you speak about. Why are we speeding now. Is it a consequence of over-communication, new technologies allowing multiple connections at a dizzying rate? Is that what it's about?

MARK KINGWELL: No I think in one sense we've always been speeding I think the human race has always been moving as fast as it can. I think that is characteristic of the 20th century is this deep curve that technological advance gets on to, I would say in the main because of socio-economic and political events like the world wars which have the noticeable effect of raising the technological level worldwide in really sharp ways. So we now have tools that allow us to do things to annihilate space and time - which is what speed is really all about- in much more powerful ways than were previously possible. So I think the craving for speed in this general philosophical sense that I'm talking about has always been with us humans. But I think what we now have are the tools and the means to satisfy that
craving, faster and faster.

Now of course I say it as though there is such a thing as genuine satisfaction. This is not clear to me because I think we have seen no real evidence to indicate that there's an upper limit to how much of this we're actually willing to tolerate.

JOE GELONESI: This idea that we've always wanted to annihilate space and time through speed - that it's just been a matter of time for the technology to catch up - that's an interesting thing to say, that somehow deeply planted inside us is this seed to speed along.

MARK KINGWELL: To go back to an earlier point, in a way it's a function of brain capacity which in expressed in human projects like the transportation of our bodies and our materials from place to place, or like the waging of war. If you look at the history of human civilization these are the places where speed has been prized most highly because the faster army is the more successful army on average. The faster manufacturer is the most successful one and so on. But I think it is more deeply rooted just than in those things, I think it's deeply rooted in the way we are made up, and that there is this capacity which gets fed and that stimulation really is a kind of, I don't know how to put it, it's a sort of deep well of our embodiment. So yes I do think that this is part of what it is to be a human.

JOE GELONESI: What about the consequences of this urge to be human - now that the mediating tools can get us to go faster and faster?

MARK KINGWELL: You ask the big question here which is the question of technology more generally. The speed that we've been talking about comes out of some kind of complex of human desire. What becomes difficult to understand sometimes and certainly difficult to control are the unforeseen circumstances. So take an example like
the jet airplane. Clearly the jet airplane allows us to do all kinds of things that are purely constructive and positive human experiences, moving ourselves from place to place around the globe, having experiences that were literally impossible to imagine to generations previously. Of course at the same time the jet airplane is used to bomb nations halfway around the world to have imperialistic adventures and intervention.

We don't really know when we start feeding a certain aspect of our complex desires how it's going to play out because we can't always predict the effect of technology. In fact we rarely can.

Computing power is a perfect example because the dominant forms of computing power in the world today which are in general use were not predictable. The PC which we have on our desk was not designed for a specific task, it's a kind of generalized operating system typically which we use in our different way. But we really don't know where that's pushing us. We only generally perceive as it goes along what kind of changes it's bringing upon our own sense of self.

So that to me really is the question of technology and it's the same question that was asked 50 or more years ago by Martin Heidegger but also a hundred years ago by other philosophers and go back further, two-thousand years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers. Anybody who's paying attention to the way human civilization works has to notice how technology changes us.

JOE GELONESI: You remind us that the Italian futurist Marinetti speaks of speed, finding its perfect politic in fascism. Is that because speed doesn't tolerate difference or complexity? It's a striving for a perfect form, for annihilation of time and space and difference I guess?

MARK KINGWELL: Certainly in the hands of somebody like Marinetti, and the other futurists, his futurist manifesto which was published in 1909 became a kind of rallying point for a tendency within modernity to annihilate anything that was ambiguous or rough-edged or soft in favor of the mechanistic aesthetic that was coming to the fore in the first part of the century.

So the clean lines of the racing car which was just at that time becoming a constituent of the new paved highways, the sleeker buildings, jet airplanes, all these things become part of that kind of modernist fantasy of strength and elegance. And again we have to see the double side of this, some of the most beautiful things this century has produced have come out of that aesthetic.

At the same time I think politically it did lead to fascism. It certainly did in Marinetti's mind but I think the idea itself is fascistic because as you say it does have a tendency to eliminate difference. It certainly has within itself a tendency to eliminate anything that doesn't conform, anything that doesn't lie along those straight clean lines is considered alien. And even the human body of course is a troubling fact from the point of view of the futurist. Marinetti liked to speak of the 'moralization' of the human body, the body becoming metal, and of course the body isn't metal so there's this kind of soft/hard conflict that is woven into that fantasy of speed triumph.

JOE GELONESI: You identify the twin conditions of lethargy and speed as central to modern life. The move to speed is paralyzing, or should I say the move to speed as perhaps trying to get away from the paralyzing fear of boredom. It's an interesting twin condition isn't it, that you've got this need to speed on one side and on the other side pure lethargy.

MARK KINGWELL: That's the thing that I've become most fascinated by I think when it comes to the question of speed because it shouldn't be the case. It's paradoxical that this is the case, and it's true in prosaic ways as well as in profound. One is never perhaps more bored than when one is moving 500-miles an hour in a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific aeroplane. That's probably where most of us are actually moving the fastest in our lives and yet there is something, sometimes hideously boring about those experiences. I quote the Canadian political theorist Arthur Croker who says the condition at the end of the century is we're speeding up to a standstill, and I think that's nicely put because I think what we have often is that feeling of boredom. And we try to combat that by going faster and faster only to discover that our boredom in a sense comes along with us. We can never really escape it, it's a shadow.

And in fact if you look at the history of some of these ideas going back again to the turn of the century the very same paradox was being noted then by people who were concerned about where we seem to be going in this increasingly desperate attempt to get away from ourselves. And I think that's really what boredom is. It's a sort of deep unhappiness or restlessness with the fact of one's own existence. Speed isn't the answer because it simply doesn't solve the problem but of course it's very difficult to see that when you're in the grips of boredom.

JOE GELONESI: Just to go back to the question of the technology, you mentioned in your writing the 'dead media project', Bruce Sterling's web page which is devoted to defunct media technology, like the teleharmonium or the stereopticon - what is this all about and what does it say about now?

MARK KINGWELL: It's a fascinating project that Bruce started some time ago. He just had the idea and a number of independent researchers have been pursuing this project for a number of years now and have made an exhaustive catalogue of all of these communications technologies that at one point existed or even were very popular and have simply disappeared from use, and they want to make a record of this so they don't disappear forever from memory.

I think it shows something about what I was just saying, this sense of restlessness. We're always looking to improve our technology, perhaps especially communication technology and we go through all kinds of contortions trying to find workable hardwares to make communication work. And some things succeed and some things fail. The reasons they do of course are very interesting. They're not necessarily superior technology, this is the first thing the 'dead media project' made it clear, many of the defunct technologies are in fact superior technically to the ones that beat them out. The classic example of that is VHS video tape versus beta video tape format - the beta format which has been completely eliminated from consumer use is superior technology to VHS, and yet that didn't matter because of market's power and reach and so on. So we learned a lot about how technology is embedded in economic facts of life by looking at this, but I think more deeply we learned about this relentlessness of our desire if I can put it that way.

JOE GELONESI: Where does slowness fit in now? Can we ever experience slowness again, are we trained to be dissatisfied with our toys so quickly and so often that slowness just cannot come back?

MARK KINGWELL: I wouldn't go so far, I do think that slowness is a discipline we have to learn anew. I think it's not in the spirit of the time, and so it requires a kind of training. And I think if you look at some of the cultural manifestation of dissatisfaction with the current culture, so I'm thinking of things like the so-called voluntary simplicity movement or the off-grid projects, people who are eliminating technology from their lives, people who are getting rid of television and radios and going on media fasts or engaging in what's called culture-jamming. All of these trends I think come back to a kind of point of resistance. People are trying to put the brakes on this fast world that they find themselves in.

And some of those projects will succeed and some of them won't. I think they're all rooted in a desire to slow things down, and that's how I see it. And I don't think it's a Luddite project as many of its critics would claim. I don't think it is doomed to failure. I think that thoughtful advocates of slowness would argue that it's something that needs to be added back into our experience. Why do we see celebrations of things like gardening or certain kinds of experimental holidays where we go to places that are far from the urban centers that most of us live in? I think we're trying to get to a more reflective space, and trying to open up some time in our lives which are so much ruled by making deadlines and carving up the available time. We don't want to miss it because we know that in a bigger sense time is short. So we're all beholden to that kind of speed, the speed of life as mortals and I think we have to pay attention to that, we have to follow that desire and not let some of these other things overtake us.

JOE GELONESI: Just finally Mark, is there something to be worried about? Are we in exciting intoxicating times of new technology and speed and multiple meanings or are we heading for a crash?

MARK KINGWELL: I think that the possibility of a crash is certainly very real. I don't like to be alarmist about it and I don't think that it's something that is ever going to be in the purview of government policy, I don't think that's what it's about. I think the crash if it comes is going to be within ourselves, We're going to lose something valuable about our own lives and what we are. And we can strap ourselves in as tight as we want and just press the accelerator down, and there's much to be said for that, I'm not anti-speed, there's a lot of excitement to be had that way. But I think we also have to make sure that we carve out some time where we're not doing that, where we're moving as slowly as possible and in a sense getting inside our boredom, we have to listen to our boredom and try to figure out what it's saying to us, listen to the things that it's teaching.

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