Welcome to Life Well Lived: an ongoing conversation around how we can use technology to improve our lives. In this edition, we join Foursquare's Chairman and co-founder Dennis Crowley in conversation with Carl Honoré, popular TED speaker and the author of the internationally best-selling book “ In Praise of Slow."
Illustration by Daiana Ruiz.
Everyday it happens. More and more demands. More to do. And the need to do it all faster. And faster. Best-selling author and Canadian journalist Carl Honoré has another proposal: slow down. In his books In Praise of Slowness, The Slow Fix, and Under Pressure, and in his monumentally popular TED Talk, Honoré advises on how we might be able to think deeply, remember more, even have better sex all by slowing down. Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley sat down with Honoré to find out if and how technology can be a part of the Slow Revolution.
Dennis Crowley: In your book, In Praise of Slowness, you write about the cult of speed and how it is affecting our everyday lives. I think we all struggle with how to contend with everywhere we need to be, and everything we need to do with a slower way of being.
Carl Honoré: It is pretty clear that this quick-fix culture today is not working. The problems we face today in the workplace are so much more complex than they've ever been before. Complexity very often requires us to unpack it, untangle it — to make sense of it requires a kind of slowness. Time to think deeply, to see the big picture, to connect the dots, to sit with uncertainty sometimes, not even knowing what's coming next. All of that stuff that goes out the window when we're looking for the finish line and the quick win. That's kind of the underlying thinking behind the book, [In Praise of Slowness]. The more I dug, the more it became obvious to me that the people who are actually tackling problems and making some kind of progress with them were people who understood the power of slow.
Crowley: For me, from a tech perspective, I think the problem is less about the speed at which we get things done, and more about the ability to multitask. You can do so much so quickly on your phones or on your laptop — you can jump between conversations and tasks so quickly that it enables this kind of constant state of multitasking. I think it was Linda Stone who called it a “continuous partial attention."
I see that as the biggest distraction: you're not present in the moment. Not because you're trying to get through this thing as quickly as possible, but because you're trying to do three things at once. It means that you're not doing any of those things as well as you could be doing.
Honoré: I couldn't agree more, actually. When I talk about this stuff, the lens is often slow speed and pacing — doing one thing at a time versus the tyranny of multitasking. And a big part of the whole slow revolution is about saying yes to the idea of unitasking.
Hewlett-Packard put out a report warning that the constant distraction causes our IQ to fall 10 points. Not many of us can afford 10 points in the modern workplace — that's double the effect of smoking marijuana.
We've swallowed the idea that seemed so gloriously modern: that to be always on, juggling five things at once, turns you into an uber-productive master of the universe. When in fact what it does is it turns you into Cheech and Chong, which isn't that useful in most modern workplaces.
I think a big part of it is discipline and baby steps, right? We all want to slow down, but we all want to slow down fast. And I think that doesn't really work. You have to find your own way of using any technology.
I think there's an intimate bond between slowness and memory, too. When things move too fast, everything is in a blur and nothing sticks. I definitely know in my own life that when I was running around like a headless chicken and juggling nine things at once, I felt like I didn't really remember anything. One of the benefits of putting on the breaks and monotasking instead of multitasking is that I feel like I remember a lot more than I used to.
We are moving so fast we struggle to remember things. The temptation to outsource memory to Google or to the web, maybe that means some of those memory muscles aren't getting as much exercise as they did before. But, I do think there are things that technology can help us do to prevent that.
Crowley: That's one reason we created Swarm — our life logging app. It deals with the memory issue you're describing.
I'm a big fan of the idea of augmented memory — helping jostle the parts of your memory that maybe aren't at the tip of your tongue. Maybe you can't remember an exact event or how long ago it was, or if your friend was there. I like the idea of technology being able to raise its hand and say, “I saw it. I know the answer to that. You won't have to guess. I know exactly the answer to that."
Honoré: Maybe I'm pie in the sky hoping for a perfect balance between the two. I do love travel, I'm sure you do as well. I was just in Malaga, Spain the other day. I just didn't take the phone out when I was walking around. I do this a lot — just wander around. There's always a little niggling thought in the back of my mind: maybe just around that corner that I'm not going to take is the perfect little tapas bar or jazz club or something.
But, there's another part of me that thinks maybe that's part of being a human being — you don't get to do everything, right? There's going to be something that you're just going to miss. That's not such a bad thing. And I think that maybe in the tech sector, it's maybe more of like a binary view of human experience. You've either got it, or you haven't.
Do you feel that there's more room in the way that tech app entrepreneurs think about bringing technology to the human life? That it needs to be more shades of gray somewhere in the middle?
Crowley: I think we're at a place where everything is known — Google's quest to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible. So, if you missed something, it's your own fault. The internet knows about it, you should have found it. Today the thinking is: if I'm going to spend my three days in Barcelona, I've got to hit every single thing there, and I've got to optimize. Downtime is for the weak — you should be scheduling every little minute of that to get the most out of it.
I've done vacations where everything is scheduled because you've researched everything. You leave very little room for serendipity. And then I've also done the opposite: take a week vacation, and not do anything. Just walk around. Those have always been more rewarding.
Honoré: I guess what we want is some kind of dance between those two. Will we ever get to a point where it's so personalized that the right balance between serendipity and getting it on a plate from Google is going to be different for you as for me? Algorithms tend to be blunt instruments. At least now they are, right?
I guess the bigger question is, in order to have that balance — let's call it fast and slow — do we have to hang on to or bring back old clunky technology or is there a way we can rewire, recalibrate the new stuff so that it gives us both the fast and the slow? I'm an optimist, a techno-optimist.
Crowley: I know I'm an optimist. But, do you think there is a way that tech could be a potential resource for slow thinking?
Carl: The obvious examples are these meditation apps, right? Through all kinds of different hacks, tweaks, and nudges and pushes and pulls people get into a place that you could describe as slow through breathing and unhooking and various things.
I think that's one example of how it could work. I was talking to a maker of one of those meditation apps called Buddhify. And I asked him: “Isn't there a kind of underlying paradox there? Isn't the ultimate endgame really to get people away from the phone?"
And he said, “You know what, for me it's a kind of middle-ground. We're in a world where people are so wired, their phones are over-used as a tool now. And the first step is to get them accustomed to slowing down, to thinking deeply, to being present. And then hopefully they're able to take that skill and move away from the screen and do it without it." I think in the interim those gadgets can be very useful for that kind of thing.
Technology can also be a tool for collaborative thinking. You could use Slack, for example, in a slow way. I've used it before, and I think it can be a place where an idea can sit, percolate, blossom. I do think that there are ways that you can use technology, absolutely.
Crowley: It's a big part of what we're doing at Foursquare. We're trying to make technology that enhances your experience of the real world and brings attention to it — and do it in a way that you're not scrolling through feeds all the time. We want to deliver you the right little nugget of content at just the right moment so it changes your experience of that place and makes you more aware of where you are.
I always think about the way I walk home from work. I live in New York and I walk 20 minutes every day to and from work. I can walk home on auto-pilot without thinking about anything, and sometimes I just put my headphones in and kind of tune out a little bit. But, what does a piece of technology look like that tells you to look up at a certain moment so you notice something that you wouldn't have seen? Or tell you: “Take a left here and walk down the street and notice something that didn't exist, or that you didn't notice before." It's attentive, but attentive in an environment that you might normally tune out.
Honoré: I'm delighted to hear you're working on that, because I think there's so much potential in that. And I like that word you used, the “nugget." Just dropping in that kind of key nugget at the right moment. That's where the magic is going to be: knowing how to deliver that nugget in a way that's not intrusive, overbearing, distracting. That's the key. I'm looking forward to seeing how you make that work. I'll follow you down that road.
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