We need the artists

Carl Honoré, April 15th, 2021

In the 8th series of Rebalance talks, Carl Honoré, best-selling author and voice of the global Slow Movement, spoke about the values that underlie Slow and the potential for a shift in what he calls a ‘cultural taboo.’ He spoke about lessons we have learned from the pandemic, and the potential to reset certain aspects of society. He advocated for temporal autonomy and that we need to learn to respect the right speed, or tempo justo, in things like: the production of goods, daily activities, and transportation. Honoré ended the talk by speaking to the role technological innovation should have in the aging process, and the extent to which science has a role solving our worlds’ most pressing issues.

When asked to define Slow, Honoré explained that more than doing everything slower, his notion of Slow is a way of being. He said it is about being mindful, present, and favoring quality over quantity. It’s about moving and doing things in a way at the right speed or the “tempo justo.” He said, “It’s about doing one thing at a time which sounds very simple but actually is profoundly counter cultural in a world obsessed with multi-tasking,” and that, “it’s about doing everything as well as possible instead of as fast as possible.” So, why is this countercultural? Why does it seem to threaten people? What are the values that underlie slowness? To these questions, Honoré explained, “We live in a culture that is marinated in the idea that slow is bad.” He explained that rather than thinking dichotomously, we need to realize that both fast and slow can and should work together. He said, “we also must re-educate our minds and our bodies to wean ourselves off the addiction to stimulation, distraction, sexy, adrenaline, fast, speed, thrill stuff because ultimately that’s unsatisfying and it’s damaging. It’s not a long term proposition.” Speed all the time is simply not sustainable.

When asked about the Slow Movement’s presence in our society today, Honoré provided an example of the Audi R8 Sedan and it’s marketing slogan: “The slowest car we’ve ever built.” He explained that Audi was not speaking about the cars’ velocity, but rather that it was built without rushing or cutting corners. Essentially, more time was spent to make it well, to ensure quality over quantity, a core value of the Slow Movement. Here we see that Slow can be a mindset made of individual choices and actions, but also something happening on a broader scale, within the production of goods. It is here that we may see a direct opposition to our idea of modern day capitalism. Modern-day capitalism has a tendency to cut corners and focus more on  output, the “bottom line,” net values and consumption rather than quality. Everywhere from Fast Fashion to Fast Food, quantity and speed has long been favored over quality. Perhaps the Slow Movement can be a powerful force in changing this ideology and ‘rebalancing’ our modes of production.

Honoré went on to speak about Slow Cities and the movements’ current activity or presence within the broader world. He explained that to be considered a slow city, there can only be 50,000 people or less, which Honoré considers to be more like a town than a city, however, he believes important domino effects are happening in larger cities as a result of Slow Cities. For example, he explained that “megalopolises have adopted networks of public bicycles,” which, “creates more equilibrium…slows down the general tempo in the city.” He also pointed out that since the pandemic bike lanes have been placed all across european cities. According to the BBC, more than 1 billion euros has been spent on cycling-related infractustrue and 2,300 km of new bike lanes have been rolled out since the pandemic began.[1] This is perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic and as Honoré sees it, a permanent shift towards a different type of city. Once infrastructure is built, it is unlikely that it will be stripped away.

On the topic of cities and speed, the question was raised: what is the “right speed” or tempo justo for cities? Should vehicles be allowed or prohibited? He said:

…A neighborhood where they have removed cars altogether, there’s a kind of human flourishing that occurs, you hear children you see them playing in the street, people start forming more businesses, they get to know their neighbors better…what a city should be aspiring to, is to human blossoming, not to moving an Amazon package from A to B three and a half minutes faster… creating an environment where human beings can flourish and blossom and connect and create a community…I would be in favor of losing some of the speed and having more of humanity.

He went on to argue that sometimes we are fooled by the perception of gaining speed or solving problems. “There’s a false economy that goes on in cities…people are driving and they can drive faster, so you build more roads, what happens? You don’t get more speed you get more cars and then everything slows down and you get more traffic…” He said to tackle problems like these, London applied a congestion charge to reduce traffic. He noted, however, that before this was implemented, traffic made the average speed of a journey in London, “slower than it had been in the 19th century when people traveled by horse.” He concluded by arguing that, “Speed is often a false god, we think we’re going to deliver speed and efficiency through speed and transport in the urban world, but as soon as we bet on speed we so often lose. We get side-effects and unintended consequences.” He did indeed provide a speed he thought could be more palatable according to the human body stating that around 30 kilometers an hour (or 20 miles an hour). For Honoré this is a “less aggressive” speed at which to navigate a city.

Another key aspect of the Slow movement is what Honoré described as temporal autonomy; giving control of one’s time back to the individual. Honoré highlighted the Industrial Revolution as a defining time for when we traded our control over our time for money. He says that while this economic trade-off may have worked for some time, for some, what we really want is to have control over our time.

Temporal autonomy, however, is generally a good indication of one’s social class; those with more wealth generally have more control over their time. Therefore, the part of the slow movement that involves individual choice may be more difficult to achieve depending on one’s social class. Honoré accepted that perhaps in the beginning those with more power are the first to enjoy the fruits of temporal autonomy, however, he believes we need to “aspire to a world where everybody has much more control over their time, we want something that’s open, flat and democratic.” Therefore, for Honoré, while the Slow Movement may only be feasible and possible for certain sectors of society for now, he does not see this as the end goal of the Slow movement nor that it will stay that way. In Tim Creswell’s discussion of temporal autonomy and kinetic hierarchies, he explained that some people can only move slowly if others are moving quickly. Time will tell if it is possible for the whole world to choose a life more in line with the Slow Movement or if it will remain a possibility only for those who can afford it.

One example of a shift we see in temporal autonomy has been the rise in telework as a result of the pandemic. Honoré claimed that some people are much more productive at home because they have more control over their time. He explained that it is easier to adapt one’s work schedule to their personal ‘tempo justo,’ and also behaviors. He believes that for now mostly white-collar and freelance workers are experiencing this newfound temporal autonomy. He does, however, admit that we are still in the transition phase and that some people complain that they can never get away from work. In fact, he explained that Ireland recently passed a law about “the right to disconnect.”

The Slow Movement has also been criticized as being selfish, individualistic and perhaps self-interested. Honoré was asked how the Slow Movement positions itself within the self-care vs. care of others dichotomy, or individualism vs. collectivism. Honoré explained that Slow is the opposite of an individualistic movement. He said that while it may advocate for self-introspection, contemplation and personal growth, it is certainly not the main point of the movement. He stated, “That only gives you the strength and the roundness of character to go out and do what really matters for human beings which is to interact with others.” For Honoré, “Speed is isolation”, and “little balls of selfish consumption.” He concluded by reciting a famous African proverb: “If you wanna go fast go alone, if you wanna go far, go together.” Honoré was then asked how we should apply this type of thinking to the rollout of vaccines or when issues are more pressing and require speed. He explained that yes, we want the vaccines to rollout quickly but also well, and quoted Aristotle saying, “Deliberation should be slow but action should be fast.”

 On the topic of technology and science, the question was raised, to what extent will science save us from socio-political problems, aging, and climate change? He believes that we need to be careful with this proposition as important questions need to be asked in the innovation of new technologies. He explained that we need to ask, who is creating these algorithms? Why? What is the real effect of this product?

In respect to using technologies against the prospect of aging, he was adamant that death and thinking about death is a very important part of human life. He mentioned that in his research for his book on aging, entitled, Bolder, he found that many religions place a great importance on reflecting on death. He explained that an arrogance exists in STEM and Silicon valley that science and technology will save the world but adamantly stated that in fact, Silicon valley is, “creating many more problems, I would argue than its solving at the moment.” Alan Watts in his book, The Book, states a similar phenomenon in terms of technology stating:

In solving problems, technology creates new problems…the question is then whether technical progress actually ‘gets us anywhere’ in the sense of increasing the delight and happiness of life. There is certainly a sense of exhilaration or relief at the moment of change – at the first few uses of telephone, radio, television, jet aircraft, miracle drug, or calculating machine. But all too soon these new contrivances are taken for granted and we find ourselves oppressed with the new predicaments which they bring with them.

This view of technology and technological innovation may perhaps be more extreme than that of Honoré but allows for important questioning to enter into the discussion on where to focus attention and what world we want to create. Honoré further elaborated on the point that science alone will not save us, stating that “You could produce millions of vaccines but people will be too scared to take them…the science alone is not enough.” He concluded by stating, “We need the science of course we do, but we need the poets, we need the novelists, we need the artists, to help us tell the stories that will allow us to use the science wisely…science is going to deliver the goods on the concrete front, but in order to get there we need to tell ourselves the right stories, we need to inspire people, we need to move people, we need to bring people together and scientists in chemistry laborites won’t do that, poets will, sculptures will, painters will, playwrights will…We need them both.”

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54353914

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Carl Honoré is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning writer, broadcaster and voice of the global Slow Movement. His books have been published in 35 languages and landed on bestseller lists around the world. His two main-stage TED Talks have racked up millions of views.

Learn more about Carl Honoré

Watch the full interview below