The history and future of the Slow movement.
The hotel’s bartender was quiet for a moment. His eyes narrowed, and then he spoke his mind.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Hours earlier, my partner and I had escaped the traffic of lower Manhattan. With the help of multiple navigation apps, mine and hers, I steered our borrowed Jeep Wrangler toward our weekend getaway: a “mountain lodge” hotel in the Catskills.
We arrived shortly after sunset, exhausted. Stretching tired arms across the hotel’s mostly vacant bar, we ordered drinks and reminded ourselves of the trip’s purpose—to enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company; to ignore social media and the news for a few days; to relax and forget about work.
In that spirit, she reached into her bag and unveiled a thin, jet black block. She placed it on the bar’s maple wood surface, illuminated by a faux-vintage fixture.
“Remember this?” she asked
I did. She had ordered this humble chunk of plastic several weeks prior. At the time, she described its potential benefits with enthusiasm and some degree of hope.
It resembled a tiny monolith, straight out of 2001—no wider or longer than a credit card, with the thickness of a matchbox. This was a Light Phone, and it promised one thing: respite from the smartphone’s daily tyranny.
Funded through Kickstarter and created by two designers who met at a Google incubator, the Light Phone is the newest piece of “dumb tech,” capable only of dialing and receiving calls, using the same phone number associated with your primary device.
The Light Phone professes to be a secondary option, a barebones addition to the Westerner’s ever-growing device repertoire. “Leave your smartphone behind, and enjoy peace of mind,” the company’s website reads.
The Light Phone offers a turned-down-but-still-tuned-in alternative to the smartphone, intended for moments when one wishes to be free from texts, alerts, and social media but still accessible in case of emergency. Think the morning run, the grocery store visit, or the weekend hike.
What’s more, the Light Phone is visually attractive. It bears no screen, but instead features a light-up clock plus a compact number pad—and that’s all. The overall aesthetic is clean and sleek, and the branding suggests a California coast sensibility.
We must have been in awe of the plastic phone because the bartender, who sported a grizzly hipster beard and looked to be drinking for free, sauntered over and asked, “What’s that thing?”
We stammered through the pitch, reciting half-remembered lines from the company’s “About” page, which we had glossed weeks earlier.
“It’s a phone. Basically, you use the same number as your main phone, but this only does calls.”
“It’s for whenever you want to avoid distractions.”
“We’re always on our smartphones, you know?”
He eyed us once over, pointed down with a big-knuckled finger, and told us what he thought.
And, for the rest of the weekend, the Light Phone didn’t leave the bag. The smartphones joined us after all—through piney woods, up formations of weathered rock, and along storied cliffs where, nearly two hundred years ago, the first of the Hudson Valley painters gazed over green vistas and found inspiration.
The idea that modern life moves too swiftly—that there is something perverse about our obsession with time and idealization of all things fast—is hardly new. Frustrations around society’s accelerating pace bubbled during the time of the Enlightenment, when cities rose, economies grew, and modernity flowered.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example, spent his life revolting against the rat race undertaken by Europe’s urban aristocracy. He called cities “the abyss of the human species.” In the 18th Century’s second half, springing from these abyssal depths, the book market exploded in Europe’s cities. This rapid uptick of printed material actually distressed many French, German, and English readers, who complained about the abundance of books. They felt the earliest effects of information overload: too much to read and too little time.
But, Rousseau and weary book-buyers aside, few criticized the Enlightenment’s race toward progress. Among the elite, pocket watches ballooned in popularity, and days were divided into schedules and dictated by personal regimens. Time became money, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.
If the Enlightenment’s cultural and economic developments quickened life’s pace, then the Industrial Revolution’s outburst of technology shifted the world into overdrive entering the 19th Century. The factory, the steam engine, the telegraph, the railroad: each innovation underlined a culture enamored with speed, movement, expansion, and efficiency.
Counter-movements responded in turn. The Romantics and Transcendentalists alike called for a retreat to the associated realms of nature and soul. The growing tension between time and money, a precarious dynamic so readily exploited by factory owners, fueled the workers of the labor movement, whose chief concerns were always higher wages and reduced hours. A newly minted medical condition, “Neurasthenia,” or weakness of the nerves, drove city dwellers first to doctors’ offices and then to sanitariums, where they enjoyed water cures and bed rest as they withdrew from civilization’s endless march.
Things only sped up further in the 20th Century. Movies took notice, holding up a mirror to the new symbols of a new kind of dailiness. A few images stand out in cinematic memory: the rumbling train of 1927’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis; the inexorable, ticking clock that opens Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936); the ordered yet frenzied offices of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).
In their time, these classic films resisted the tendency toward hurry without aim. In our time, movie lovers worry that the formal DNA of cinema has changed, spawning image after hurried image with great speed but little substance. Look no further than the frantic cuts of a Michael Bay action flick for the worst form of offense.
In other 20th century arenas—in art and literature, music and media, business and war—responses varied. The Futurist Manifesto of 1909 heralded “the beauty of speed,” while the great Modernist writers—rule-breakers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—met the changing times with ambivalent experimentation.
In the 1950s and 60s, rock and roll music dared to play faster. Artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard riveted listeners with freewheeling songs about girls and sports cars. At the same time, folk revivalism quietly argued for a return to nature, community, and simple living. Among other resonances, Woodstock lingers in the public imagination as a fighting ground in the battle of slow versus fast, where the sheer length of a Hendrix jam embodied a form of protest.
All the same, these dogged resistances had little chance against the accelerating culture at large. In the business world, there was and remains no debate to be had: faster is better. Following the Second World War, the United States rapidly transformed from an industrial to a service economy. In the glossy days of post-war America, there would be a product for every need, a company for every market.
With the proliferation of increasingly complex systems and computer technologies, every facet of society quickened. Financialization paired with an exploding consumer economy transformed daily life.
A business traveler in 1985 could drive to the airport, pick up breakfast on the way, read a newspaper over the roar of the plane’s engines, sprint to catch another flight connection, and, finally, check-in at the hotel with enough time to make a few phone calls and send a fax.
Then, as now, such activity was utterly normal, commendable even. A few hundred years of escalation in all things had crystallized to form the modern world’s most cherished motto. More, faster.
But as the “more, faster” mentality took root, so too did the nagging thought—felt by many but expressed by few—that something wasn’t quite right. At the core of a faster world lay an unusual contradiction. People sped up when what they really wanted was to slow down. The daily grind of the 1980s business traveler illustrates the point: she rushes from meeting to meeting, spills coffee during her lunch hour, and, on the long drive home, sings along jubilantly to any number of pop songs that express the absurdity of her own “work-life” situation, including “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, “Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy, and “Manic Monday” by The Bangles.
Her experience, so familiar to us now, is the product of a long historical change, one that stretches back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, when individuals became workers in a modern sense. As time progressed ever faster, the old guiding concepts of God and Country eroded, replaced by an endless interval of work and leisure. The good life consisted almost exclusively in the latter interval, in those slices of time shared with friends and family—in the evenings, on the weekends, and during the most precious of all recesses, the vacation.
This wholesale division of life into periods of “work” and “relaxation” represented a drastic shift in the construction of individual identity in the West. In daily life, people no longer viewed themselves as sinful players in a grand cosmic test of piety. Nor did Americans or British or French peoples fundamentally envision themselves as American, British, or French. These categories certainly existed, but they came only after something more essential. First and foremost, self-image now derived from the nature of one’s labor. Answering the question—“What do you do for work?”—doubled as a response to who you were. And, depending on the hour, day, or season, you existed in a mode of either work or leisure, on the clock or off. These would become the two basic attunements of modern life.
And so a wide chasm opened at the heart of daily experience, a faint but palpable yearning for an alternative arrangement, in which the cycle from rushed work to fleeting moments of relaxation might finally cease.
By the end of the twentieth century, the groundwork had been laid for the rise of the Slow movement.
In the great hall of modernity’s critics, the Slow movement fashions out a temporal niche. Apparently, there’s a lot to dislike about a world marked by longer life spans, greater convenience, and relative peace. Naysayers have sprouted in every corner. Some take aim at stuff, decrying society’s rampant materialism. Others worry about the loss of community at the hands of an increasingly hyper individualism. Still others adopt a broad philosophical perspective, citing a loss of objective meaning under the weight of intellectual harbingers like Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. In nearly all critiques of modernity, an elegiac tone shines through, a double move of lamenting our directionless times in the light of simpler days while also projecting hopes for an uncertain and idealistic future.
The Slow movement stands apart with an emphasis on time itself. Something as mysterious as time might seem a tenuous foundation for provoking social change—an idea to which we’ll return. For now, recall Saint Augustine’s famous summation of the problem of time: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
Advocates of “Slow” don’t claim an answer to Augustine’s paradox; they aren’t metaphysicians.
They’re working people: doctors, journalists, laborers, designers, educators, and business persons who have taken notice of modern life’s unhealthy pace and the troubles it can cause.
For those of a more academic bent, it may be true that modernity’s time sickness is fundamentally related to the more familiar culprits of materialism, individualism, and meaninglessness. Surely these ills define and are defined by the culture’s perception of time. If “time is the fire in which we burn,” as an Elmore Schwartz poem tell us, then we would do well to remember that time’s fire is also contingent and subject to the winds of history. Time is so difficult to define because it’s a moving target, whether examined here or there, now or then.
But these are philosophical fodder. The Slow movement is united by practical concerns, the same sort of misgivings that drove us to the Catskills with a dinky Light Phone in tow.
The story of Slow begins in Europe. Founded in 1986 by the Italian writer Carlo Petrini, Slow Food grew out of his protest of the construction of a McDonald’s near Rome’s Spanish Steps. In opposition to globalized Big Macs, Petrini promoted local producers and advocated for the thoughtful preparation, marketization, and consumption of food. It’s a familiar rallying cry in the age of Whole Foods, but, at the time, Petrini struck a chord.
Since then, a broader movement has coalesced around the idea that—in all aspects of life—society might benefit from slowing down. In the world of fashion, advocates like Kate Fletcher condemn the hasty mass-production of shoddy clothes, favoring instead the work of artisans who use sustainable materials and pursue a higher level of quality. Proponents of Slow Fashion argue in favor of humane supply chains, suggesting that producers in the East and consumers in the West are too often linked by a furious system of supply-and-demand. A slower relationship would result in better (albeit more expensive) products and improved conditions for workers.
In the field of urban planning, architects and city designers—unhappy that their forms should follow the functions of a society addicted to speed—have also adopted the basic tenants of the Slow template: eco-friendly, well-made, locally conscious, and mindful of the here-and-now. Slow Architecture might sound like a joke to some. What building project isn’t slow? But the movement’s aims are more profound than lengthy construction times. Proponents of Slow Architecture and Slow Cities (the latter strand principally represented by the Italian organization Cittaslow) wish to transform our relationship to not only time but also space. Through thoughtful design, drivers and pedestrians might be forced to slow down; office workers might feel compelled to enjoy their lunch in the natural lighting of an atrium; children might play outside on a well-placed lawn rather than huddle under, over, and alongside screens.
I first learned of Slow while thumbing through magazines in a Soho bookstore. The title Delayed Gratification caught my eye, and, when I opened its thick-paper pages, I read about the organization’s mission. Slow Journalism: reporting the news on time scales of months rather than hours. A quarterly publication, each issue of Delayed Gratification includes stories and reportage on the most significant events of the previous three months. In opposition to the breakneck news cycles of talking heads and social media, the magazine takes a longer view of current events, allowing for a gestation period in which writers and editors can thoughtfully identify what’s noise and what’s important.
The idea appealed to me, as I’ve often felt the dizzying effects of information hunger. Like clockwork, I refresh my preferred strands of news (finance, culture, sports, and tech). Add in social media, and it becomes clear that a large portion of my life is spent in the buffering circle, anticipating a morsel (an image, a meme, a story) that I’ll enjoy and quickly forget.
With its emphasis on the proverbial big picture, the Slow Journalism of Delayed Gratification looks to be a much-needed riposte to the sound and the fury of today’s discourse. And yet I felt a pang of self-consciousness, standing there in front of the arty periodical rack—white, male, twenties, glasses.
In that moment, the Slow movement invoked within me what is now a familiar ambivalence. Countless social causes vie for our attention, each more vital than the next. The world bazaar of Problems-To-Fix is a crowded marketplace, and the Need for Slow joins a long number of issues that compete for attention on any given day. Others include: the call for various reforms (prison, healthcare, education, among others); the ongoing cultural debates over gun control, abortion rights, and identity politics; the many perils that threaten future generations, including ecological destruction, nuclear war, and mass automation.
If you’re like me, thinking about these problems is often an exercise in cognitive dissonance. At once, I care deeply and not much at all—at least not in the same manner that I worry about the well-being of my family, the prospects for my career, or even what’s for dinner. Each issue (however pressing) remains an abstraction, siloed within the mind and the culture at large, discussed and dealt with superficially and only when the time feels right.
In part, this siloing phenomena occurs because such issues threaten to alter who we are. The American identity has long been defined not only by its egoism (a persistent inward-turning enacted by liberals and conservatives alike), but also its solidity. To “be yourself” is considered virtuous. In doing so, you craft a path of personal progress from which any deviation is discouraged. Work hard, build a family, and to thine own self be true.
And so it is rare for American dreamers to undergo significant change, for fear of ridicule, embarrassment, or failure. We will vote in elections, donate money to charity, follow the twists and turns of the national conversation, and maybe even participate in the occasional weekend march. But mostly we remain the same: skeptical, self-involved, and overworked.
So, on the one hand, the Slow movement carries the same sort of baggage of countless other causes that I should care and do more about but ultimately don’t. Evaluation of any social movement typically begins with broad suspicion: how could things ever change? When examined from this wide angle, the challenge to slow down looks impossible. The late-capitalist machine has too much momentum. Employees need paychecks, and employers need more revenue in the coming quarter. Thus, true structural reform is forever deferred. In the absence of an alternative vision, cynicism takes hold.
Then again, Slow is actionable in a more immediate sense. Slowing down represents a low-risk change that I can perform within my daily experience. When viewed in this light, the Slow movement more closely resembles the flourishing sphere of self-improvement, à la fitness programs, low-carb diets, mindfulness practices, and lifehacks. These wellness-boosters fit quite nicely—thank you very much—within the story of me, along my personal trajectory upward.
So I may not be on the front lines of Slow. After learning about its various sub movements, I eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and engage in the same hasty habits. Generally speaking, I hustle onward. However, in recent weeks, I have been more attuned to my behavior. I’ve caught myself speed walking through Central Park, eating while getting dressed, and daydreaming about open blocks of time on tomorrow’s Google calendar. In each instance, I’ve recalled the core doctrine of Slow: it doesn’t have to be this way.
Of course, these are personal epiphanies, notes for the diary. Most people have never heard of Slow Food, Slow Journalism, or Slow Cities. It all sounds a bit granola, like something from up the country—a winning formula in Portland, Oregon but not in Shreveport, Louisiana, my hometown, where the problem of speed is certainly felt but with less intensity.
On the whole, the Slow movement’s political potential remains unclear, whether it amounts to politics from the heartland or from the coasts, from above or from below. It’s difficult to imagine a senator or CEO delivering a speech on the merits of Slow: “What we really need is to all slow down!” Likewise, if a Slow revolution is to be heralded by sign-carrying activists, then my money is on a different horse. It’s ultimately a hazy request in the abstract. Slow down for what?
Even if the Slow movement could stake out a coherent program, it may not wish to go the route of politicians, protests, and petitions. In today’s culture, it’s clear that individualism is king, and that, in an inversion of the old feminist slogan, the political is personal. Groups, parties, and organizations are all met with the same general skepticism. Long running surveys demonstrate a lack of confidence in virtually every American institution: news media, organized labor, big business, the healthcare industry, the education system, and, of course, government. A report from the Pew Research Center shows that, between 1958 and 2015, public trust in the federal government fell from about 73 to about 19 percent, an astonishing statistic. The more complicated a system, the more we doubt it. I, for one, certainly place greater confidence in my family, my friends, my ambitions, my causes, my possessions, and my activity—all tangible, all worth my time.
So it appears that the Slow movement is at an impasse.
Behind Door #1 lies the road to politics, the way of collective action: organize, work together, affect change. This is the traditional model, and it’s enjoyed some success. Look no further than the Civil Rights movement. And then consider how ludicrous that comparison seems, and how far we are from the optimism of the 1960s.
Behind Door #2 lies the individual, who alternates between work and leisure. He is never fully satisfied on the job. Away from work, he strives to be a better parent, a better friend, a better person. Of all things, his credit card bill may be the best window to his identity, which he considers precious. Perhaps the Slow Movement can reach him there; that’s how it reached me. I wanted to slow down, and so I bought a book, a magazine, a phone that’s barely a phone. This is the realm of lifestyle politics, and it harkens back to an age-old, chicken-and-egg question: is the mindset of a culture determined by its material conditions, or is the shape of a society molded by its spiritual desires?
A proper Marxist would say the former, that we are products, rather than creators, of the day. These no-nonsense types would scoff at awareness campaigns, social media solidarity, and the current moment’s Great Awokening. Window dressing, all of it. Individual action accomplishes very little. Change your leaders, not your lightbulbs, as it were. In order to effect change, we have to pull at the roots.
And in a sense, the Slow movement does pull at the roots. To invoke an overused but apt metaphor, Slow seeks to address an underlying disease rather than surface symptoms. It’s a seductive line of thought: perhaps our social ills will fade if we all decelerate together.
But it doesn’t seem to be happening. If anything, our shared world feels faster than ever. What, then, will reverse the tide? A cataclysmic event? An arm-in-arm protest? A change of heart, a conversion to the way of slow, one soul at a time?
The clock is ticking. How will the Slow movement break through?
If any one person can claim to represent the Slow movement, it’s Carl Honoré. His website tells us as much, featuring blurbs from ABC News (“The godfather of the Slow Movement”), the Globe and Mail (“The global guru on the Slow Movement”) and the Wall Street Journal (“An in-demand spokesman on slowness).
A Canadian writer, Honoré first chronicled the movement with journalistic interest before becoming its tireless apostle. His 2005 book In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed documents Slow’s food-focused, Italian origins and and its later manifestations in design, education, medicine, and other arenas of life (including “slow travel” and “slow sex”). It’s an enlightening read, offering miniature histories on mankind’s relationship to time and post-Industrial life as well as a series of investigative vignettes and a concluding pep talk on how readers might apply slow principles in their personal lives.
In writing the book, Honoré not only brought the Slow movement to light; he also helped to formalize what was previously a loose conglomeration of mostly local, mostly small-scale organizations. Certainly, there were impactful global groups—including Slow Food, Cittaslow, and the World Institute for Slowness—that preceded Honoré, but, much like Naomi Klein’s anti-brand classic No Logo, Honoré’s book defined the movement for the masses and gave new life to anti-speed crusaders.
By definition, a social movement requires organization, and, with the publication of In Praise of Slow, Honoré held up an umbrella for various slow-friendly groups to gather under. Suddenly, Slow was garnering press coverage from Newsweek, NPR, and CNN. The movement was on the map.
In a 2008 article from the New York Times entitled “The Slow Life Picks Up Speed,” Honoré described the quick rise of the Slow movement: “When I was researching the book [...] if you Googled slow movement, there wasn’t anything. As a growing cultural quake it just wasn’t there. Now, of course, there are hundreds of sites, and every week I get an e-mail from a student wanting to write his or her thesis on slow cities or slow design.”
Today, Honoré is a full-time acolyte for Slow, a dogged popularizer of the movement’s simple message. To that end, his website promotes a wide range of products and services. His books are prominently featured; Honoré has published two other slow-centric titles: The Slow Fix, a primer on slow-improvement, and Under Pressure, a guide to slow parenting. The site also advertises an online course on “the power of Slow” as well as booking opportunities for a number of topic-based talks, including “Slow Wins the Race”and “The Slow Revolution.” As a spokesman, his target isn’t the health food crowd; more often, it’s educational institutions, governmental organizations, and corporate clients.
Honoré’s stump speech is fairly consistent; it begins something like this:
“We have all forgotten how to unplug, how to switch off, how to disconnect. We have forgotten how to slow down. This is the world we live in now, a world stuck in fast forward, a world obsessed with speed.”
But there’s reason for optimism; the slow movement is growing:
“Wherever you look nowadays, the message is the same—that less is often more, and slow is often better—this culture quake, this slow revolution is rumbling through every aspect of our lives. There are movements now for slow design, slow architecture, slow travel, slow fashion, slow finance—it’s everywhere.”
Finally, Honoré always concludes with the same caveat:
“One final thought: when I talk about slow, I’m not talking about doing everything at a snail’s pace. I love speed, and speed is good. Slow, in this context, is about doing everything at the right speed, what musicians call the tempo giusto, the correct speed, the correct rhythm, the correct pace. Slow is about doing everything not as fast as possible, but as well as possible.”
Slow, slow, slow, slow, slow. It must be exhausting!
It’s clear that Honoré has fashioned a career out of slow. He’s become a slow guru, a slow coach. And, no doubt, he overstates the movement’s reach and its impact to date. As far as culture quakes go, it’s low on the Richter scale. Nearly twelve years have passed since the publication of Honoré’s first book. If the slow life is picking up speed, it isn’t easy to see. That’s not an indictment; going viral isn’t easy.
For the Slow gospel to reach more ears, it will need to be heard over the tumult of everything else. Then will come the baptismal rites, the fateful decision made by the hurried to surrender to a slower way of life. Finally, converts must stay true to the straight and narrow road of slow.
From the old religion comes the new language of marketing: promotion, conversion, retention. Honoré may deploy phrases like “slow revolution” and “slow movement”, but there’s very little political about his rhetoric. He appeals not on grand social terms but at the level of individual choice. He is a salesman for Slow.
This is the way of Door #2. The air is clearer, but there’s a scent of commercialization and vanity, as though a legitimate social problem has been dreamt away with self-help in installments: slow-ify your life! The rise of lifestyle politics, wherein the mysterious accumulation of individual decisions transforms society (or not), rightfully evokes mixed reactions. For some, Gandhi’s imploration to “be the change you want to see in the world” is enough. Then again, Gandhi never said those words; everything he accomplished was through political cooperation or political protest. The popular false attribution of the quote underlines with irony the deficiencies of lifestyle politics. The careful honing of lifestyle is ultimately a form of self-invention in which everything gathered (ideas, mantras, products, memberships) serves the master plan of me. In the process, perhaps the greater good is served, but it’s often difficult to notice much of a difference.
These are the facts on the ground. For most people living in the West today, the great out there is felt to be a realm of complicated systems, confusion, and doubt. Thus, the space of individual experience—the precious in here—has become paramount. Lifestyle politics is the logical result, foregrounding the principal political problem of our time: how to orchestrate positive social change when everyone is content to leave our economic arrangements, our systems, and our institutions exactly as they are precisely because we doubt them. Is it possible to achieve meaningful democratic action without politics? Can millions of relativists move together?
They can and they have, according to Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal. The election of Donald Trump is exhibit number one. Lilla counts this as a terrible defeat for the political left and calls for a return to a unifying, humanistic idea of citizenship, which still holds power for many Americans and might swing elections in a way that identity politics cannot. Lilla faults the new individualism of the 1960s—in which everyone “sticks it to the man” in his or her own unique fashion—as the basis of our current inertia.
Kurt Andersen makes a similar argument in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. He too positions the 1960s as a critical moment in the story of America’s ego-mania, a time in which romantic fantasy gained broad relevance and acceptance. Through the smoky haze, reality became what you made it.
Lilla and Anderson are only the most recent observers of the relativistic retreat, joining the ranks of Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism, 1979), Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2000), and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together, 2011). In the words of Buffalo Springfield, there’s something happening here.
What’s clear is that the new individualism has redefined how we must think about social change. This is the basic position of British documentarian Adam Curtis. His films, which include The Century of the Self, Bitter Lake, and HyperNormalisation, are wide-eyed examinations of a contemporary culture in the throes of a spiritual crisis. Curtis combines a pop sensibility (and a penchant for drawing interesting connections) with the societal temperature-taking and sober doomsaying of a Nietzsche or a Foucault, ultimately drawing the conclusion that modern individuals are stuck in a web of narcissism. Curtis further suggests that if people are to be awoken from their dogmatic slumbers, if they are to discover how to alter a broken and callous system, then it must occur within the media-laden, commodified, inter(net)-connected bubbles in which they live and breathe. The only way out is through—which leads us back to Carl Honoré and lifestyle politics.
Honoré sells a simple idea: when you slow down, life improves. He promotes this idea through a number of channels: books, online courses, speaking appearances (including an excellent Ted Talk), and social media. In a recent Instagram post, Honoré shares a photo of a white swan floating on a pond, captioned “Slow Sunday in Kensington Palace Gardens.” The sun is shining, and the water is still. Viewing the image, I wish I were there.
This, I suspect, is the way forward for Slow. My social media feeds are littered with healthy home cooked meals, post-workout reports (“Michael ran 3.5 miles”), and happy images of time spent with friends and family. There are no snarky comments, no heated debates accompanying these posts—only likes and well-wishes. Of course, there’s plenty to be said about the self-absorption inherent in social media over-sharing as well as the obvious (yet still deceptive) disjunction between the blissful image and the more banal reality.
But the truth remains that there is greater awareness around topics like nutrition and exercise. Fewer people smoke. Recent studies plainly show that, on the whole, Americans are eating healthier and exercising more. This isn’t especially surprising, given the individualistic landscape, but the emphasis on personal well-being does suggest a route along which the Slow movement might gain greater traction.
Most people wish to improve their lives. They want less stress and more peace of mind. Hence, the compelling success of the mindfulness movement, which is the closest analogue to Slow as well as a potential ally. But whereas mindfulness dwells in the realm of thought, the various iterations of Slow deliver calls-to-action that possess materiality and the possibility for greater real-world consequence. Meditation is a wonderful practice, but it doesn’t do much to alter consumer behavior. Slower approaches to food, design, architecture, travel, parenting, journalism, and education have the potential to make significant economic impacts, if enough people buy into the idea and if slowing down is presented as a salubrious choice.
Along the way, new norms might take hold, so that self-improvement leads to greater collective well-being. In this way, Honoré’s ideological message-spreading is the continuation of politics by other means. In other words, it’s a sort of trick. You slow down for your own sake, for your own sanity, but others benefit in turn. They encounter a calmer, more thoughtful person. They reciprocate such behavior. Perhaps, over many years, the idea that “less is often more, and slow is often better,” as Honoré puts it, continues to percolate through society. Perhaps slowing down becomes as virtuous as hard work, an idea instilled at an early age in school, a counterweight to moving too fast. Perhaps industries and institutions take notice, and meaningful reforms become possible once slow is not only normalized but also fashionable.
This is a hopeful scenario, but the mechanism should be clear: social change occurring not through the old politics of collective action, but through the new culture of individual expression. In order for things to change—to really change—people have to know that they want to slow down, which is especially difficult because it’s natural to ignore the problem altogether. Trumpeting the message is the work of Honoré and others. The movement must also avoid the politicization and perceived smugness that has saddled others coalitions, namely those associated with Green advocacy. Fortunately, in the case of Slow, Trump voters and Sanders supporters might actually agree: there’s nothing divisive about more vacation time.
In the end, for the Slow Movement to become a true “culture quake” may seem a lofty ambition. The idea of an en-masse deceleration rightfully invokes some pessimism of the intellect, but I would ultimately suggest that there is good reason for optimism of the will. A message that is easily communicated, easily shared, conducive to health and happiness, and (most importantly) non-political—while at once targeting a principal cause of our world-weariness—has true potential over the long run.
Of course, history itself is slow. These sorts of ideological shifts occur over generations. The Slow movement may have to wait for its moment. In the meantime, proponents of Slow might grow their ranks, refine their branding, and target the mainstream, unafraid to mimic and inhibit the consumerism that they implicitly resist.
Change may prove necessary sooner rather than later. Many mental-health experts now suggest signs of a coming crisis, spurred by our addiction to technology, isolating habits, and endless haste. Clinicians and researchers alike are reporting a dramatic and troubling increase in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has written convincingly about the detrimental effects of smartphones on teenager’s mental health, pointing to dramatic changes in long-gathered data around happiness and behavior. The research paints a clear and unsettling portrait. Here is Twenge’s summation of the data, as presented in her article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”:
The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web. You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
These findings are startling. The methodology of the study—cross-comparing happiness with screen time— cleverly teases out our paradoxical relationship to devices: they aren’t making us any happier, but still we tap, swipe, and stare, basking in the glow of clean efficiency, instant knowledge, and fast communication.
I shared Twenge’s article with my (much) younger sister, who is a sophomore in high school. Her first reaction was to point out an obvious irony: the piece had been read, shared, and discussed through the medium of a smartphone. It’s inescapable.
But my sister also admitted that she probably spends too much time on her phone; she doesn’t read as often as she should; she frequently feels distracted. We share these things in common. Ultimately, her grades are good, her friendships even better, and she’ll soon attend college. In a word, she’s fortunate. Not everyone is so lucky.
The final elephant in the room with respect to the Slow movement is the question of class and—to use a word now fraught with meaning—privilege. Those who work double shifts can’t afford to slow down, yet they are the ones most negatively affected by the culture’s “more, faster” credo. While others modify and customize their lifestyles, the true working class struggle just to make the rent. From this vantage point, perhaps lifestyle politics is merely a form of trickle-down ideology in which we cross our fingers and hope that the slow life will seep to the bottom of the barrel eventually.
Still, given the precipitous decline of organized labor, it’s difficult to imagine a more humane economy—a slower-yet-still-competitive economy—without a widespread transformation of attitudes. The unfortunate truth is that a slow revolution will not occur equally or at once, but rather through a gradual process largely driven by the global consumer class. We should be lucky if it occurs at all: those who can slow down should do so.
What’s certain is that there are no easy answers for a movement faced with such an imposing challenge. It’s a classic Catch-22 scenario: until we disengage with the fast life, change is impossible; until we change, disengaging is impossible.
That said, the slow life is always available, coming from within. Living in Manhattan, I have seen remarkable demonstrations of calm within the storm: monks counting steps in Union Square, cab drivers weathering verbal assaults, street musicians immune to the bustle around them, staying in tune with the rhythm of their song.
More often, though, I glance at strangers striding past on the sidewalk. They walk with a determined gait, headphones on, entirely enveloped in the material of their own lives. And so I do the same.
During the weekend Catskills hike—smartphone in pocket, Light Phone in bag—I came across a small, fist-sized bird, grey with bright yellow patches, perched in a spruce tree maybe ten feet above the trail. I admired the bird for a few seconds and then fumbled for my phone. Hours earlier, I’d downloaded a bird identification app: take a photograph, and the app provides information about that particular species.
In the anxious shuffle of entering my passcode, loading the program, and selecting the appropriate feature, the bird flew away. Naturally, I felt a bit ridiculous. But in the end, the bird—which, upon later research, turned out to be a Yellow-rumped Warbler—was just a bird. It didn’t much matter if it were a Yellow-rumped Warbler or an American Goldfinch or a White-throated Sparrow. All birds exist in the same manner: ego-less, culture-less, driven by mysterious forces shaped over millions of years.
There’s a beautiful scene in one of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, Encounters at the End of the World. The film is a portrait of Antarctica, a visual profile of the scientists and animals living there. Penguins feature prominently. At one point, Herzog and his crew capture a long shot of a single penguin, isolated from the others on the vast snowy plain. Inexplicably, the penguin sets off alone, marching into nothingness.
Herzog explains in the quintessential style of voiceover for which he’s so well known:
“[The penguin] would neither go toward the feeding grounds at the edge of the ice nor return to the colony. Shortly afterwards, we saw him heading straight toward the mountains some seventy kilometers away. Dr. Ainley explained that, even if he caught him and brought him to the colony, he would immediately head right back for the mountains. But why?”
It’s an unanswerable question. The penguin that plods to certain death inhabits a mental universe so unlike our own that it may as well constitute an alternate dimension. Antarctica shows us a world without identity, a world without stories.
This is also what it means to embrace Slow, to strip away at culture itself, to see the world as it really is.
It’s a potentially unsettling proposition. You stop to smell the roses only to realize that the roses do not look back.
 I know this memorable line as quoted in Star Trek, a Zeitgeist-obsessed show if ever there was one.
 The political right, much more so than the left, openly acknowledges our selfish tendencies and strategizes accordingly.