Doors of Perception 4   S P E E D   - S P E A K E R   T R A N S C R I P T -

Stephen Kern: The Culture of Speed

We all understand implicitly the importance of speed. Without such an understanding Richard the III's cry: "a horse a horse, my Kingdom for a horse" would make no sense. He will die, we understand, if he can't go faster than his feet can carry him. But we rarely make the concept of speed explicit. For that reason I am grateful to Michiel Schwarz and John Thackara for making it the focus of this conference and inviting me to speak.

I begin with a survey of technological developments between the 1870's and World War I, which accelerated the pace of life and made speed as never before in history the explicit subject of psychiatric diagnosis, labour negotiations, diplomatic ultimatums, mobilisation time tables, battle plans and artistic manifestos.

The invention of the telephone in 1876 enabled people for the first time in history, to talk across great distances and respond instantaneously, without the time to reflect offered by written communications. By the turn of the century, business exchanges became instantaneous instead of protracted. Wall Street became a financial centre by increasing the liquidity of securities and the speed of fund raising. The telephone was used to sell grain, signal storms, prevent log jams, report election results and track down criminals.

The wireless telegraph, invented in 1896, brought the entire world into an instantaneous electronic network including ships at sea. Its unifying effect was dramatized during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 when 10 ships were in immediate wireless contact with the wounded ship, but too remote to arrive in time to save the passengers still on board when she sank.

Speedier communications technology changed newspaper reporting, even language itself. Because words cost money, reporters wrote with a new concision and what became known as a telegraphic style. Hemmingway's simplification of language came in part from his work as a foreign correspondent, obliged to prepare concisely written articles for transmission over the Atlantic cable.

The new cinema symbolised the speed of modern life. With editing, action can move as fast as it did in Griffith's last minute rescues, changing settings in the instant between frames. In early movies, action was photographed at 16 frames a second and projected at 24. So the actors seemed to hurry across the screen. Action can go even faster than life with time lapse photography, as caterpillars metamorphosed into butterflies in a few seconds.

Other technologies accelerated transportation. The bicycle was four times faster than walking, and in the 1890's sales sky-rocketed. Its impact on love relations was dramatized in a novel of 1898 by Maurice Leblanc titled: Voici des ailles - we have wings. On its title page is a bare-breasted woman with an unbuttoned blouse trailing down over her belt, hair streaming in the wind, pedalling a winged bicycle, symbolising the sexual and social liberation that she experienced during the bicycle tour. In this image the liberating effect of the new speedy travel was represented by conventional symbolic wings.

A dozen years later the Italian Futurists suggested speed more directly. In The Cyclist, the Russian Futurist Gonchorova evoked motion with this cyclist in a series of sequential positions reassembled in a single composition. Umberto Boccioni painted motion more directly and abstractly as a pattern of rhythmic coloured forms. The abstracted cycle and cyclist are here only referred to in the title which is: The dynamism of a cyclist. The futurists thought that the new technologies required a new art to capture that emblem of modernity: speed. As Boccioni explained: until today men have observed changes produced by the wind in trees, but they have not looked at the way cars, bicycles and airplanes have upset the contemplated concept of the landscape. Carefully drawn imagery of an object frozen in a single moment of time or even a series of stop moments cannot do justice to the actuality of speeding bicycles and cars.

The Futurists also depictured the human body in motion. Marcel Duchamps' Nude descending a staircase from 1912, analyses the human figure with cubic segments reassembled into a sequence. Here motion itself has displaced the body as the main thing. Duchamps created a scandal because he was more intent on capturing the descending movement than the sensuousness of a nude.

Although this painting does not depict technology, it was influenced by cinema which made it possible for the first time to study the body in motion and to see faster than life or slower than life images of the body. The Futurists were fascinated by the speeding automobile. Their spokesman Marinetti proclaimed: The world's magnificence has been enriched by the new beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes that seemed to ride on cannon shot is more beautiful than victory at Semmelweiss. We cooperate with mechanics and destroy the old poetry of distance by which we substitute the tragic lyricism of under present speed.

Although Marinetti's bombast exceeded that of other Futurists his ideas inspired their art. In 1913 Balla painted the flight of birds with wing overlapping wing like links on a chain of action. In this image titled Flight of Swallows a more representational chain of swallows arcs across the lower foreground, or progressively more abstracted chains of birdlike patterns stretch across the upper parts and background. Here Balla attempted to paint abstract speed itself. The schematized birds fly across the canvas in abstracted projectories of flight.

The title of this painting has two parts: Line of allure plus Dynamic successions, both of which suggest a dematerialised representation of speed. Balla also painted cars but with increasingly less recognisable forms. In this image titled Speeding car the car is suggested by the title and barely discernable part of wheels at the lower left and right. In this painting also titled Speeding car the title names a car, the sharply angled perspective suggests its rapid movement towards a distance point and the spiralling brush strokes suggest the tornadic movement of dust swirling in its wake.

In this image titled: Speeding car plus light Balla adds to the abstracted motion of the car the flashing of light that is transmitted almost instantaneously, a graphic reminder of absolute speed that the futurist idealised.

This Balla titled Abstract speed, although clearly suggested by a speeding car, makes no reference to a car either in its subtitle or with any recognisable imagery. Here the speeding windows flash like facets of a turning gem and wheels spin into painted arabesques.

The Futurists forced lines at formally eddied about birds and cars now coil out of artistic forms alone. Arcs bend from movement itself, light reflects off unidentifiable objects.

During the war the Futurists continued to exult speed. Of course they could not have chosen a worse time to celebrate speed for its own sake. In this image of 1915 Charge of lancers Boccioni glorified an effectively unfuturistic military tactic, the cavalry charge, which proved to be a dismal failure in September of 1914. He was right about one thing however, cars ware not the danger - at least not his danger. In July 1916 while serving in an artillery unit he was killed by being bucked off a horse.

When in 1916 Marinetti wrote that the new religion-morality of speed is born, this future is steered from our great liberating war, the public no doubt thought about the death of religion of morality and about the unliberated troops mired in trenches. Marinetti hovered between fantasy and madness with his prediction that new technology would some day eliminate the curving of river valleys so that the Danube will run in a straight line at 300 km/hour.

New speeds were also driven by new energies: the combustion engine drove cars everywhere there were roads, while electricity ran machines everywhere there were lines. In 1879 the first tram opened in Berlin. In the 1890's European cities started electrified subways and electric elevators accelerated going to a higher floor, making possible the new skyscrapers of that decade.

The electric generator plant that opened in Niagara Falls in 1895 converted the rush of water into an even faster rush of electric current that transformed the pace of life, even of death, as when New York in 1890 first used an electric chair to execute a convicted murderer.

New technologies and techniques accelerated production. In 1883 Frederick Taylor developed scientific management. He observed skilled workers, analyzed the elementary operations that made up their job, chose the fastest worker at each position, timed them to establish minimum unit times for that operation, reconstructed jobs with minimum composite times as a standard. And then imposed that standard on other workers.

In 1913 Henry Ford opened the first assembly line for greatly accelerating the production of cars. The new communication, transportation and production technologies where eagerly adopted. Although there could be no disputing their material triumph, assessments of their value were divided. Take the telephone: some emphasize its positive value as it levels social divisions creating greater understanding between urban and rural, rich and poor. Others praised it for widening the processes of thought, expanding tolerance beyond local provincialism, even nationalism. In 1913 an American journalist theorised that the telephone changes the structure of the brain. We live in wider distances and become eligible for nobler motives.

But there were also critics. In English the word 'phoney' came from early descriptions of artificial sound of voice on the phone and by implication the artificiality of what was said without the enrichment of face-to-face encounters. Medical experts warned that the acceleration of life and thought of the telephone could cause mental illness. Already in 1892 the indefatigable alarmist Max Nordow warned that it would take a century for people to be able to read a dozen square yards of newspaper daily, to be constantly called on the telephone, to be thinking simultaneously of the five continents, unquote, without experiencing serious neurological degeneration.

No one disputed the value of the wireless in saving life at sea. This technology was nevertheless at the centre of the moralising that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic, which symbolised power and speed as well as the audacity of modern technology challenging nature. It crashed while racing to win a Blue Ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing.

Scientific management and the assembly line also triggered moralising. Some defended the economic value of these new production techniques which, they argued, lightened physical labour, magnified its yields and makes goods cheaper and more plentiful. But critics complained that these technologies, by making work less skilled and less creative, caused the de-humanisation of labour and loss of worker autonomy. Speedier communications and transportations technology had the most destructive consequences during World War I. One cause of the war was the breakdown of diplomacy and one cause of that breakdown was that the diplomats were not trained to handle the new speed of the telephone and wireless or the speed with which the masses could react to newspaper reports. Or the speed of mobilisation timetables and battle plans.

During the climactic month before war broke out, diplomats agonized over five ultimatums with ever shorter time limits, all threatening war if the demands were not met. The pressing requirements of the mobilisation time tables frayed the last shreds of patience. The delivery of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was itself influenced by the availability of new speedy communication and transportation. After the Austrian foreign ambassador delivered the ultimatum, he demanded a response in 48 hours. The Serbian minister protested that his government was on vacation and therefore a quick response was impossible. The Austrian ambassador replied: the return of the ministers in the age of railways, telegraphs and telephones in a land of that size could only be a matter of a few hours.

In 1914 the men in power lost their bearings in the rush of telegrams and telephone conversations. That rush anticipated the situation during the cold war when Russian and American leaders, controlling stockpiles of nuclear ICBM's, knew that in an attack they would have 8 minutes to decide whether to retaliate.

That possible scenario seems even more alarming when compared with the actual scenario of 1914, when Europe did rush into a suicidal war, that experts at that time predicted would mean the end of civilisation because of the enormous destructive potential of modern armies. It is frightening to think that Europe went into that war thrown off by the diplomacy dictated by a comparatively generous 48 hour time limit, when 60 years later Russian and American leaders practised brinkmanship with only a few minutes to decide whether or not start a truly suicidal global nuclear war. New speeds have always brought out alarmists with their threatening prognoses. In the early 19th century they warned that the human body would be damaged by travelling at the bone-crushing speed of 30 miles/hour, the top speed of early railroads, because such high speeds could cause internal injury.

In the 1890's alarmists warned that bicyclists would become disfigured by "bicycle face" as a result of their unprotected faces moving against the wind at such high speeds. This is the city for that line, isn't it! Others warned that the cyclists' cult of speed corrupted the morals of women who where liberated from traditional chaperonage by the bicycle's freedom of movement.

In the 1920's dating in cars led to criticisms of fast men who were actually called "speeds". These sexual predators were reputed to be corrupting women as they sped across the roads of America. That association of moving fast and lax sexual morality reappeared with the jetsetters in the 1970's.

In 1881 George Beard published his book titled: American Nervousness which introduced the term 'neuraesthenia'. This new mental illness, he warned, was caused by the increasing tempo of life from use of the telegraph, railways and steampower that had enabled businessmen to make 100 times more transactions in a given period than had been possible earlier, thereby intensifying competition and causing a rise in neuraesthenia, heart disease and cancer as well as tooth decay and premature baldness.

In 1901 a journalist identified another new disease which was supposedly caused by the fast pace of life in big cities. He called this disease New York-itis and warned that it affects especially inhabitants of Manhattan Island. Its symptoms include neurositiness, hearing loss, flat feet and delusions of grandeur.

In 1970 another technophobe, Alvin Toffler, argued that human beings are suffering from yet another new disease: future shock. Which he defined as the dizzying disorientation brought about by the premature arrival of the future. Its symptoms include mass neurosis, irrationality and free-floating violence. It is caused by a greatly accelerated rate of change in society. Toffler writes that we have set the stage for a completely new society. And we are now racing towards it. But we are not racing towards a completely new society, in spite of all the new technologies and speeds, most vital human activities are unchanged. The computer revolution has not revolutionised the important things that truly make us laugh or cry. People do not become mentally ill because their life is changing too rapidly or because the future has arrived prematurely, but rather because their lives are stagnant, stalled from inactivity, boredom and hopelessness. Speed itself does not cause future shock in victorious olympic runners or innovative businessmen, in theoretical physicists or disease-fighting pharmacologists, nor in original poets and artists.

The good old days before Toffler's future shock were not so good. What about the despair of workers in cottages, spinning yarns slowly on a spinning wheel 12 hours a day? Yes, speedy spinning wheels put them out of work, but ultimately forced society to find more humanising work for them. Some of the observers avoid moralising and argue the technologies are value-neutral. For them the good or bad from telephones and time management comes not from the inherent purpose of the technology but in the particular use to which it is put.

I reject that argument, because technologies extend human powers primarily motor and sensory powers, and those powers are charged with value. Human existence is an inescapable process of valorisation. Every moment of consciousness creates values, which, as Sartre quipped spring up all around us as we walk like pheasants rising out of the grass.

Take cars for example: locomotion is vital to human existence. Cars facilitate locomotion and are therefore not value-neutral. If we move towards something, arrival at it becomes a desire, full of intentionality and charged with value. Further, the value of the car is essentially positive. By essentially I refer to the precise purposes for with it was intended. Technologies which promote speed are essentially good, provided the essential purpose of that speed serves the enhancement of human powers. It is good to drive where we want to go as freely as possible. It is bad to be stuck in traffic.

Consider the telephone which enhances hearing and cinema which enhances seeing. It is good to hear and see and it is not good to be deaf or blind. Technologies that enhance or speed up our ability to move, or hear or see are essentially good, or at least humanising. A speeding car can kill someone on the road and its exhaust can poison trees beside the road, but a car can also rush a sick person to a hospital or bring environmentalists to a threatened region.

The essence of the car is to move, not kill or pollute. Before moralising about the value of the technology we must distinguish essence from accident. We must not be seduced into idolising speed, like the futurists, nor be taken in by catchphrase journalism about de-humanising robotics, alienating computers or future shock. The slow/fast distinction applies clear positive/negative values. People are frustrated when delayed, they become depressed when stopped. Slowing down signifies getting older, sicker, weaker. Slow minded means inept, dense, stupid. People are proud to accomplish their tasks faster and accelerated by high speed. In English the word quickening refers to that joyous moment when a pregnant woman first feels her foetus. Dictionary definitions of speed include abundance, power, success. In Old English Gods' speed was a blessing that God would watch over one's journey through life and bring good fortune.

But too much speed can be trouble and more people means even more demand for speed. The dangerous consequences of that tendency was clarified 200 years ago by Malthus. When the earth's population was still less then a billion he warned that unless we check population growth by personal restraint there will be other checks, mainly famine, epidemics and war. Now we are pushing six billion.

Against the historical pattern of ever more people demanding ever more speed, environmentalists reminds us of the peril of growth and the increasing demand of speed. We must therefore distinguish which accelerations enhance human capabilities and which imperil them. But even if we succeed in making such distinctions in theory, can we act on them in practice? As policy makers we are up against two major obstacles: the ominous historical record and a disconcerting paradox.

The historical record shows that humans have never, ever opted for slower. The paradox which lies behind our best efforts, I shall note only with a final question: in travelling to this conference as speedily as we could get here, how much fossil fuel did we burn up and spray over the oceans and forests of the world?


updated 1996