Orr, David W., “Speed” in Annals of Earth
Volume XV, Number 3, 1997
Pages 8 – 11

Several years ago the college where I teach created an electronic “quick mail” system to reduce paper use and to increase our “efficiency.” Electronic communication is now standard throughout most organizations. The results, however, are mixed at best. The most obvious is a large increase in the sheer volume of stuff communicated, much of which is utterly trivial. There is also a manifest decline in the grammar, literary style, and civility of communication. People stroll down the hall or across campus to converse less frequently than before. Students remain transfixed before computer screens for hours, often doing no more than playing computer games. Our conversations, thought patterns, and institutional clock speed are increasingly shaped to fit the imperatives of technology. Not surprisingly, more and more people feel overloaded by the demands of incessant “communication.” But to say so publicly is to run afoul of the technological fundamentalism now dominant virtually everywhere.

By default and without much thought it has been decided (or decided for us) that communication ought to be cheap, easy, and quick. Accordingly, more and more of us are instantly wired to the global nervous system with cell phones, beepers, pagers, fax machines, and E-mail. If useful in real emergencies, the overall result is to homogenize the important with the trivial making everything an emergency and an already frenetic civilization even more frenetic. As a result we are drowning in unassimilated information, most of which fits no meaningful picture of the world. In our public affairs and in our private lives we are, I think, increasingly muddled-headed because we have mistaken volume and speed of information for substance and clarity.
On my desk I have the three volumes of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison written with quill pen by candlelight and delivered by horse. The style is mostly impeccable. Even when they wrote about mundane things, they did so with clarity and insight. Their disagreements were expressed with civility and felicity. The entire body of letters can be read for both pleasure and instruction Assuming people still read two centuries hence, will the) read the correspondence of, say, Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton for either pleasure or instruction?