Wanted: Time to Think

Creative insights require time – and a pace at odds with today’s accelerated economy.

In her biography of the Nobel Prizewinning geneticist Barbara McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller asks, “What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?”1 Keller answers that McClintock was able to take the time to look and to hear what the material had to say to her. The material, in this case, was corn, and McClintock studied each of her corn plants with great concentration, patience, care and even love; she knew each of them intimately. Her method was to “see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable.” After giving a lecture at Harvard, Keller tells us, McClintock “met informally with a group of graduate and postdoctoral students. They were responsive to her exhortation that they ‘take the time and look,’ but they were also troubled. Where does one get the time to look and to think? They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn’t leave time. There’s always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance.”2

McClintock’s meeting with graduate students took place in the early 1980s. If questions could be justifiably raised more than two decades ago about the pace of life and its consequences for looking and thinking, how much more urgently might such questions be raised today? For in the intervening years, we have inarguably witnessed a further speedup in the pace of life. Books with titles like Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything and No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life now attempt to document the phenomenon,3 and movements such as “Slow Food” and “Take Back Your Time” have arisen to mount a response. The academic world has hardly been shielded from this acceleration, as today’s academics can readily attest. Today’s pace of research would make the Harvard students’ practices seem leisurely by comparison. Yet during this same period of time a remarkable suite of tools has been developed for research and scholarship. Thanks to networked digital computers, e-mail and the World Wide Web, access to scholarly information and research results has never been easier; and thanks to the vast computational power now readily available, whole new areas of investigation have been opened up.

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References

1. E.F. Keller, “A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock” (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1983), 197.

2. Ibid., 206.

3. J. Gleick, “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999); and H. Menzies, “No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life” (Vancouver, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005).

4. H. Rosa, “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society,” Constellations 10, no. 1 (2003): 3.

5. J.R. Beniger, “The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), vii.

6. Ibid., vii.

7. J. Yates, “Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 1.

8. Quoted in B.K. Hunnicott, “Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 37.

9. Quoted in Hunnicott, “Work,” 40.

10. Quoted in Hunnicott, “Work,” 44.

11. Quoted in Hunnicott, “Work,” 43–44.

12. T.H. Eriksen, “Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age” (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 150.

13. Keller, “Feeling,” 206.

14. Ibid., 117.

15. Ibid., 103.

16. On the importance of reflection for governance, see W.E. Scheuerman, “Busyness and Citizenship,” Social Research 72, no. 2 (2005): 447–470; and D.M. Levy, “More, Faster Better: Governance in an Age of Overload, Busyness, and Speed,” First Monday Special Issue no. 7: Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace (2006), www.first monday.org/issues/special11_9/. Evidence that speed and overload are causing physical and psychological problems can be found in P.C. Whybrow, “American Mania: When More is Not Enough” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).