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From Hippy to Zippy

About the author
Dominic Hilton was a commissioning editor, columnist and diarist for openDemocracy from 2001-05.

For various reasons, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time talking to unreconstructed hippies.

A man has to work.

Hippies are an almost forgotten species these days. We just don’t have time for their message. They take too long to say anything. Our concentration spans can’t cope with their long-winded mantras. Hippies need to get with the times, find themselves a good editor, and squeeze their message into an eight-second soundbite.

I keep telling my hippy acquaintances that the noughties are nothing like the sixties. The world has moved on, I say. America is no longer stuck in a war in a distant land. Youths are no longer disenchanted with the establishment. There are no protests in France.

But the biggest difference, I insist, is speed. In the 1960s, speed was virtually unheard of. Brothers and sisters were too busy experimenting with grass and LSD. Woodstock went on for days. The Vietnam War lasted about twelve years. Sitar music went on forever.

But nowadays, with the notable exception of the London Underground, speed is king. Wars are fought before a war has even started. Major combat operations are over before the real fighting begins. If The Beatles were alive today, they’d be a speed garage act.

“You have to admit, it’s getting faster,
It’s getting faster all the time.”

We’ve gone from hippy to zippy – hence the title of this column.

But what effect does this have on our collective consciousness? And why the hell should we care?

I’ve spent the last five minutes speed-reading James Gleick’s 1999 book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. It’s taken me five years to get round to skimming it. Where did all that time go?

The pace of life has quickened so rapidly, says Gleick, that we now split hairs about split seconds, when only a few years back we used to sit around slow-burning fires, reading Dickens, smoking pipes and waiting weeks to hear the latest celebrity gossip.

The behavioural patterns of the average 21st century urbanite resemble those of the Tasmanian Devil if his buns were on fire. We are all running the rat race, chasing our tails, salivating excessively, never catching our prey. We are lacking in sleep, perspective and patience. Soon none us of will have any teeth left and our tongues will start to hang out the sides of our mouths. We’ll look awful!

Every day I wake up, turn on my 24-hour news channel, and hope, just this once, that nothing has happened. No such luck. There’s always another crisis to be panicking about, another major vote, issue or disaster to discuss. By the time I’ve slipped out of my pyjamas I’ve absorbed four or five catastrophes and am expecting several more. That’s before I’ve used the bathroom.

I have no opinions anymore, only responses and reactions. Yesterday I voted thirty-four times in twenty-nine different polls. But do I feel empowered? Not a jot. I can’t even recall what or who I voted for, or why. I’m as unaccountable as Henry Kissinger.

We live 24/7 in the age of the instant dinner, instant coffee, instant history, instant messaging, the pre-faded jean, the express line, the speed dial, the multitask, the cereal bar, the caffeine tablet. The MTV generation was a generation ago. Those guys were slow. Our beepers beep, our mobiles alert us to incoming mail, we eat and drink on the go, talk on the hoof, surf on the move, in real time our friends on the other side of the world help us choose a cute pair of shoes. We are never alone. Never. Are we?

We panic about every lost nanosecond while we maximise efficiency, dual process, talk with our mouths full. But surveys show we are no happier now than when we were living in caves and mud huts, catching dinner with spears and bashing our neighbours’ skulls with sharp rocks.

Intellectually, we are said to be consuming a junk food diet. Regular readers of this column will know exactly what I mean. There’s no substance any more, only speed.

We are living in a state of permanent distraction. As you read this, chances are you are talking to someone else, reading another column, listening to a snippet of a symphony or nodding to some +8 techno, checking your inbox, downloading some more megabytes, buying dinner or a new house, taking a virtual tour and being a good parent. What do you care what I write? You might absorb these words but you don’t digest them. You haven’t the time to think about what I’m saying, though it’s not much so I wouldn’t worry.

Face it, brothers and sisters, we’re losing our souls because our souls are just too slow. Information – or even A New Life™ – is suddenly just a click away. Everyone wants to tell us how to save time by taking it up. Everyone wants to help us deal with the stresses and strains of modern life by adding to them. Time is the most valuable commodity. Time is money, stress and worry. Time is precious, like this column.

And why are you reading this anyway? Have you any idea how many sacred minutes of your life you are wasting? According to Gleick, we spend a whole year of our lives looking for lost objects. Believe me, you haven’t a second to spare. Go hunt for your pen.

In 1997, Sun Microsystems conducted a study into how people read on the web. The answer, apparently, is “they don’t”. Rather, says Gleick, “they scan, sampling words and phrases”, which means you won’t either notice or mind if I finish this sentence or


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