Book review: The Great Acceleration; solutions to a fast-paced life

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Updated: June 19, 2016 7:56:27 AM

Technology over the years has been able to generate both dystopian and utopian views.

The Great Acceleration: How The World is Getting Faster, Faster
Robert Colvile
Bloomsbury
Pp390
R499

Technology over the years has been able to generate both dystopian and utopian views. While some see inventions as a means to expand human overreach, others believe that the world of growing information and rapidly evolving technology will make us more and more dependent on it, ultimately leading to our extinction. It’s not the technology, but the pace of technology invention that has fast-tracked the process of creative destruction and disruption in societies, leading to an acceleration of things—a faster lifestyle where societies, values and humans themselves change within a short frame of time.

Robert Colvile tries his best to describe the origins of this acceleration in his book, The Great Acceleration: How The World is Getting Faster, Faster. The British journalist and former news director of BuzzFeed UK takes a historical perspective to narrate the story of acceleration, explaining how pigeons, telegram, computers and smartphones have redefined our lives, behaviour and quest for knowledge. But instead of giving a plain-vanilla historical view of the evolution of innovation, Colvile uses anecdotes, theories and sometimes personal accounts, illustrating the effects of acceleration on our lives. The book highlights that technology may not be the only factor affecting acceleration, but the process is altered by ideology as well, so it is both the hardware and software that influence the world.

The book takes a systematic approach in explaining the effects of acceleration on different aspects of our lives, ranging from how we socialise, our sources of entertainment, art and culture to even our food, presenting both the dark and sunny side of things. Though you may not be looking for it, it also, in some way, provides an insight for our addiction to shows like Sherlock, Empire and Breaking Bad. It also delves into the revolution of social networking and its impact on our interactions with others around us. It often uses the help of an imaginary girl, Zelda, who sleeps little and is hooked to technology, YouTube and other things that most from the new generation can relate to. But Colvile remains an optimist in giving examples of how the previous generation, which was hooked to television, has turned out fine, and so will Zelda when she grows up.

Colvile takes a swipe at the acceleration in news, finance and politics as well from the point of view of technology and the social network, positing that each of these fields face a dilemma of quality over quantity or substance over outreach in the fast-paced world that has become ever more demanding. But it is the positives of acceleration that take precedence over the negatives, with Colvile suggesting how in each case acceleration is improving the quality of news, politics and finance. One of the interesting topics that the book discusses is how our speed is slowing, given infrastructure constraints and the irony of decelerating in terms of speed vis-a-vis acceleration in terms of technology.

Though the book blames acceleration for this irony, ultimately, it also credits it for enabling last-mile logistics for millions. Colvile also serves acceleration as a saviour for overcoming the problems of famine and environmental degradation. Using instances like the Green Revolution in emerging economies and technology that can absorb pollutants, Colvile tries to establish that more acceleration might be the only answer to acceleration. While he presents anecdotes of a doomsday if humans were to follow more acceleration, Colvile says, “acceleration is something we both desire and deserve—a shortcut to a richer, more convenient and more satisfying life for the great bulk of those rushed along in its wake”.

The book provides for some interesting facts and anecdotes that will surprise you and are even thought-provoking, but Colvile, at times, over-stretches the anecdotes, especially in making a point for news, finance and politics. Though the book deals with various topics and each can be read without having to read the other, there is a repeated pattern that emerges in dealing with each chapter that some may find monotonous or rather mechanical. But with certain solutions, like those to the insomnia problem that most today face, or for the brain that Colvile believes can be trained to change easily, he keeps the reader engaged.

Moreover, Colvile also has a cheerily optimistic attitude towards acceleration, stressing the fact that if the previous generation turned out fine, so will the coming generations, and that slowing down might not be the answer. For instance, in the case of politics and finance, he bats for more regulation rather than slowing down. One can go through the book at an accelerated pace if one is able to absorb the myriad facts, but I would suggest not accelerating through this one, as it can provide some insight, if not a solution, for those looking to make sense of the fast-paced world around them.

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