Reviving Our 'Speed-Stunned Imagination' With Slow Transportation
Many years ago, I wrote on slowLab about French designer Olivier Peyricot’s automobile concept, Slow Rider, wherein a standard automobile is deconstructed and rebuilt as a purveyor of slow living.
Peyricot mounts a stripped-down motor on the back of a vehicle or exchanges it with a refrigerator generator, literally reducing power to facilitate slowness. The hood is removed and the chassis sawed down to make way for front-mounted seats. In motion, such a car roams the city like a motorized flâneur. At rest in a parking spot, the car becomes a piece of street furniture that invites the public to relax or play on its surfaces.
Slow Rider stimulates in many ways, not least in its conveyance of what we at slowlab call "slow agency," at work on multiple levels. First, there’s the designer, an independent agent-activist, who in hacking the standard automobile, critiques the accepted norm of what a car is—physically, functionally, and experientially. Next, the observers in public space, whose perceptions are challenged and curiosity aroused by the mere act of witnessing the car, and whose own creativity is subsequently activated.
There's also the shared space of awareness and sense of (individual and collective) self-determination that are fired up when such a project infiltrates the basic fabric of daily life.
Peyricot's idea of slowing down how we perceive and participate in one of today's most-accepted modes of transport—the car—also makes an important connection to what Ivan Illich called our "speed-stunned imagination."We are so enamored by speed, and especially by the idea of getting somewhere quickly, that our personal agency and creativity have been stunned into submission to the machine—and especially the industry that controls it.
In his seminal essay "Energy and Equity" (first published in Le Monde in 1973), Illich pointed out: “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption, the transportation industry dictates the configuration of social space.” And he specifically warned of transportation’s negative effects on the individual, who has become a "habitual passenger"—someone who has traded in the power of his or her own body for a ride in a cozy automobile. He likened that individual's willing and habitual use of motorized transport to an addiction that strips him or her of the "physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man's feet." That person, Illich wrote, has been “boosted out of the world in which people still move on their own” and literally has lost his or her center.
Illich regarded walking as one of the greatest expressions of "personal potency." But he also liked the bicycle, because although it propels the human faster than his/her own feet, it remains a system that's limited to the energy that the body can exert. Unlike the person in the passenger role, who loses his connection to "the landscape through which he is rushed," we are still in contact with the earth we travel across when we walk or run or bike, and so we retain a healthy sense of "space, time and personal pace." Illich believed that this reinforces our sense of presence, and in so doing makes us more conscious of how we share space with others.
Ivan Illich’s words are as true today as they were 40 years ago, and they apply not only to transportation, but also to how we perceive and negotiate our relationships with emerging technologies, with the natural and built environment, and, most importantly, with the other species (including people) with whom we share the planet.
This is where slow notions of agency come in. We can only take the first step toward freedom from the kind of grim picture Illich paints of motorized transportation when we have the honesty to look for ourselves in that picture, admit when and where we are complicit therein, and open up to the possibility of doing things differently.
Slow design projects like Slow Rider help us to do that, because they challenge our basic assumptions about how we engage the ever-accelerating world. They give us cause to question the design agency of others that’s routinely imposed upon us, and remind us that we all have the right and the response-ability to take a slower view. When we do that, we begin to perceive a much wider spectrum of individual and collective potentialities in the people, places and systems that surround us, and we gain the insight and agility to think and act more consciously and creatively.
Being slower doesn’t mean moving at a snail’s pace, but it does mean taking time to consider, experiment with and really get a deep sense of other rhythms of experience. I, for one, believe that’s one of the best ways to reclaim our center, regenerate our communities, and (slow-ly) begin to restore balance in our world.