#357: The Slow Web, Ten Years Later

Yellow, white, and robin's egg balloons strung to commercial rooftop.
Hamtramck, MI (Portra 400)

Every year or so I’ll get a surge of traffic to my 2012 essay on The Slow Web, and the latest is from Ian Bogost writing in The Atlantic. I’m happy to see that Ian’s included part of the note I added in 2016, which I’ll self-quote more fully here:

A number of the services listed below as examples of “Slow Web” are now defunct, and the “Fast Web” seems today to be even faster, more frenetic, more addictive. My thinking has also evolved greatly since writing this; the short version is that I no longer believe that anything this complex and systemic can be solved by a set of user-experience practices alone.

Ian’s piece is framed around an app called Pony Messenger, a “postal service cosplay” that sends and delivers messages once a week on your specified time. After using the app with his editor, and speaking to the founder, this is Ian’s conclusion:

But my experience with Pony, and [it’s founder] Minkovsky’s stories about his own, suggest that we don’t really know what we’re doing when we correspond, and we don’t really know what we want when we dream of ways to slow things down online. We’re not recovering some imagined, primordial state of full attention and deliberateness, nor are we abandoning the purported evils of email or Facebook. Faced with an internet that is much too big and much too fast, we’ll never find a big and fast solution. Any progress will be earned, one day at a time.

Ian’s totally right – we don’t know what we want. I’d clarify this further by saying that we know what we don’t want, we know what doesn’t feel good; we just can’t imagine a better alternative – aka the general vibe of addiction and capitalism. It’s harder to write a utopia than a dystopia.

Technology is also an especially nebulous thing to organize a movement around. What many accounts of Slow Food elide is its origins in radical-left Italian politics. As described in Slow Food Revolution, it’d been simmering long before a McDonald’s opened on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Slow Food’s organizers were seeking ways to resist industrialism and consumerism; it’d be more accurate to say that they chose food as the avenue for their activism because food was something everyone could relate to and understand.

But technology itself intermingles with other movements. Third-party delivery service issues are Slow Food issues. Surveillance and facial recognition issues are racial justice issues. Movements also require shared values, shared ethics, and based on emails I’ve received over the years from well-intentioned folks asking for feedback on their Slow Web app or service, it seems like there isn’t even consensus over the idea that the solution to technological problems might not be to build more technology.

I was going to send this newsletter two weeks ago but it seemed too cynical and contained three more paragraphs of ranting here. So I’ll say this instead: I love technology. In that word, technology, is a promise of a better world. And loving it doesn’t mean being uncritical of it – quite the opposite. It seems like every week I read and see articles, essays, books, documentaries poking at the exact question of, What do we want out of technology? Or to put the fiction editor cap on: What do we really need? It’s also no surprise to me that a lot of these works are made by technologists. To love it is to see it in all its faults and contradictions. To see it wholly and clearly.

Shared values. I come back to shared values. I think part of the answer for what we really need might lie in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and other parts in Paul Ford’s, A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff. It’s also in Molly White’s Abuse and harassment on the blockchain – and these last two articles were published in just the past month. I take back what I said earlier; there does seem to be more attention than ten years ago on the above topics, and on data privacy, repairability, tech workers’ rights, the logic of VC funding.

I arrive now, in 2022, sort of where Ian lands in his Atlantic piece. Progress will be earned one day at a time, yes. But I also suspect that at some point in the next ten years, there may be enough alignment around a set shared values. Enough to call it a proper movement.