Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Speed? What Speed? Prisoners of Speed, by Ivan Illich (Part 3 of 3)

Ivan Illich
First let me thank the organisers of this conference for challenging us to prepare an intervention. My circle of friends in Bremen owe it to your programme that we have examined a neglected subject, the historicity of speed. Let me take you right to the core of the issue by expressing my thanks in old-fashioned English: Michiel, ‘God speed thee and thy close!’ Milton’s words would fit the occasion well. ‘To speed’ then meant ‘to prosper’ and not ‘to go fast’.

We come here as a trio to give you a sense of the conversation you have provoked among us. Like myself, Matthias Rieger the musicologist, and Sebastian Trapp the limnologist, owe you a debt. We began to focus — each in his domain — on speed as an age-specific phenomenon. The three of us, a historian, a musicologist and a biologist, are by no means alone. Just as speed played no role in the performance of music, falconry and fishery, so commerce, medicine, and architecture, until the seventeenth century, thrived without reference to it. While preparing for this event, each of us became aware of distortions people tend to project on past epochs when they look back with the prejudice that the idea of speed was relevant for Aristotle, Archimedes or Albert the Great.

From the programme of the conference, and from the tone of those lectures I have heard so far, it is obvious that I am addressing people imprisoned in the age of speed. Common sense tells them that some idea of ‘space over time’ and, more generally, ‘process correlated with time’, is part and parcel of all cultures. The task incumbent on the three of us, then, is that of shaking your common sense. We know that the idea of speed is assuredly historical. Starting with the late Middle Ages, concern with speed emerged and, step by step, decisively contributed to the era of machines and motors. By 1996, the historical Epoch of Speed lies behind us. During that time, homo technologicus had been harried by the experience of speed: from home to factory, through schools and jobs, from work to vacation, forever suffering time-scarcity on a tight schedule run by the clock. Rush shaped the mood. Continue reading...

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