Social and Cultural Studies Librarian, UC Davis
The web has changed library research, and much for the better. It has allowed for amazing improvements in the discovery and access of information, which has, in turn, allowed for deeper contextualization and previously unforeseen productive comparative work. Research with the internet turned-on can, however, also resemble studying in the middle of a crowded intersection, where news and updates from both relations and strangers interrupt one’s attention. The flood of information repeatedly works to turn one’s mind from the sustained inquiry, the patient scholarship that has always been the hallmark of critical thought.
In an information environment built for speed, I wonder if there a place today for a Slow Research movement. As the obstacles that had previously hindered access and discovery are conquered by deep databases and the digital distribution of texts, it seems that a new research problem has surfaced. How does today’s scholar sustain her or his inquiry into texts, or more simply, in a world of short-burst comments and lighting fast trends, how does a scholar concentrate long enough to reap the benefits provided by our information world? Does contemplative reading take too long? Is the inquisitive multivalent interpretation of events always too wordy or complex? Is tracking down and evaluating references or contextualizing the historical and material production of texts too cumbersome in a world that pressures us to move fast and light? Is there still time for the book-length idea, or the essay that unfolds gradually, with craft and precision?
Slow Research might be loosely modeled after the Slow Food movement, the global movement to rethink about how food is made, served, shared, and tasted. In their effort to present a challenge to the industrial character of fast-food, Slow Food enthusiasts encourage people to understand the production of food. They insist we discuss the consequences and context of food differences and the impact of different foods on our ecosystem. They also encourage people to take time to share and savor the taste of food, often holding community convivia to bring people together to think about what they are eating and drinking, and to discuss how the special tastes conjured by food and drink relate to their lives.
Slow Food seems deliberately out-of-step with the speed of the 21st Century, and, indeed, it often draws on recipes, cooking methods, farming practices, and myths born in an era before our own. Yet Slow Food is very much part of our time. It serves as a necessary antidote to the buffering and suppression of our sense of taste, while working to fortify or question our sense of community and sense of self.
As a movement, Slow Research might encourage us to slow down and concentrate on the texts that seem to be always whizzing past us. It might offer a deliberate suspension of the time pressures scholars face, carving out time and spaces in which one could sit quietly and read deeply. It might encourage us to follow trains of thought more rigorously. It might nurture spaces where scholars felt free to discuss the trials and challenges of their research journeys, and places where they could thoughtfully map-out new directions. Slow Research might also serve as a protest against information clutter and distraction by advocating the time necessary to organize knowledge within schools of thought, or to rethink the history of ideas. Or perhaps, it would take shape as a conscious rebellion against the pressures to accelerate the publication cycle, by valuing the time and space of collaborative reading, thinking, sustained argument and play over formulaic production, and the packaging and distribution of quick opinions and novel facts.
If so, like the Slow Food Movement, Slow Research would also seem out-of-step with contemporary society. It would be called old-fashion, antiquated, or obsolete. It might even look ripe for liquidation, as if such contemplative research was a waste of precious resources. But also like the Slow Food movement, Slow Research would serve a necessary contemporary purpose. It would serve to crucially restore the very values that motivated the advances seen in our information environment, values which were never just about the quantity of content and the size of data, but, at their core, about improving the quality of research and, in turn, the quality of life. Although it may not be perceived as ‘in-synch’ with the pace of today’s information economy, Slow Research can help teach the crucial skills necessary to make sense of the information world of tomorrow.
(Here is an article from eFlux, one which distracted me, and got me thinking about this… )
After the Social Media Hype: Dealing with Information Overload
“The “social media” debate is moving away from presumed side effects, such as loneliness (Sherry Turkle), stupidity (Andrew Keen), and brain alterations (Nicholas Carr), to the ethical design question of how to manage our busy lives. This Foucauldian turn in internet discourse sets in now that we have left behind the initial stages of hype, crash, and mass uptake. Can we live a beautiful life with a smart phone, or is our only option to switch it off and forget about it? Do we really have to be bothered with retweeting each other’s messages for the rest of our lives? When will the social fad that is Silicon Valley be over and done with? We are ready to move on. Time to send your last lolcats.