Last month, I attended a talk by former-UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I don't agree with him on everything but he is an excellent speaker — animated, articulate, and thoughtful. After his talk, he answered questions thrown at him by former-New Brunswick Premier, Frank McKenna.
Mr. Blair delivered very insightful answers, as befitting a former political leader. But what impressed me the most was that he often took a few seconds before responding. And he occasionally paused to think during his responses. He didn't deliver instant twenty second sound bytes that the media love. Instead, Mr. Blair considered each question seriously and answered appropriately.
It was a refreshing departure from the rapid-fire delivery we've grown accustomed to over the years. But perhaps it's time we revisit this obsession with speed. Never before has there been a greater need for some heavy thinking before action.
We live in a time when we are assaulted by a cacophony of demands for attention. I watch my children navigate as they effortlessly download pop songs, watch snippets on YouTube, check out their friends on Facebook, tune in to missed university class lectures and chat away via the computer. Convenience, immediacy and brevity are striking features in this brave new world.
It also extends to their choices in entertainment. Young people spend hours amusing themselves with Playstations, Xboxes, and Wii video game consoles. In this electronic virtual world, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between recordings of actual events and computer-generated images.
As players manipulate controls to "kick" an onscreen football or wage war against alien invaders, their shouts and body contortions suggest they are experiencing the heart thumping adrenalin rush of the real thing.
I think the experience these electronic games offer is even better than the real thing. In the virtual world, one can have the kinkiest sex without contracting sexually transmitted diseases, lose a gunfight and live to fight again, crash a car during a race and return in a brand new vehicle.
Television is no different. Programs also enhance reality by using a soundtrack to cue a specific emotion, or a sound effect to add some sparkle to a punch between stuntmen.
Of course, I'm describing fictional programs like action shows, sitcoms, and dramas that are meant to entertain. It had always been my conceit that the programs we did on The Nature of Things would present the wonders of nature so that people would fall in love with the rest of creation. But now I realize that in many ways, we too present a virtual world that is better than the real thing.
Let me take you behind the curtain for a moment: The producer or host of a segment on, say, Arctic polar bears, doesn't spend months filming footage. We send a cameraman to gather as many fantastic shots as possible — a bear capturing a seal, two males fighting, a family breaking out of its icy den, etc. Once the filming is done, these sequences are edited together into a film that gives the impression that the Arctic is a flurry of activity. But that's because we've edited out the most important aspect of this ecosystem: Time.
Nature needs time to reveal her secrets. And nature needs time to cleanse, replenish and renew herself. The Arctic. The Great Bear Rainforest. The Sahara Desert. The Amazon. The Great Barrier Reef. The Grand Canyon. All of these regions and ecosystems are unique because of the way biological diversity, wind, soil, water, and time have worked together for centuries.
But in television, we present a version of nature on steroids, a world full of adrenalin jolts per minute.
This is symptomatic of how much society has speeded up in our search for thrills. Nowadays, we expect everything to be instant and abundant. Without a sense of the important role that time plays in nature, humans expect the natural world to yield more, faster.
We look to our genetic engineers to breed bigger, faster growing trees, fish and grains which will enable us to carry on with practices that denude the mountains, empty the oceans and fill the atmosphere with planet-warming molecules. Without considering the role of time, we miss a crucial ingredient that has made these things what they are in the first place.
It's time we reconsider the role of time in our decisions and our technologies. Maybe we all need to slow down, take time to read, think, exchange ideas and deliberate questions of who we are, where we come from, where we are heading and what life is all about. If not now, when?