Both Sides Now: London’s Contradictory Modalities of Slow and Fast // Jessica Poon

Much has been said about how the pandemic has not merely disrupted our ways of being, but accelerated geopolitical tensions at the level of the nation state and our patterns of consumption on an individual level. One of the reactions that has resulted from the pandemic’s illumination of previously intangible structures has been a conscious, reflective attempt to slow down.

Though attempts to slow down have been held as an ideal, a luxury and a rarity otherwise (think the commodification of “sleep” as a market, the rise of ethically produced “slow” fashion, nose-to-tail eating and of, course the longstanding cult of slow food), the pandemic has been positioned a moment for those living in the throes of fast-paced metropolitan culture to turn aspirations into a reality.1 The rhythm of the city has traditionally defaulted to speed, a symptom of globalisation which Lyotard has remarked on; “one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games.” The city as a site for speed is a phenomenon well-documented in pop culture from the highbrow to the lowbrow; Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis Frank Miller’s Sin City and serialised in the Fast and Furious films, to cite but a few examples. The city as a site of speed in both its cultural expressions and lived reality has proved to be a stark economic divider, drawing a line between those who can afford to negotiate slow living within the realms of the city and those who cannot. Nowhere was this more evident than in London, a city lauded as much as it is criticised for its fast pace, which saw the defining feature of the city halt almost entirely in the spring of 2020.

For a Londoner, returning home to the city for the first time after the turmoil of nearly being stranded abroad was an exercise in absurdism. Having flown in the months prior on to Venice, Bratislava and Dublin in turn, the emptying of airports was a slow premonition for the unpeopling of cities. A city without its definitive rhythms dictated by the pace of its people, and the friction of jostling commuters in constant transit saw home become less like home and more like a study of history in the making. The haunting photos of the city’s financial heartlands taken in early spring, exhibited a spectre of its former self, with fleeting glimpses of bike couriers, passing through to deliver creature comforts to workers in absentia, lone buskers, and masked stragglers displacing the sight of crowds on perpetually bustling streets. These photos remain a testament to what thousands of climate change protestors set out to achieve but could not. There is a deep irony of an invisible pandemic laying bare the straits of late capitalism and by extension, the failures of neoliberalism. A further irony is found in the taste for slower living correlating with a demand for fast food deliveries. There is a tension between unlocking slow living (through appliances, home office equipment) via the consumption of online goods and same day door-to-door deliveries. Fast consumption for slow living becomes a dynamic which was taken for granted even before the pandemic, but a mode which has reached a new pace with the advent of COVID-19. Herein lies some of the contradictions of slow living.

While slowness appears reactionary even radical, on the surface, in actuality, it is fraught with neoliberal tendencies– less a counter to the logic of late-capitalism than it is a rebranding of it for trying times. The allure of slow culture lies in the simplicity it offers; and for those who could afford the luxury, slowness was a balm amidst a pandemic. Championing agrarian practices, reinserting friction back into consumption, a more conscious scrutiny of supply chains and a greater emphasis on kindness are not merely tenets of simplicity. They are arguably oversimplified solutions which belie a more critical logic at the heart of a supposed respite from ‘business-as-usual.’ These forms of slowness have all been posited as a form of self-care for individuals and a panacea for capitalism’s worst excesses otherwise.

Slowness as a form of self-care can be evidenced in the coping strategies adopted in the early stages of the pandemic, by those who had the dual luxuries of capital and time. People met the need for self-isolation and social distancing with varied responses, but one particularly dominant reaction is the desire to fill the void with entertainment. This entertainment comes not merely from homemade memes shared online but from streaming service monoliths. The relative stability of share prices for streaming services in an economy on the precipice of a global recession says something about what we hold onto as “essential.” Broader contradictions of fast and slow dynamics could also be evidenced in dichotomous expressions of capital. Well-documented economic barometers in the rising price of gold, a commodity notorious for its relatively languid growth, sat alongside less likely candidates in newer, faster moving properties, namely the general tech market boom, blockbuster initial public offerings (IPOs), the growth of global streaming services such as Netflix.2 And who could be surprised when both labour and recreation are so suffused with technology? There is a telling irony in the fact that we have been progressively adapting for self-isolation and social distancing for a while thanks to the tech and entertainment giants. Slowness has become a business bottom line for those in the know. Tapping into the convergence of fast profit amidst a retreat into slowness has benefitted Silicon Valley and its progenies across the tech sector.

What is often overlooked is that even the precautions we have taken to mitigate the spread and endure this pandemic are a luxury. Contrasts in access to hygiene and sanitation expose the deep divides that still exist within countries and communities alike, with variable access to healthcare personnel, testing, and other resources across borders. The same politics, biases and asymmetries plague vaccine distribution and dictate the speed of its rollout. Instead of a widespread moment of re-balancing the inequalities that were tacitly exposed by the pandemic, these are exacerbated by the widening of information gaps, the acceleration of disinformation, and the haste towards polarized views-into-political-action. These accord to an existing structural logic of capitalism in which elites are the favoured gatekeepers of knowledge, overlooking a body of commonsense thinking. The rush to dissect these hierarchies of knowledge has seen us experience a pandemic that has misinformation written into its DNA, with attempted cover ups in Wuhan at its very inception. A year that has gone by both too quickly and too slowly all at once, has been defined by humour and protest as much as it was defined by exceptionalism, we see the world over that the viral content that circulates across networks is as irreverent as it is liable to fall prey to the internet’s more malicious tendencies.

Beyond the luxuries and contradictions of slowness, there is a set of deeply consequential issues to be found in the fast proliferation of anxious content amidst an age of being alone together. We see these anxieties reach new audiences in an age of hyperconnectivity and even as early as spring, the trickle of digital missives had turned into a stream of content in the form of articles, statements, videos and newsletters. The fast spread of viral media at the time of a global virus saw equally fast lies fuel moral panic online, leading to real-life supermarket brawls over baby formula; literal spilt milk and fake riot footage. There is no quick clean-up for the disinformation and opportunism we see online, particularly at times like these; and often there are soon real-life issues to be dealt with. The line between the slow flow of truth and its accrual is at odds with the fast fiction of deceptive information. This is a pre-existing condition that underlies the spread of the pandemic. This condition has its origins steeped in “post-factual” rhetoric, being as mired in conspiracy as it is.

Those who emerge as the winners in this crisis are those who can afford to purchase slowness in its myriad forms. For the most part, the losers are those who suffer the pandemic’s worst throes of acceleration, being hastily labelled as “essential” but receiving little reward beyond rhetorical badges of recognition for honourable service and ephemeral, public gestures of applause. There has been a lot said for the labour of these essential workers, a phrase now normalised for referencing emergency services, doctors, nurses and surgeons. But what of the services that prop these up and try to endure as physical support networks and businesses for our vast online lives? What of the “dark kitchens” for delivery giants, the shop assistants, the fulfilment warehouse workers? Those fast-forgotten but equally essential labourers who do not have the privilege of working from home, treading the lines between sickness, health and rent? What of those who cannot access the luxury of slowness? Our infrastructures for risk may be sophisticated and generally cater to an increasingly complex world but this does not mean they are without foundational problems. As such, a crisis within a crisis transpires as these hierarchies are broken down, but there is some hope which lies at the very core of human nature: the strength to adapt.

For years to come, this singular, landmark event will not be siloed. This is a pandemic that has transgressed the cell membrane of mere medical phenomenon to infect politics, economics and markets in turn. After all, a plague in the information age becomes everyone’s business. But amid the crisis a compelling opportunity presents itself, one that cuts out the noise for a pause for thought. But despite the contradictions at its core, this global moment is a chance to question our essential human needs and to regain empathy in a world that often moves quicker than we can keep pace with. The pandemic has highlighted the dichotomous relationship between slowing down as a form of resistance and the inescapable acceleration which is structurally tied to capitalism. London as a site for these contradictions of fast and slow is just one city amongst many. However, London’s peculiarities for promoting life in the fast lane holds it up as a salient example of how accelerating towards fast growth can result in pyrrhic victories. Finally, COVID-19 can be viewed as an embodiment of a grand paradox we live in the age of “information obesity”: standing still, in from of our various screens, we are bombarded, through multiple channels, by accelerating stream of COVID-19 related information.

Footnotes:

1 The contradictions inherent in the commodification of slowness are visited in-depth by Filip Vostal (2017) who cites various examples across cultural happenings in The Slow Food Movement, novel objects such as slow watches, and pioneeringly, the possibilities of slow scholarship as a form of resistance.

2 The announcement that Jeff Bezos had become the world’s first trillionaire amidst the pandemic was followed in relatively quick succession by the sudden rise of a previously near-unheard of cloud computing company, Snowflake, which launched its IPO to record breaking success. It is especially worth noting the reactions to Bezos’ apotheosis to tech trillionaire, with The Atlantic dubbing this a “policy failure.” Bezos’ status as a beneficiary of the pandemic continues to show up the inequality gap between essential workers and elites with conservative estimates from Quartz suggesting that it would take the average US worker “10 times the length of all human history” to earn Bezos’ wealth, and that the tech mogul earns the annual salary of his lowest-paid employees every 11.5 seconds.


Jessica Poon is a researcher and visual artist. Her work has been exhibited internationally and she is currently director of strategy at Raunkiaer Films.