A few days ago I entered a famous sanctuary in the city of Pompeii. Whereas many people know Pompeii for the ruins after the Vesuvius eruption of 79 a.C., the church of Pompeii is even more famous for many devoted Italians who pay a visit to Our Lady of Pompeii.
While I was there, looking at the beautiful paintings on walls and ceilings, I noticed several people, of all ages, sitting and praying or simply meditating. Their status deeply touched me. Not because of any religious fervor, but because their quiet demeanor, their lack of urgency, looked so natural there and yet in striking contrast with how we seem to be living our lives today.
This made me reflect about how much things have changed during my lifetime. When I was a kid in downtown Milan, the city was almost quiet, with many fewer cars, the small shops where people would spend more time chatting with the owner than actually buying what they needed. My day had clear boundaries: time to go to school, time to eat (at relatively fixed times, as the whole family would eat together), time to go out and see friends. There was very little or no overlap. There were no videogames, computers, ipods, there was no TV during the day and TV was just B&W. So sometimes we had even time to get bored and to figure out ways to make a better use of our spare time. A branch would become a sword or a gun, a little piece of carton between the spokes would turn our bikes into “roaring” motorbikes, a piece of paper turned into a ball would make us play soccer or volleyball matches during the breaks in between lessons at school.
My kids live a different, more hectic life. They have Facebook open while doing their home assignment, and jump from posting the solution to the class group to chatting about a new song almost seamlessly. They cannot stand being bored as they fill all those little gaps in between their (many) activities with electronic toys, compulsive sharing and socialization.
Things are very different also in our work life. My father would come back from work and switch off from being a bank employee to being a father and a husband, and at most he would gripe about work during the first course over dinner and then talk about something else. Week ends were sacred too. For me, well work and personal life overlap all the time, as I may be traveling for business over a week end or have a team call at dinner time.
The whole pace of life has accelerated like never before. Just look at how stock markets react almost instantly to negative or positive news, how the reputation of individuals is impacted by social media gossip, how global supply chains are optimized by using quasi real time information.
The history of the world have made it faster, especially through the technology advances of the 19th and 20th century: combustion engine and electricity and all that came with those, from cars, trains, planes, to telecommunications, computers, and the Internet. The pace keeps accelerating and our business and social models have adapted accordingly. We have seen more wealth, the progress of new parts of the world. even more global collaboration across many countries to face challenges and solve problems.
On the other hand, it is not all gold that glitters. The attention span of consumers as well as kids is shortening to levels that make meaningful interactions and learning processes very hard to function. My wife, who has been a teacher in high school for many years, witnesses decreased performance of new students hitting 9th grade year-over-year. People seem increasingly impatient when they have to queue and tolerance for even minor disservice has become very low: I, for one. often complain on Facebook about all sorts of glitches with government or financial services, things that I would easily tolerate ten years ago and I would never think about sharing instantly with hundreds of friends.
I am no Luddite and I have always been working in or around innovation. But as I look at how rapidly situations and sentiments swing as a consequence of 24×7 connectivity through most of the world, I wonder whether and how we can distill some of the experiences from our previous life.
Little things like pausing before responding an email or an IM. as we would if we had to hand-write a letter, buy postage and mail it. Things like taking a little time for ourselves to just reflect about what we are doing it, without falling hostage to the compulsive need for being up to date and visible at every single instant of our life. Things like teaching our kids that boredom is an important – better – an essential component of their becoming adults. Things like trying to teach human science like literature, ancient Greek, Latin, history, without being obsessed with how to make them immediately applicable but valuing that through those disciplines kids will learn how to learn and will set foundations that will come to fruition when least expected.
Let’s set ourselves apart from all those loungers who have been riding the Internet revolution from the “new economy” at the turn of the century to the “social enterprise” today, and do nothing else than cashing on those phenomena and trends. Let’s digest what’s happening around us, pretty much like we digested philosophy or arts or Latin or advanced math, and use all these as tools to help us understand and shape the future. Let’s listen before talking, let’s learn before teaching, let’s establish our identity before having it established for us by others.
This is not dissimilar from what so many previous generations before us have done. And they are the ones who built sanctuaries, buildings, symphonies that stood the test of time.