How Speedy are You?

BY TOM ODHIAMBO ‘Speed kills’ is a very common caution on our roads today. Yet many drivers won’t mind speeding (or ‘overspeeding’, as we say it in Kenya). Common lore suggests that only speed junkies love driving crazily on our roads, doing 150 kilometers per hour in an 80 km/h zone. Not really, almost every driver these days tries to see if his car can outpace the next. You only need to drive beyond the city roads and you will be confronted with some kind of ‘Safari Rally’ made up of trucks, matatu, buses, minivans; all kinds of motor vehicles. These are ‘speedy times.’ And you will look the odd one out if you aren’t on the move all the time. But why is everyone speeding? Because, apparently, it is the nature of the 21st century; really, pretty much from the 20th century. Vince Poscente’s book, The Age of Speed: Learning to Thrive in a More-Faster-Now World (2008) is probably ‘outdated’, in the context of its topic, but it is quite relevant. Indeed the book is written to be read speedily, with anecdotes, illustrations and every day truths that are reformatted to fit into the ‘speed’ mantra. In fact, in order not to preempt your reading, I will speed to the conclusion and tell you what Poscente advises. He says, “If we want to thrive in an accelerating world, we need to use the power of speed to our advantage. It’s the only way to get ahead of the rush that seems to be overtaking our lives and business.” Speed is quite important in the business world because goods and services often need to move from one point to the next in order to satisfy urgent demand. For instance, perishable goods like fresh fish or fruits need to reach the market as soon as possible. Emergency medical evacuation needs to happen quickly before loss of life or serious injury happens. In other words, in the business world the difference between profit and loss is the speed at which one organization delivers its goods or services in relation to another. The rest of the world seems to be borrowing heavily from this business model. Or people are simply caught up in the speed culture, sometimes, one imagines, without them knowing how fast they are working, moving or living. Consider the speed at which bosses ask their juniors to deliver reports or results. In many institutions this demand for quick results leads to what is known as multitasking. There are those who think that the ability to multitask is proof of one’s ingenuity, industry and productivity. But there are others who are convinced that multitasking has killed professionalism and often leads to poor results. This is a moot point. However, evidence seems to be piling up showing that too many employees, for instance, are literally ‘killing’ themselves because they are multitasking both at the office and at home. The need to get results quickly means people are carrying home two or more ‘jobs’ from the workplace and still have to accomplish more work at home than they carried from the office. In many cases technology and machines have come in handy. So, the food could be thrown into the microwave for a few minutes; the clothes into the washing machine; the kids can be given the remote control or toys; other commitments could be sorted out by a helper etc. Yet there is still ‘work’ to be done. It seems as if what is accomplished continues to pile up, every day. Eventually these speedy demands leave the individual alienated from their family, lonely, fatigued, indebted, sickly, and in many instances unproductive. All because we are pursuing the god of speed. Yet he is a very demanding god. The sacrifice is real blood and sometimes life. So, in a sense speed kills; it doesn’t have to be on the road, literally. But does speed really have to destroy humanity? Do we need to construct poor quality roads, houses and offices because we are speeding to meet the completion deadline? Why do we manufacture substandard goods just for the sake of meeting market demand? Should we overwork ourselves just so the company can declare big dividends whilst our profit at home is a broken family? Where is the speedy accumulation of money instead of making of wealth taking the society? What will be the consequence of the speeding towards political exclusion of communities deemed to be opposed to the ruling class? Speed, however, need not be a bad thing. Just remember how money transfer by phone – M-Pesa or Airtel Money – has changed the lives of Kenyans? Just 15 years ago it would take one a minimum of 7 days to send money from Nairobi to Nakuru, a distance of less than two hours travel by bus. Parcels took 3 weeks to a month to reach Mombasa, from Nairobi. But when ‘liberalization’ or speeding up of the market, happened, the monopoly (hence slowness) enjoyed by corporations that used to offer these services had to give way to ingenuity and speedy delivery of goods and services. Today, millions of people who had been locked out of education learn on the internet. Complex surgeries can now be done in places without proper hospital facilities by surgeons guided by another doctor thousands of miles away. It is likely that some people will read this essay way before those who read the hard copy see it. So, if you can, speed up your business or life, but moderately.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. 

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