An influential and astute philosopher once mused, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Of course I quote not Aristotle, nor Kant, nor Wittgenstein, but the illustrious Ferris Bueller . This was his conclusion after taking a day off.

Our 1980’s high school hero speaks through a filter of pop-ideology, but I think Ferris was on to something. He’s talking about what I’d call “cultural velocity.” In physics, velocity measures the rate of change in position of a given object. But in order to derive it, the object’s speed and direction are both required. Now, I am by no means qualified to continue this physics lesson-not that measuring the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow isn’t interesting (let alone hilarious). But I see a great need to apply our investigation of velocity to culture.

Why? Because things are in fact “moving pretty fast” in our day. Snippets of news and information zoom past our perceptual fields, very few of them providing a meaningful web of context by which I might understand or evaluate the place of this information in my life, my community or the world. Inundated with information in this “information age,” we are given headlines passively. Just enough to keep up with the next bite-sized bit.

Regardless of how slow things move through my home internet connection, our Western, modern, science- and tech-led world moves undeniably and ever-increasingly fast, but in what direction? It’s not enough to only have a speedometer. We need a compass too. By “direction,” I mean the content, purpose and influence. Yes, the ethics of the matter. Understanding and evaluating science, politics, education, technology, economy, religion, etc. surely depends on more than just how fast we can go. And here is where it gets ugly.

For every new snippet of news about a team of scientists successfully cloning a monkey , enriching the life of a mouse , or, as I caught wind of recently, successfully cloning human embryos , there is a meaning, purpose and influence in all of these progressions-and we ought to call them into question. In what direction are we being led?

In The Way of the (Modern) World , Craig Gay observes that “the spectacular technological achievements of recent centuries have encouraged us to imagine either that we are capable of mastering the world, or that we have no choice but to try to do so.” And our advances in length and quality of human life over the past century have conditioned those of us in thriving countries to expect continual progress and plenty, and now we’re addicted to it. Neil Postman calls this techno-hegemony ” technopoly “:

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.

We are intolerant of ignorance and mystery, and obsessed with knowing; we are intolerant of restraint and ethical boundaries, and obsessed with progress.

We are a culture of excess , full of stuff, entitlement issues, and ourselves. I think it is this excess that drives the continual efforts to squelch the voices calling for virtue in biotechnology and science. Values like these generally don’t make it to the agenda:

  • Stewardship (responsible care for ourselves and the resources we control, or the people we interact with)
  • Humility (seeing ourselves rightly, without inflated or deflated ideas of ourselves)
  • Meekness (bridled and controlled use of strength and ability)
  • Community (loving awareness of other human persons)
  • Sacrifice (willingness to disregard our own needs for the sake of others)

Such virtues, if enacted and lived out, would only serve to enhance our lives, but the sci-tech culture defines what it means to “enhance” quite differently. Legislated regulation and ethical limitation are cast as anti-science and even anti-human. But what of a culture that identifies its very essence with its technology? It has adopted a mechanical soul. No wonder we see fearful lashing out against any and all proposed limitations or regulations: those things threaten all that we have made ourselves to be.

To forget our nature as finite human creatures is foolish. This intense cultural velocity, powered by the excess of modern technology, simply cannot go on forever. In ignoring ethical guides and boundaries in the pursuit of longer, better, more full-of-stuff lives, we certainly cut ourselves off, defeating ourselves from the very beginning. This race isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, to be run with perseverance and virtuous direction.

So what can we do to slow down, examine our lives, and seek understanding? Or must we speed up? Must culture slow down? Can it slow down? Are we hurtling through space at dangerously incalculable speeds?

Evan Rosa, CBC Staff Writer, is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, where he earned B.A.s in Philosophy and Linguistics. Evan blogs here at Cultural Velocity.