News travels faster than thought

For just over a century now, people have been expecting to communicate almost immediately. It was during the First World War that this first started to happen, and ever since it has been causing us increasing problems. The reason for this is that, much as we like to convince ourselves otherwise, humans actually aren’t very good at thinking very quickly.

I’ve been reading Janet Nelson’s marvellous biography of Charlemagne,* which I thoroughly recommend even if you don’t have any interest in mediaeval history. Life around 800 CE was very different from anything of which we have experience, so Professor Nelson tackles some of the more important differences in her introduction. Among them is the speed with which news travelled: until this started to change in the nineteenth century, that was determined by the speed of a messenger on horseback.

Professor Nelson quotes (via Geoffrey Parker) a British diplomat in 1917, who complained “of ‘the rapidity of communication by telegraph and telephone’, which ‘leave no time for reflection or consultation and demand an immediate and often hasty decision’.”

It’s worth dwelling a few moments to consider the differences. In Charlemagne’s day, urgent news from Rome might take three weeks to reach the king. His greatest advisor the scholar Alcuin spent his later years in Tours, so Charlemagne might think about the issue for a day or two, before sending a letter to him, then wait a couple of weeks for his response. After a few weeks discussing the matter by letter, Charlemagne might be ready to respond. Crises unrolled over weeks and months rather than seconds.

Not only that, but discussions and decisions often relied on written arguments, which had to be phrased and understood with care. With such long turnaround times for correspondence, there was little room for error. Getting the message across was more than just a key skill, and misunderstanding could be multiply fatal.

Today, we expect to be seeing video footage of major news stories within a few minutes at most. I recall watching the unprecedented tragedy of 9/11 as it unfolded on TV from the other side of the Atlantic, for example. We expect reporters and commentators to tell us immediately what is happening, and what it means, even though the fog of war usually envelopes most major events.

We then respond on social media within a few minutes, without ever cogitating on what has happened, and some of us burst into blogs or posts of our own within hours, before the story goes cold. By the time that Charlemagne would have been ready to make his decision, our story will have long vanished into the archives.

Put even the most astute mind under severe time pressure, and you get a lot of bad misjudgements and blatant errors. How often when we wake up the following day do we regret what we thought and said in haste?

Look at those trained to respond rapidly to potentially grave events, like pilots, surgeons, and emergency responders, and you see that they repeatedly rehearse scenarios, to minimise the free decision making involved, and turn as much as possible into learned sequences.

A simple example of this is driving a vehicle in a skid, something which requires very quick reactions and correction. A naive driver will try to turn the vehicle out of the skid, which spins it side-on and loses control completely. Driver skill training not only teaches the driver to do the opposite, and steer into the skid to regain control, but rehearses it repeatedly on a skid pan, until that becomes a learned behaviour. Given sufficient time and knowledge of mechanics, I’m sure that someone fairly smart could work this out for themselves, but doing that when your vehicle is skidding is overwhelmingly difficult.

Our immediate reactions to events are often driven largely by emotion and ‘gut reaction’, rather than cold reason. But once we’ve expressed our emotional response in a tweet or post, it’s so much harder to recant later, when we’ve had that chance to think things through more rationally. By that time, our knee-jerk has often been amplified by others anyway, and acquired its own kinetic energy.

Maybe we should start deliberately holding back, reflecting, and responding more rationally, rather than dumping from our heart as quickly as we can type the words in.

* Janet L Nelson (2019) King and Emperor, A New Life of Charlemagne, Allen Lane. ISBN 978 0 713 99243 4.