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Centennial Speaker Upbeat on Technology’s Downside

"Slow down," Alan Lightman tells his audience, a simple and optimistic remedy to overwhelming acceleration and accessibility.
“Slow down,” Alan Lightman tells his audience, a simple and optimistic remedy to overwhelming acceleration and accessibility.
An attentive crowd hears a tailor-made message.
An attentive crowd hears a tailor-made message.
A Centennial throng of students, employees and the public extends to the ACC Auditorium balcony.
A Centennial throng of students, employees and the public extends to the ACC Auditorium balcony.
Lightman describes a world that is "faster, less patient, louder and more wired" – but one that is not beyond reclamation.
Lightman describes a world that is “faster, less patient, louder and more wired” – but one that is not beyond reclamation.
The latest event in a yearlong 100th-birthday celebration
The latest event in a yearlong 100th-birthday celebration

Affirming that the speed of communication governs the pace of life, a visiting physicist, author and educator made a regretful confession to his Penn College audience Tuesday: “I rarely goof off.” No matter the amount of time available – seconds can be spent answering phone messages, minutes are allotted to email responses and hours devoted to work on an article or book – Alan Lightman lamented that he no longer wastes that precious commodity. Contrasting his “long childhood detours through the woods” with his adult status as “a prisoner of the wired world,” he called for a more selective, reflective approach to time management; challenging us, individually and as a nation, to “take the time to think about where we’re going.” While he is far from anti-technology (Skype and other tools keep him connected to his nonprofit Harpswell Foundation), Lightman said society pays a heavy price for its advanced gadgetry. Among them are an obsession with speed and a corresponding impatience with relative slowness, an overload of not-always-useful information, confusing the cyberworld with reality, and the dual absence of silence and privacy. “I have lost something of my inner self,” he said; that quiet “soul space” where imagination, dreaming and exploration dwell. Lightman invoked the philosophy of Francis Bacon and Benjamin Franklin, who only championed technological invention when it served humanity. And it is humans, he said, who have the power to reverse the dizzying course and reclaim the “certain amount of stillness” required to balance societal progress with internal peace. The presentation of “Our Home in the Material Universe” to a packed Klump Academic Center Auditorium, especially written for the college’s Centennial Colloquia Series, was introduced by physics professor David S. Richards (who noted his favorite novel is Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams”). The series will conclude Tuesday, Nov. 18, with “Technology, Power and Responsibility,” presented by Craig A. Miller, assistant professor of history/political science.
Photos by Dalaney T. Vartenisian, student photographer