The Daily Heller: Slow, Slower, Slowest

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The Slowdown is a media platform that “provides context and clarity around some of the most relevant and pressing issues of our time: culture, nature and the future.” Through storytelling, its curators bring together critical perspectives across various disciplines to capture an emerging worldview.

The Slowdown principals, Spencer Bailey and Andrew Zuckerman, currently produce two podcasts, Time Sensitive and At a Distance, as well as a weekly flagship newsletter. Time Sensitive features candid, revealing portraits of curious and courageous people in business, the arts and beyond who have a distinct perspective on time.

I spoke with Zuckerman about the present and future of this burgeoning platform.

Tell me about how you and Spencer Bailey became The Slowdown.
Spencer and I share the desire to make the moment we’re in visible and coherent, and we’re creating a space for this to take shape. The Slowdown is, for us, an opportunity to take stock. We want to sort through the multitude of cultural positions and perspectives to clarify how our relationship to the world is changing, and will change into the future. To think about how we’re thinking about technology, humanity and nature.

In today’s fast-paced content landscape, people are getting bits and pieces of information—and often misinformation. This is creating a two-dimensional perspective. What we’re trying to do at The Slowdown is synthesize things in a three-dimensional way. It’s about creating storytelling that can be experienced emotionally—a way of exploring the world that’s felt, not just seen. With our website and weekly newsletter, organized by See, Touch, Taste, Hear and Smell, we put an emphasis on the senses, highlighting a broad spectrum of cultural and social subjects. We hope that everything we make offers a refreshing, measured and balanced counterpoint to the cacophony of much of digital media today.

We began the company many months before we made anything—it was a period of lots of research and discussions around what we wanted to explore. I had spent my whole adult life in physical production and tangible outputs, and I needed to make something before I went crazy. Spencer had been running a magazine, which was all about production and deadlines, too. 

We both were just really itching to make something, so we decided to begin with a humble medium that had room for us to expand on. We also liked the intimacy of the conversational podcast format. Our focus was to profile our subjects through the lens of time: not only how they use it, but how different moments in time have shaped their life and who they are today. Consider our conversation with Peter Sarsgaard: Most know him as an actor, but on the episode, he also goes into his experiences as a long-distance marathon runner, mandolin player and apple-orchard farmer, painting a much broader picture of a life and not just a career.

In this cacophony of pods, casts, shows, series, videos, digitals, etc., what is your ultimate goal?
There has always been lots of choice in the market of media. This has expanded greatly with digital, and it’s only going to expand further from here. We’re oriented to highly curated storytelling that offers clarity around the most pressing issues of our time, through the lenses of culture, nature and the future. A focus on the upstream is not mainstream, but it’s where the real influence often is, and where the agents of change tune in. We’re following the “who, not how many” approach.

Do you find that your organizing principle—the senses—allows consumers to consume at a more reasonable, enjoyable and edifying pace?
Organizing through the senses allows us to think about the whole person and provides a framework to serve a balanced meal. I love the brevity, which allows a reader to slow down for a short period of time to consider an idea, project or object within the context of their own senses. This can be profoundly helpful in a media landscape that is often going for the limbic system.

I enjoyed reading your book AT A DISTANCE. Perhaps more than any catastrophe (natural, manmade or both) in recent history, the COVID life has forced virtually everyone to become more thoughtful, introspective, reflective and, to a great extent, more caring of others. How does this sync with your rationale for the book?
The throughline of the book is system-level thinking: observations about how society is currently organized and operating, and the ways in which these structures can evolve to better serve people and the planet. Prior to the pandemic, many of us had become disconnected from the primary act of sustaining our own lives. The book presents an opportunity to reexamine our priorities for how we want to live. The philosopher Simon Critchley, our good friend and a contributor to the book, as well as a frequent listener to the podcast, I think summed it up really well when we asked him to share his thoughts with us: To my mind, At a Distance was the most consequent and thoughtful response to the congealed awfulness and difficulty of the pandemic. I listened to it all the time for insight and consolation. It slowed me down. Spencer and Andrew succeeded in getting the tone of the times exactly right, again and again. This book is a wonderfully pleasing and capacious panorama that captures the mood of that time, which was, lest we forget, a revealing, a stripping away, a taking account and responsibility for our action, that has to continue as we move into whatever is going to be our future.”

How does the book fit into your overall Slowdown Media profile?
I think the book is a prime example of how we approach storytelling. What we did was create a space for intimate conversation, and then we figured out how to capture, synthesize, contextualize and share that story. We captured wisdom in the form of upstream thinking, to be drawn upon as we continue to move forward. We made each hour-long podcast into a few minutes of reading, and then contextualized it through annotation, visualized the Earth through my Apollo series images, and designed the book into a coherent, beautiful object. Now there’s a document of observations about how society is currently organized and operating, and the ways in which these structures can evolve to better serve people and the planet.

Overall, the book is a way of thinking about the world, as well as a way of thinking about thinking about the world. It’s not prescriptive; there are no one-size-fits-all models here. It’s really about capturing and distilling some of the best thinking around to understand how to make collective change going forward—and being inspired to act on it. Like opening a toolbox, there are many ideas to pull out in order to take certain actions. It can be read and used in a variety of ways.

The design is elegant, quiet, intimate, though personal. What did you want from your subjects? Did they give you what you expected? Were you surprised?
I expected some of the people we talked with to know exactly what we should be doing. But it was the economist Chris Canavan, in our third episode, who made it clear that, even with degrees, titles, board positions and accolades, there wasn’t a person on earth who knew how to get the world out of this mess. 

In my mind, COVID lockdown (distance) forced a slowdown, and now we’re rushing to make up for lost time and space. Do you agree? Did we lose the silver lining of restructuring our collective and individual lives?
I think it’s different for everyone, but personally speaking, things have fundamentally changed and they’re not going back. I’m optimistic that many of us are on a new path that considers the health and harmony for people and the planet. I’m certain that the question of what has become of our relationship with nature, and with each other, will remain central for a long time.

What’s next for you and Spencer?
The Slowdown is a place for us to continue to translate and explore the trends of thought and nascent thinking that we believe will shape our future. We’ll continue to explore a range of disciplines and backgrounds, to get a wide-lens, long-view perspective on the moment, and share these insights and stories in beautiful ways.

Posted inCOVID-19 The Daily Heller