Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything , by James Gleick. Pantheon Books, 324 pages, $24.
As parenting and Web surfing have overtaken my life, I’ve found myself with less and less time for reading books (at least books that aren’t illustrated and don’t rhyme). This busyness, somewhat paradoxically, makes me a target demo reader for James Gleick’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything , an inquiry into how and why so many of us feel pressed.
However, the only quality time I could set aside to read Faster was on a recent vacation in Maine, and, floating on an inner tube in a lake while a heron flew by, I found the book less convincing than I otherwise might have.
In his opening chapter, Mr. Gleick–whose two previous books, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Chaos: Making a New Science , were both nominees for the National Book Award–declares, “We are in a rush. We are making haste. A compression of time characterizes the life of the century now closing.”
In Mr. Gleick’s eyes, Time has become the ruling god of our culture; we’re all too damn busy, hurtling forward at exponentially increasing speed. Time has been commodified; efficiency industries have sprung up to (allegedly) save us time, we all “multitask” to accomplish our chores milliseconds quicker.
Yet it’s all in vain. Devices like the remote control and redial button, conceived as leisure-enhancing, have instead ratcheted up our activity. The TV networks have been squeezing content into shows’ end credits trying desperately to hold our attention. We are drowning in a sea of information, laden with Palm Pilots, beepers and cell phones lest we start falling behind.
“Time, not money, takes center stage in the new economy,” Mr. Gleick argues. Elsewhere, he adds: “Our culture has been transformed from one with time to fill and time to spare to one that views time as a thing to guard, hoard and protect.”
I certainly can sympathize. Writing is one of the professions most acutely affected by this recent acceleration. Back in 1983 when I was working on my college thesis, half my time was taken up just retyping drafts. I remember feeling lucky that for the final version, I had access to my father’s cumbersome office contraption that stored two (yes, two) typed pages on a magnetic card the size of a business envelope, which then had to be hand-fed back into the machine to get a daisy-wheel printout. My early freelance articles were typed on an electric typewriter and mailed to editors via (gasp!) the U.S. Postal Service.
This behavior now seems as archaic as churning your own butter. Yet the speeding up hasn’t given me more time for anything. Editors simply want stories written and rewritten that much faster. The Web, despite providing innumerable shortcuts, is also one of the biggest time sinkholes ever devised. I pick up e-mail every half-hour–then spend the next 15 minutes replying.
But in Maine, I was definitely out of the eye of Mr. Gleick’s hurricane. I left the laptop home to keep e-mail (and Ebay) at bay; I had no answering machine and only beeped in for messages every couple of days; once or twice I even forgot to buy The New York Times . (This is not to suggest that Maine isn’t wired: A woman down the road baked bread in her kitchen and sold her loaves at a roadside stand; her business card included an e-mail address.)
Still, Mr. Gleick is a wide-ranging thinker who finds traces of this modern disease in everything from shelled pistachio nuts to prewashed jeans to a Starbucks “travel lid,” and deftly interjects references to everyone from Karl Marx to H.G. Wells to Nicholson Baker. Readers are treated to fun historical factoids and figures, like Frederick W. (Speedy) Taylor whose1903treatise,”ShopManagement,” instructed industrialists in the science of stepping up the throttle on the humans working factory machines.
Mr. Gleick is at his most entertaining when he’s debunking books on time-saving, which, he notes, never accurately depict how people actually spend their time, and are “constantly admonishing people to do things,” many of which, he notes, are less pleasant than the activities they replace, and barely save any time to boot.
Faster is certainly a quick read–except for an impenetrable foray into numerical theory–because Mr. Gleick himself almost seems in a rush to finish each chapter. Indeed, they’re not so much chapters as thought bytes, rarely longer than 10 pages, self-consciously designed for today’s dwindling attention span. But the brevity can make it too choppy to follow his train of thought; for instance, sandwiched between one chapter that discusses air-traffic controllers and another about how airlines decide where to send a particular jet every day, he inserts one about cooking and efficiency experts. He barely spends any time on Fed Ex, which would seem a natural centerpiece, but inexplicably spends time with director Barry Levinson on the set of Sphere .
Mr. Gleick tries to prove several points about today’s populace by citing the personal experience of a single obscure individual without identifying how he
came to find these subjects–my guess is through Internet queries, since most of them mention e-mail. That would pass muster in a newsweekly’s “trend” cover story but looks flimsier in book form. Lacking hard figures, he’s often forced just to shrug his shoulders: “It seems that we are quicker-witted,” he writes, “but have we, by way of compensation, traded away our capacity for deep concentration? No one knows for sure.”
His somewhat nuttier research forays include getting actress June Lockhart from the old TV series Lost in Space to comment on how their set designers misimagined the future (there were rotary phones on the spaceship), and visiting the Government’s atomic-clock keeper and trying to discern what kind of watch he wears.
Ultimately, Mr. Gleick winds up stating the obvious–that we are as busy as we make ourselves. But he ignores several deeper, more interesting questions about this phenomenon. For instance, early on, he glancingly acknowledges that this acceleration is predominantly felt in large, prosperous cities; which begs the question of the millions of other Americans who are, for example, milking cows or setting lobster traps, not to mention the world’s inhabitants who have never seen, say, a pair of shoes.
Much later, Mr. Gleick mentions in passing: “Having a secretary … is, of course, one of the most time-honored of all time-saving tips, but it doesn’t help if you can’t afford a secretary or if you are a secretary.” This is the only time he even hints that there’s a budgetary divide in this acceleration. Are the technological have-nots being dragged along into moving faster, or is their world being left in the dust by the haves? Ultimately, his use of the first-person plural (“We are in a rush”) doesn’t
really hold water.
is our era’s progress really the speediest ever, or are we just myopic? The other book I read in Maine was Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One –even though I’d read it before, so efficiency experts would classify me as a real time-waster. This time I noticed that in recollecting the 1920′s, Mr. Hart described many speedy changes around him–like the new mass manufacture of cigars, which put his father, who hand-rolled them, out of business–that could have led someone back then to write a book not unlike Mr. Gleick’s.
Which leads me to conclude that things have always moved faster than they did yesterday. Except, of course, for that heron flying lazily across Damariscotta Lake.
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