Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Warped Speed

James Gleick offers a shallow glimpse of the quickening pace of contemporary life

By Damon Smith

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, by James Gleick. (Pantheon), 304 pages, $24.

Writing in his notebooks in the winter of 1857, Karl Marx theorized that velocity would play an important role in a fully developed "world market," arguing that modern capitalist society would need to surmount the impediments of space and time in order to sustain the creation of new wealth. Indeed, few analysts today would dispute that the newest tools of commerce -- the Internet and other telecommunications devices -- have helped engineer globalization by collapsing great distances between people, intensifying the flow of information between them, and making possible the exchange of billions of dollars every day.

In his latest book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, former New York Times science writer James Gleick trains his eye on such matters, exploring different facets of contemporary life that demonstrate just how addicted to speed much of the world has become. Divided into short chapters with semi-amusing titles such as "On Your Mark, Get Set, Think" and "7.15. Took Shower," Faster sutures together bits of history, first-person anecdotes, broad generalizations about humanity, and statistics culled from surveys on how Americans use their time, all in order to illustrate a fairly platitudinous point: ours is a fast-paced, channel-surfing, multi-tasking, time-obsessed culture. This may appear obvious to just about anyone living, but Gleick adds one caveat; most people, he says, suffer from varying degrees of "hurry sickness," the byproduct of an increasingly technocratic world. The coinage applies just as well to his book, a well-written but ultimately shallow treatment of how speed and the desire for efficiency are changing us.

According to Gleick's research, hurry sickness is especially prevalent here in the United States, where official time is now measured in increments so small (nanoseconds) that they are perceptible only to navigational satellites and computers. To underscore our unusual sensitivity to time and our talent for compressing it, Gleick notes that those one-second pauses between TV shows are ancient history, eliminated by producers who viewed them as a "waste of time." Action movies and ads, he explains, barrage our senses with video images at an unrelenting, breakneck pace, following the lead of MTV; meanwhile, devices such as cell phones and fax machines have become essential to the lifestyles of "mobile professionals." And in the home, popular conveniences such as microwaves, quick-heating toasters, and fast-playback answering machines yield a few precious extra seconds to their apparently harried users. "Much of life has become a game show," Gleick writes, "our fingers perpetually poised above the buzzer. We're either the quick or the dead."

Gleick is attentive to the paradoxes of all this efficiency madness, and he does ask some interesting questions, such as whether it is really possible to "save time" at all. For instance, although the widespread use of electronic mail has left us more connected these days than we were a decade ago, businesses and consumers alike must now deal with information glut, which tends to decrease productivity: "Reading E-mail starts to feel like a forced march through a shadeless landscape." And news media, Gleick reminds us, cater to the time-pressured populace by offering sound bites instead of sustained analysis, and USA Today-like blurbs in place of text-heavy articles. But what exactly happens to the time "freed" by such practices? Do people simply fill it with more tasks? Can anyone squeeze more than 1440 minutes out of a 24-hour day?

Ironically, Faster suffers from the very affliction that it seeks to diagnose: a kind of motion sickness. Pixel-sized snapshots of a world warped by adrenaline and sleep deprivation race past on every page, but collectively they don't add up to much more than a fuzzy picture of middle-class anxiety. That's because Gleick is reluctant to interpret these sketches for the reader, to present a thesis beyond the patent truth that money, people, and machines all seem to move more rapidly today than in the past. At best, he offers tepid quasi-philosophical remarks such as this: "It may help to think of time as a continuous flow, rather than a series of segmented packages . . . Or at least to recognize that neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in."

Propelled by the fuel of such casuistry, Faster probes the terrain of everyday urban life, collecting a broad array of samples -- but Gleick, the scientist, never subjects his odd little specimens to a thorough analysis. Although he never hesitates to point out that our attention spans are shorter and our desire for stimulation greater, he seems content merely to provide us with examples of life's quickening pace instead of trying to understand the meaning of all this movement.

Karl Marx, for his part, suggested that once a capitalist economy began to operate on a global scale, the sheer velocity required to keep it going would eventually produce explosive (and fatal) crises. Quite a thought, given the market collapses in Asia and South America -- but then again, Marx probably had a lot more time on his hands.

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