I recently spoke with Farman about the tyranny of email, why texting is so popular, and whether the pace of life felt slower to people who lived in earlier eras. The conversation that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
Joe Pinsker: I find that one of the phrases I type most frequently is “Sorry for the delay,” and it’s something other people often write to me too. What layers of meaning are bundled up in that phrase?
Jason Farman: When we’re apologizing for our delays, I think we’re acknowledging how busy we all are, and how overwhelming it is to have as many messages come at us with expectations throughout a day. As technology has increased the pace of life, we are given a moral imperative of using our time wisely and using our time productively, but it’s getting more and more difficult, because the expectations are coupled with the acceleration of connection.
So waiting, within that context, is often understood as wasted time: When someone makes me wait, they’re wasting my most valuable resource, my time, and preventing me from living up to that moral expectation of using time wisely. My book, then, tries to flip that on its head, to look at how waiting can be an antidote to some of these notions of acceleration and productivity that we actually just can’t keep up with.
Read: Why no one answers their phone anymore
Pinsker: In the book, you look at communications from the past, going back tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. How long have people been apologizing for their delay and noting their inability to keep up?
Farman: You see it throughout history—there are moments when people are constantly explaining their delayed responses. It’s really pervasive if you look back through war letters, for example during the Civil War. Almost all of them begin with a kind of marker of time—I received your last letter of September 21 yesterday—and then they go on to explain why they hadn’t yet responded. Because in this moment, they’re keenly aware that the people who they’re connecting with might take the silence as “that person has died or is injured or is lost.”
I think that message is most profound in moments when delays signal something dire, but it does weave itself into mundane, everyday relationships too. Because we are using these technologies to establish a rhythm of our relationships, when that rhythm is disrupted, we feel obligated to explain why.
Pinsker: Have people always felt that the pace of life is accelerating in the way they do today?
Farman: You do see this compression of time in our own moment that’s remarkable, so I imagined that as I was going to look back through history I would see that human experiences of time would be qualitatively different, because the technologies would be slower at the time.
What I ended up finding was that you have people across eras feeling the pull into this accelerated future, as the technologies that keep us in touch with one another speed up—as well as the promise that we will one day be connected at such a pace that it will eliminate waiting altogether.