In the late 1700s, after the Revolutionary War, it typically took about 40 days for letters sent within the U.S. to arrive at their destination. A hundred years later, it regularly took less than half that time, and by about 1920, with the advent of air mail, many letters arrived within a few days.
Phones, email, and texting have reduced these wait times to almost zero, but delays are still instrumental to understanding how people communicate, argues Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland. “Waiting is seen as an antiquated practice that needs to be eliminated,” he writes in his new book, Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient to the Instant World, before suggesting that something gets lost in a culture that prizes instantaneousness.
Farman’s research for the book took him to Tokyo to study texting; to an applied-physics lab to learn about the torturous hours-long waits for responses from space probes; and to various archives housing Civil War letters, medieval-era wax letter seals, and information about New York City’s intricate system of pneumatic tubes. Delayed Response also includes extended meditations on the waiting modern people do on computers and smartphones, naively anticipating that when a download finishes or a feed refreshes, their patience will be rewarded and they will feel satisfied at last.
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.
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.
Pinsker: Is there a dividing line in history where this starts to become more the case? I get the sense that the Aboriginal message-stick bearers you write about from more than 10,000 years ago were not feeling squeezed by the accelerating pace of life.
Farman: I think it’s easier to draw the line between our contemporary moment and a lot of technologies that emerged in the 19th century, like the telegraph and the pneumatic-tube mail system. But you do find moments across history where people felt this pull of acceleration and the inability to keep up with it. As people moved from oral cultures toward literate ones, some of them were overwhelmed by the amount of information they had to store and archive. During the Roman empire, Seneca noted that he felt overwhelmed by the clutter of documents on his desk—for him, seeing all these papers and all of the different kinds of bureaucracy that they represented led to a busyness of mind.
Pinsker: Did you find anything suggesting that when these 19th-century technologies were being introduced, people were worried that it’d quicken the pace of life too much?
Farman: It could be based on the kinds of archives that exist around these technologies, but in most of the research that I came across, there tended to be a lot of optimism—that a new technology would speed up our connections and solve a lot of our problems around productivity and waiting and delays by getting rid of those delays.
But in my previous research on mobile technologies specifically, I did see that as these new technologies emerge, there’s been an anxiety that they will make society less connected, less intimate, and less attentive. I’ve written, for example, about how kaleidoscopes in the early 1800s were seen at the time as very distracting, as people were walking around the streets of London staring into these tubes and bumping into walls.
So if you look at the history of media, what we see is both this fetishizing of new technologies as solving all the problems that we have with intimacy and time and connectivity, or demonizing them as taking away some of the most valuable things in our culture.
Pinsker: Do you think that people in the 19th century were more patient than we are now?
Farman: I think that’s a really hard question to answer. My impulse is no. The idea of waiting and patience is based on the circumstances of the era, on the pace of life established by an era’s technologies. So, if we think something is going to take 10 days to arrive and it takes 20, then our impatience emerges because of the inability for that technology to meet the cultural expectation of the time. Whenever that expectation isn’t met, whatever it is, people get frustrated and impatient and are not willing to stick around or wait.
Pinsker: You mention in the book how you were initially intrigued when you noticed, in the 2000s, how strongly your students preferred texting to talking—they were choosing a medium that forced them to wait. Have you come up with a satisfactory answer to why so many people prefer text messages to phone calls?
Farman: I think part of the shift is that when we used to make phone calls, we would call to a place rather than to a person. So, when I would call my wife when we were dating, I would call her home and I would know that she was there. But now, with cellphones, we’re calling people, and we don’t actually know what circumstance our phone call is going to enter, whether it’s going to interrupt some important meeting, or a class lecture or something. So, texting instead allows people to connect with one another in ways that fit better with the mobile device itself, since it’s with us at all times and in all kinds of different circumstances.
Texting also allows us to have multiple conversations at any given time. One of the students that I interviewed in Japan, for example—when I was sitting down with her, she was exchanging messages with six different people on her phone. I think that there’s a lot of pleasure that’s derived from being connected with a lot of people simultaneously throughout the day, and getting those little notifications that someone has messaged you.
Pinsker: I also want to ask you about email. If you could redesign email or intervene in the way people use it, what would you change to make them less stressed?
Farman: I think it’s a really good question, but I think it’s kind of an unanswerable one. It’s not necessarily a matter of redesigning email but of redesigning our expectations around how we use our time productively. I think email is so alluring because it fits into what it means to be productive in the digital age. We’re constantly available, and we are expected to be reached and be able to reach out at all times. That’s a structural problem—it’s an issue of how labor is understood in the digital age. And that would need to change before email becomes better, I think. For me, the problem isn’t necessarily the technologies that are keeping us constantly connected. It’s how those fit into larger structural and cultural problems that need to be solved first.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.