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Buddy, Could You Spare Some Time?

A (brief) conversation with James Gleick, the author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

September 1, 1999

FasterIt is tempting when talking or writing about James Gleick's new book to lapse into a sort of manic rhetoric. The very topic apparently necessitates a breathless staccato of hyphenation -- "We have become a quick-reflexed, multitasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding species," the book's jacket copy claims. And as soon as one artifact of this time-obsessed culture is called to mind -- cellular phones, say -- innumerable others spring to the ready: remote controls, microwave ovens, drive-through windows, palm-pilots, Federal Express, broadband connections, amphetamines. And yet, despite Gleick's sometimes flip, other times clipped, always fast-paced writing style (the book itself is a flicker of brief chapters), his are not hastily made observations. From toasters that toast faster to One-Minute Bedtime Stories to our relentless hammering of elevators' "DOOR CLOSE" buttons, Gleick makes it clear that just about everything is subject to acceleration, including ourselves. Even advertisements are jam-packed with increasingly layered meanings, throwing two or three messages at us at once. ("Version 2.0" reads the ad copy for Volkswagen's new Turbo Bug -- a nod to our compulsion for quicker, better software.)

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Gleick is perhaps best known for the clear and compelling way he writes about science. For ten years he worked as an editor and reporter at The New York Times, for which he wrote a science column called Fast Forward. Both of his previous books, Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), were Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists. Many of Gleick's writings, along with excerpts from Faster and related links, can be found at the Web site he maintains.

"We choose mania over boredom every time," Gleick writes. But what about those who resist speed's seduction? "The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours!" cried Plautus in the third century B.C. "Confound him, too, who in this place set up a sundial to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions." Time pressure, it would seem, is hardly a new concept.

Gleick spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

James Gleick
James Gleick   

What do we mean when we say we're "saving time"?

As you know, whole sections of my book are devoted to some of our sloppiness in using concepts like this one. At one point I do a little riff on all of the "How-to" books that are available to help you save time -- How to Save Time, 365 Ways to Save Time, and so on. If you pay attention to these tips, and you take them literally, and you try to imagine how a person who buys these books implements them in his or her own life, you realize that it's not possible. The entire enterprise depends on a faulty notion of saving time. We can't save time because we don't have time. One slightly vague and suspect way I've written this is that time is what we're in. Time is immediate -- we don't possess it.

How does the language with which we talk about time affect our relationship to it?

It's very clear that the way we talk about time -- the words we use, the syntax -- reveals certain aspects of our cultural environment. Air-traffic controllers, for instance, have a varied and specific vocabulary for expressing different subtleties connected with the concept of "Hurry up! This is really urgent! Dive, dive, dive!"

Less dramatically, when we talk about things like "saving time," we're revealing something about what concerns us. What concerns us is we feel an acceleration, we feel too busy, we feel a sort of pressure that comes from time -- "time pressure" being another cliché. If there's a point to my book it's that we have to stop every so often and pay attention to what we're saying about time, and what it reveals about us and our fears and desires.

You cite Robert Kanigel, who wrote, "each day we reap the material benefits of the cult of workplace efficiency . . . yet we chafe -- we scream, we howl, we protest -- at the psychic chains in which it grips us." What do you think accounts for this contradiction?

Robert Kanigel's quote is from his biography of Frederick Taylor, the man who is responsible for our modern notion of workplace efficiency. The idea of "efficiency experts" coming around with stopwatches timing workers in various tasks basically goes back to him. I quoted Kanigel because I think he was extremely perceptive about our ambivalent regard for "efficiency." On the one hand we hate it. I'm sure that you recoiled when I described this workplace efficiency expert with a stopwatch -- it's an evil image. It's hard to imagine that it makes anybody's working life better. So you can understand the temptation toward nostalgia for a different kind of work environment, one where the quality of your experience mattered, maybe. But I think there is ambivalence about it. The fact is we're the ones who are filling the world with efficiency experts. And we do it because we reap the benefits, and because our modern economic life depends on it. I think it would be wrong and blind for us to think we're just victims.

You claim in your book that "We fool ourselves with nostalgia.... Whenever we speed up the present, as a curious side effect we slow down the past.... "

I'm fundamentally suspicious of nostalgia. I don't really believe in it. I don't, for example, think the clean, crime-free New York City of the past ever existed. But at the same time it's completely clear that everything is speeding up, so everything must have been slower before. The thing is, it didn't feel slower at the time -- it felt faster than what had come before it. When our ancestors two hundred years ago took a leisurely walk through the woods, they didn't think it was slow and leisurely. It became slow -- to us -- in retrospect.

How much influence do "slowness movements" have? Could they catch on?

I have to confess that when I wrote about various slowness movements in my book I tended to lapse into a mocking attitude. I definitely make fun of the "simplified life" idea. But although it was easy for me to laugh, I think I was laughing for a reason, which is that there's a fundamental hypocrisy involved in some of these movements. But before I get to the hypocrisy I must admit that these movements arise for a very good reason, and their basic goal is one that we all share, or should share: we have to become conscious of the ways in which we can choose to slow down. We are the drivers selecting the pace of our lives, maybe more than we think. The simplify-your-life movement is a way of saying you can choose the pace, you don't have to have six kinds of olive oil on your shelf, you don't have to play Nintendo four hours a day. But that's where I think the hypocrisy comes in. People are playing Nintendo because they want to. I'll cheerfully confess to spending a lot of time playing completely disgusting computer games that have no redeeming social value.

The "slow food" movement is a perfect example. This is a movement that reacts to the notion of fast food. Slow food people believe in texture, epicureanism, long leisurely meals, and savoring every sip of wine. Well, they're right. Of course we should eat our food slowly. If you're thinking strictly in terms of the pleasure that you get from a meal, surely that quarter-pounder with cheese that you're grabbing from the takeout window at McDonald's is not the ideal. And yet the last time I looked, McDonald's was doing really well. In fact, I just discovered that McDonald's is experimenting with the idea of dispensing hamburgers from machines, and their preliminary research suggests that people will buy more hamburgers if they can get them from machines. So what's going on there? The first approximation of an answer is that we're just a bunch of idiots. We're not making a smart choice. We're choosing to eat Big Macs instead of Steak Au Poivre. How foolish of us. But I can't believe that that's the right approach to an answer; it avoids the real issues. The fact is that every one of us chooses more or less often to eat fast food. And if you look around it seems as though pretty much all of us are choosing to eat fast meals more and more. There are reasons for that, and it's worth exploring what the reasons are, and it's worth acknowledging that we are making these choices ourselves.

Religious pilgrimages, mourning, falling in love -- all these things take time. How do you think they'll fare as we speed ourselves up?

Part of the tension that makes this such a live topic for all of us comes from the fact that some things can't be hurried; they have a basic pace.

A leather jacket used to take three years to get sufficiently worn. But now you can buy absurd stuff, like pre-stressed leather jackets, or pre-washed jeans. It used to be that you'd buy a pair of jeans and a certain amount of time would have to pass before they really got comfortable, and then more time would pass and you'd have holes in the jeans. Those are trivial examples, of course, and you mentioned some profound ones. But what it comes down to is that there are some things in our lives that we can speed up, and other things we can't, and so there's a kind of tension that arises from these paces getting out of sync.

You argue in your book that media tricks like fast-action sequences, image bombardment, and a fast-paced and discontinuous cutting style compose a new, learned, visual language that is continuing to evolve. Do you think this new language of looking is confined to taking in media, or do we employ it elsewhere as well?

I think it affects everything. To pick something at random, recently I went and saw the comedian Stephen Wright. He is a guy who speaks slowly in terms of words per minute, and that's part of his stage persona, but his humor is in a peculiar way some of the fastest humor I've ever heard. It is so compressed. He combines ideas so succinctly that you feel your head spin. At least I do. The joke of his that I put in the book is explicitly on the subject of time. It's something like, I put instant coffee in my microwave and almost went backward in time. It's a short joke, but there's a lot in it. I don't think he could have told his jokes fifty years ago. I think he has a faster-paced audience that's been conditioned to fast humor.

Look at old Abbott and Costello movies -- originally they were enjoyed by adult audiences, and now not only can any kid follow those films but you can see them drum their little fingers on the table waiting for the obvious punchlines. We've heard it before. I don't mean that we're smarter, exactly, but I do think that we have trained ourselves to deal with information at a higher velocity than our forebears.

David Shenk argues in his new book, The End of Patience, that as we acclimate to higher and higher levels of sensory stimulation we make significant intellectual sacrifices -- such as the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, or to lose ourselves in a complex thought. Do you agree?

Yes, I do think that as we become skilled multitaskers we find ourselves devoting less high-quality, focused concentration to single tasks. Because a hundred books are readily available to us for every one book that was readily available to our grandparents -- we don't have to walk a mile to the library to read a book, Amazon.com can overnight it -- we value those books less. That's good news and that's bad news. It's good news because we have lots of good books at our fingertips. It's bad news because we don't pay attention to any one book anymore, and sometimes you have to live with a book for a long time. And so on. So the answer is yes and no. (Sometimes I think my whole book is an extended good news/bad news joke.)

It's important with any new technology to try to pay conscious attention to what the drawbacks might be. We choose to multitask. Sometimes our choices aren't the wisest of choices, and we regret them, but they are our choices. I think it'd be wrong to think that they're automatically bad.

You mention on your Web site that your book benefited from stories visitors to your page sent to you about "everything from time in movies to time in sex, to the perils and methodologies of multitasking." Had you used the Web before for this sort of research?

No, the last time I was researching a book there was no World Wide Web. But this time around it worked really well for me. In general I think people should be skeptical of the Internet as a reference tool, because so much of what's on it is unreliable and costumed -- a hall of mirrors. I benefited from another aspect of the Internet -- the fact that it's filled with incredibly interesting and articulate people who write really well and have smart things to say. I received lots of comments. They mostly show up in my chapter on multitasking. People sent me really wonderful, introspective anecdotes, reporting on ways in which they multitask in their own lives. I've never been a man-in-the-street kind of reporter who could call up random people and say, "Tell me how you multitask." That's hard to do. But having people write into my Web site wasn't random, it was self-selected, it was the man in the street in a new guise. If my research had involved ideology or something, this approach would be completely unreliable, but as a source of anecdotes it was useful.

In an essay in Harper's titled "Fast Forward: Our high-speed chase to nowhere," Mark Kingwell asks where, exactly, do we think we're going so quickly? What do you think?

I'm not sure what that means -- where are we going. The question asserts that we are not thinking enough about our goals, our decisions regarding the allocation of time, and our deepest values. Certainly some of us throughout history have been careless about devoting sufficient thought to the big issues. And I do think that our emphasis on quick thinking and quick wit sometimes leads us astray. Still, it's not too late to think about these things. And some of our concern -- our frightened mentality about this feeling of hurriedness, of time coming to an end -- is an accident of the calendar, the result of a sense that the century is coming to an end, as is the millennium. I think it may pass. It's as important now as it ever was to stop and think about where we are going. But I don't think it's automatically true that because we are doing things fast we are doing them thoughtlessly.

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More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Katie Bolick is an Atlantic Unbound editor.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Gleick photo © Beverly Hall.
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