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From Barnes & NobleDo You Wanna Go Faster?
Faster than an opinion poll from an instant survey...
More impatient than a Type A Personality...
Able to skim through 100 emails in a single blink...
It's a bird. It's a plane.
It's an American at the close of the 20th century, according to James Gleick. The celebrated author of two National Book Award-nominated works—Chaos: Making a New Science, and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman—now brings us Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, a fascinating and whimsical exploration of "the epoch of the nanosecond...the heyday of speed."
Gleick argues that "a compression of time characterizes the life of the century now closing." We have become a culture that sleeps less, compulsively presses the door-close button in elevators, opts for speed-dial on our telephones, and day trades on the Internet. We multitask. Our attention spans have dwindled. We rely on the second hand on our watches and clocks. We absolutely hate to wait, and long to fit as much as we can in as little time as possible.
With all this time saved by technology—computers, dishwashers, microwaves, high-speed trains, the Internet—what do we do with our 1,440 minutes per day? According to Gleick, because "clocks have replaced the natural rhythms of light and dark," we spend only 7 hours and 18 minutes asleep, falling almost an hour short of what we need. We've decided we don't have time for more than that, as "it is hard to get things accomplished in this condition. No wonder marketers try to sell tapes promising to help you make money while you sleep, burn fat while you sleep, or learn foreign languages while you sleep," writes Gleick.
We spend one hour and 13 minutes per day commuting to and from work; four minutes on our favorite activity, sex; four minutes doing government paperwork; 29 minutes visiting other people; 52 minutes talking on the phone; and 86 minutes using the Internet. 51 minutes are spent preparing food (down from 55 minutes, thanks to the microwave), but only one hour a day eating. While we may spend eight hours a day on average at the office, we probably only work just under six hours a day.
"We truly believe we are busy," Gleick observes, and he agrees that, in fact, we are busy, and strive for efficiency. "In countless small ways, we seek to smooth the inefficient edges in our own lives. We have learned to keep efficiency in mind as a goal, which means that we drive ourselves hard." He cites Franklin D. Roosevelt's insight that "slowness has never been an American characteristic."
But what's the rush? Why do we invest so much energy in saving time? Gleick believes that part of the answer lies in the fact that "some of us say we want to save time when really we just want to do more. To leave time free, it is necessary to decide...to leave time free."
Maybe we believe in the old cliché that time, in fact, is money. "We know it from the economics of work: we are almost certainly paid by the hour." But while we know that money can be saved and spent, "we sometimes act as though we could treat time the same way. But we don't save it. We shift it to different activities; or we use it; or we simply live." Our bodies can barely take the strain. We endure overwhelming amounts of stress and anxiety. We get "hurry sickness," such as jet lag, "a disease of clocks. The clocks, of course, are us."
But in the end, perhaps it is just our knowing the time that serves as an accelerant, Gleick surmises. In an age when "instantaneity rules in the network and in our emotional lives," we fear that if we don't understand time, "we become its victims." While in Sophocles's era, time was "a gentle deity," these days "it cracks the whip."
Kera Bolonik is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the coauthor of Frugal Indulgents.