NY Times Book Review
Faster; The Acceleration of Just about Everythingby James Gleick
We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed.
If one quality defines our modern, technocratic age, it is acceleration. We are making haste. Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and
Synchronize your watches.
We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed.
If one quality defines our modern, technocratic age, it is acceleration. We are making haste. Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel.
In Faster, James Gleick explores nothing less than the human condition at the turn of the millennium. He shines a light of enterprising and analytical reporting as well as sly wit on the newest paradoxes of time. His journey takes us through the bunkers and trenches of a war we barely knew we were fighting: to the atomic clocks of the Directorate of Time, to the waiting rooms that focus our impatience, to the film production studios that test the high-speed limits of our perception, to the air-traffic command centers that give time pressure new meaning.
We have become a quick-reflexed, multitasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding species. We don't completely understand it, and we're not altogether happy about it. Faster is a mirror held up to our times and a mordant reminder of why some things take time.
NY Times Book Review
James Gleick's Faster is a wry, many-faceted meditation that takes as its starting point the notion that our lives, both at work and at leisure, have inexorably sped up. That's not a new idea, of course. Get any group of people 35 or older reminiscing, and the topic will eventually be chewed over till everyone sounds like Dana Carvey's Cranky Old Man on Saturday Night Live: Why, we remember the days when you had to actually go into a bank and see a teller to get cash, when nobody had a fax machine, when we had to keep from playing our favorite tunes too often because, as every audiophile knew, the grooves on the LP needed time to rest; and, dammit, we liked it that way!
Employing a knowing, tongue-in-cheek style and, yes, a suitably fast pace, Gleick examines every time-related dimension of life in what he calls this "epoch of the nanosecond." He observes that "a compression of time characterizes the life of the century now closing," and he proceeds to peg our obsession with correct time, our frustration with things that go too fast or too slow, the evolution of the concept of speed, the pervasive influence of the computer and the effect of the culture of acceleration on the arts.
His most resonant chapter heading is "The Paradox of Efficiency." Gleick uses the phrase to describe the complicated systems that businesses use in order to become vastly more efficient (and less likely to bend to your whim). Missed your connecting flight? Thanks to modern flight planning programs that keep far fewer "extra" planes on hand, you stand a good chance of waiting longer than ever for another one. But the paradox of efficiency doesn't apply to customer service alone. The nemesis of the "just in time" inventory systems that have made auto production much more efficient is that little spare parts factory in Ohio that, each time it suffers a strike, shutters every GM plant in the Midwest.
Closer to home, this paradox is the creepy certainty that the more you have the resources to work with every daythe more words you can process, the more e-mails and faxes you can send and instantly answerthe more expectations of your output expand. You can now do more, so you can't do enough. One day the Internet is a marvelous new tool; the next afternoon you're drumming your fingers during transfer time, despairing that it takes 15 seconds to have an entire library catalog a continent away at your fingertips.
With the rise of time consciousness has come, Gleick notes, the rising status of the overbooked. Think of all the exaggerators you know who with straight faces claim 80-hour work weeks. Why revel so in the notion of overwork? For many people today, having time on your hands feels downright dirty. What kind of a slacker are you? "The transformation of time into a negative status good has odd social consequences," Gleick writes, and he quotes Michael Lewis on the "wonderful new prestige [of] any new time-saving device. After all, who needs such a device? People who have no time. And who has the least time? The best people!"
There is a benefit to reading about acceleration beyond the fact that this book is consistently witty and fine: Faster makes you consider your own role in accepting the acceleration of modern life. Time, Gleick reminds you, "is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift or you can swim, and it will carry you along either way."
The clinical term for the dilemma of modern man is mania. So some would say. Like someone on speed, many of us find that we can multitask like mad, but can't sit still to listen to a symphony. Stewart Brand says that we only do short-term memory. He's talking about both our thought processes and our data-storage media, and he's got a point either way. But even if we are manic, is that necessarily a bad thing? James Gleick looks at our mania in a new book called Faster, which I review this month. And Gregory Benford, in another venue but on the same wavelength, predicts the end of prediction.
A few months ago I wrote about Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now, a book about how we deal with time. I'll now turn to another time book, this one by James Gleick, whose past books, Chaos and Genius, impressed me. His latest, Faster, is also impressive.
Gleick does a great job of documenting the little evidences of the speedup of our lives. Overnight, it seems, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw have become reflective elder statesmen of the news, the real reporting happening online. What does it mean that these sound-bite spewing talking heads (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) now seem deliberative, and television has come to be seen as a slow medium? TV producers know fits happened: Witness the phenomenon of ironic commentary overlaid on what once passed for hot programming. Beavis and Butthead commenting on last year's videos on MTV, Pop-up Video captions annotating last year's videos on VH-1, and the best of the artform, Mystery Science Theater 3000, ridiculing old science fiction movies. These things, once cutting edge, are now too slow and boring and old fashioned to watch without a separate show overlaid on top of them. The floor of the stock exchange, long taken as a symbol of frenetic activity, has come to the living room: A whole pastime (profession? addiction?) has developed of people sitting at home in front of their computers all day trading stocks. The businesses represented by these stocks are no less frenetic: Companies are expected to go from startup to IPO in 18 months, and product cycles have shrunken dramatically. A widely cited result says that it's better to bring a project in 50 percent over budget than six months late. Just-in-time delivery spawns just-in-time accounting and just-in-time training as the gears of industry grind toward a fabled frictionless economy in which an order from a customer doesn't just trigger an order to a supplier, it becomes an order to the supplier. Doctors complain that they are doing beeper medicine: When you live an interrupt-driven life, all activity becomes crisis management. The instantaneous nature of communications media make us so connected that news can become locked into positive feedback loops, giving us stories that won't die: O.J., Monica, El Nino, Y2K. We have fast-track legislation and fast-track drug trials, and if you can't stand waiting out the intertrack gap between songs on your CDs, Sony will fast-track those for you.
One of the few things actually slowing down in Western countries is driving. Gleick has some fascinating information on traffic, including the proper definition of gridlock, the concept of memory in traffic flows, and the average number of vehicles actually moving at any given moment in downtown Manhattan (9000).
Four minutes a day: That's the amount of time the average American gives to sex, according to Gleick's source. From other sources he comes across that 4-minute figure again: It's also the amount of time per day the average American spends filling out government forms (his source on this is the government itself). Four minutes a day is the amount of time that using a microwave will save you, so thank your microwave that you have any sex life at all. Four minutes is also how long you'll wait today for Windows to start up and shut down, at least.
"Let's give ourselves credit," Gleick quotes an NYU professor, "We have learned to grasp quickly. We can read signs, change lanes and avoid other vehicles at 70 miles per hour while also listening to a song and planning our weekend." Our eye is quicker than our grandparents'. Folk wisdom used to say that we use only 10 percent of our mental capacity. Are we using more today? Or is quickness bought at a cost of depth? And whatever the cost, is it worth it?
Gleick gives a pretty hilarious survey of the contradictions of self-help time-saving books, but he makes a serious point: Saving time is an ill-defined concept. If you skip the 4 seconds it takes to fasten your seatbelt, is that 4 seconds you can use to make money at your marginal rate of income? Is it a billable 4 seconds? Or does it just disappear? Try to detail exactly how you spend your time during a day, or during an hour, or the last 10 seconds, and you'll find the task fractally infinite. How many hours did you work today? How long is a coastline?
There are other nuggets in this book: The Strong Law of Small Numbers, the Future Packaging Industry. Gleick has done his research well. Finally, he notes, as Brand does in his book, the seemingly incomprehensible fact of the singularity: The fact that many present-day phenomena, graphed against time, go asymptotic a few years from now. Neither Brand nor Gleick give much help in interpreting this fact. Clearly, the number of commercial Internet hosts, the number of software patents, the MIPS of a desktop computer, and the number of chest-pain emergencies will not go infinite in the year 2004, even though the graphs say they will. But what is the message of the graphs? Does all science or civilization break down at the singularity? Surely not, but what happens?
I found the best answer to that in another source. Scientist Gregory Benford, in his science column in the October/ November Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, dealt with it as clearly as anything I've seen.
"One idea that shall surely not survive this century," Benford says, "is that of the readily foreseeable future." Right; the message of the singularity, of the graphs going asymptotic, is simply this: We are running smack up against the massive failure of the art of predicting the future. All prediction, whether linear or geometric or whatever, occurs within a paradigm. Future progress, I read into Benford's words, will chiefly be across paradigms. If that's true, the pace of change will only increase.
How can we keep up with an evermore-rapidly changing world? By changing, of course. Benford says that just as the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. We ourselves will change, as will our vision of ourselves. "The rate of change of our conception of ourselves will probably speed up from its presently already breakneck pace," Benford predicts, hoping we won't call him on the fact that he just said prediction was impossible. But whether his predictions hold or not, he concludes, "one thing is certain: the ride will be interesting. Hold onto your hat."
Electronic Review of Computer Books
Today, we narcissistic Americans take a different approach, obsessively "saving" time as if we could somehow bank it and live longer. Since we can't, we try to make every second count. This national mania for speed is the subject of Faster, James Gleick's witty and learned account of our irrational obsession with time.
It's not surprising that Americans take time seriously. What are we, after all, except receptacles of time with holes at the bottom, our lives dribbling away day and night no matter what we do? We live longer and better than we used to, yet we're more obsessed than ever with somehow "maximizing" our time. We seem to fill it so frantically that our pursuit of stimulation leaves us needing ever higher doses to achieve the same level of satisfaction.
Faster is not so much an elaborated thesis (we all know that life has accelerated, after all) as it is a series of thematic meditations on aspects of the way we live now. Like baseball for David Halberstam, time is a prism for Gleick, a sighting device that gives a wide-ranging picture of a certain point in history in which technology, more than anything else, makes things go faster and faster.
Of course, the faster we go, the slower we often seem to move. Traffic gets worse, and the computer software industry, Gleick writes, "leaves Americans waiting on hold for an estimated 3 billion minutes a year."
What do we really do with our time? There are two schools of thought: One, which might be called the Juliet Schor school (after the economist and author of The Overworked American who is its leading proponent), says we're working more than ever. The other, which might be called the Robinson-Godbey school (for the professors who run the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland), says the opposite. Gleick comes down strongly in the latter camp, noting that people lie shamelessly about how much they work on the theory that "the more time you have on your hands, the less important you must be."
What else do we do besides work? Well, we supposedly spend 16 minutes a day (a year of life) looking for lost objects. And about four minutes a day on average is spent filling out federal paperwork - about the same amount of time spent on sex (a single 30-minute event per week). By contrast, we spend fully three hours a day watching TV.
Few things capture our ambivalent view of time better than the Net. Sun scientist Jakob Nielsen finds that "everybody who has e-mail complains about the masses of e-mail they get. Interestingly, the complaints are about equally strong no matter how many messages an individual user gets." As Gleick says, "We complain about our oversupply of information. We treasure it nonetheless."
Gleick also includes a long-overdue debunking of that awful shibboleth "real time," which is used as carelessly these days as "existential" and "deconstruction" were a few years ago. "Real time," if you're wondering, just means now.
My main objection to this book, aside from its failure to give Calvinism its due, is that Gleick makes far too little of the connection between time and money. Attorneys who bill $200 an hour have an elevated sense of what their time is worth, but evidently so do those who pay them that much. The cost of their leisure, scarce as it is, is probably higher still.
But there's another world, invisible to the opinion-makers and upper classes who read and write books about social trends. In that world, people have more time, even though, paradoxically, they die younger. The other day, for example, I had lunch at a volunteer fire station in Hudson, N.Y., where the resolutely blue-collar firefighters and their spouses were holding a bake sale. It was a glorious day, and when I passed by later that afternoon the same people were still there, laughing, sunning themselves and acting like they had all the time in the world. I envied them this extravagance of time. Like most of us, I'm in too much of a hurry to emulate it. I live in a faster world because it pays, but also because I like it that way.
Daniel Akst writes frequently about business, technology and culture. He is the author of St. Burl's Obituary, a novel.
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Read an Excerpt
You are in the Directorate of Time. Naturally you are running late. You hurry past a glass-paned vault in which the world's number-one clock is soundlessly assembling each second from nine billion parts. It looks more like a rack of computers than a clock. In its core, atoms of cesium vibrate with a goose-stepping pace so sure, so authoritative, so humbling--but your mind wanders. There is not a moment to lose. Striding onward, you reach the office of the director of the Directorate of Time. He is a craggy, white-haired man called Gernot M. R. Winkler. He glances across the desk and says, "We have to be fast."
The directorate, an agency of the United States military, has scattered dozens of atomic clocks across a calm, manicured hilltop near the Potomac River in Washington. Armed guards stand watch at a security gatehouse down below, mainly because the Vice President's residence occupies the same grounds. Once past their scrutiny you can walk alone up the long drive to the stately 150-year-old Naval Observatory, the first national observatory of the United States. Long ago a four-foot ball of Charles Goodyear's Gumelastic rubber hung from a mast atop the observatory dome and dropped daily at noon to signal the time. Now the signals come more quickly. The Master Clock consults with fifty others in separate climate-controlled vaults--cesium clocks and hydrogen masers powered by diesel generators and backup batteries. They check off the seconds as an ensemble and communicate continuously via fiber-optic cable with counterparts overseas. The clocks monitor one another, and individual devices can come on or off line as their performance warrants. Out-of-sync clocks reveal themselvesquickly. Winkler offers an analogy: "It's like a court of law, where you have many slightly different stories and one wildly different story." When the plausible witnesses are chosen and assembled, their output is statistically merged, worldwide, at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, outside Paris. The American contribution is the largest.
The result is the exact time. The exact time--by definition, by worldwide consensus and decree. The timekeepers at the directorate like to quote the old saw (Winkler quotes it now): "A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure." Humanity is now a species with one watch, and this is it.
Through most of history, time was fixed by astronomical reference points--the Earth spins once, call it a day. No more. The absolute reference has shifted from the stars to the atomic beams in their vaults. Particles are steadier than planets. Never mind the uncertainty principle; it is the heavens that cannot be relied on. Stars drift. The Earth shivers ever so slightly. With the oceanic tides acting as brakes, the planet slows in its rotation by fractions of a second each year. These anomalies do matter, in a time-gripped age. To compensate, the official clocks must every so often perform a grudging two-step, adding an odd second--a "leap second"--to the world's calendar. Most often, leap seconds are inserted at the close of December 31. The New Year clicks in sneakily: 11:59:58 p.m., 11:59:59, 11:59:60 (!), 12:00:00 a.m., 12:00:01. The descendant of the Naval Observatory's old Gumelastic rubber ball drops, studded with light bulbs, in Times Square. Elsewhere, astronomical observatories, television networks, and time-obsessed computer users make an adjustment to catch the leap second. Observatories have been known to get the sign wrong, ruining a night's sky-watching with the difference between +1 second and -1. As the Earth continues to slow, leap seconds will grow more common. Eventually we will need one every year, and then even more. Scientists could have avoided these awkward skips by choosing instead to adjust the duration of the second itself. Who would notice? That is what they did, in fact, until 1955. They defined the second as 1/86,400 of a real day, however long that was. The second had to lengthen a tiny bit each year. The atomic clocks were retuned as necessary. This did not trouble most of us, even subliminally, but it did start to annoy atomic physicists, because they needed a temporal measuring stick that would not stretch: come on, a second is a second--give me a real SECOND.
So here is the real second. Here the technologies of speed reach the ultimate. "Fifty years ago," Winkler says wistfully--he was a schoolboy in Austria--"we made measurements of a tenth of a second from day to day. That was great. Then more and more applications came in with greater refinements. It is like anywhere in life. When you have a capability, people find a use for that.
"Submarines have to surface for communications--they have atomic clocks," Winkler continues. "Television transmitters have atomic clocks. If you have two transmitters on the same channel, and you are between two cities, the picture will go up and down unless they are on exactly the same frequency. All good television stations have a rubidium clock." You are briefly aware of something incongruous about this exactitude--but the hyperprecision is all too familiar, all too closely in step with the rhythms of your more ordinary haunts.
Meet the Author
James Gleick is the author of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (available from Vintage Books) and Chaos: Making a New Science, both of which were National Book Award nominees. He lives in New York.
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