Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything

Overview

From the bestselling, National Book Award-nominated author of Genius and Chaos, a bracing new work about the accelerating pace of change in today's world.

Most of us suffer some degree of "hurry sickness." a malady that has launched us into the "epoch of the nanosecond," a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, computers, faxes, and remote controls. Yet for all the hours, minutes, and even seconds being saved, we're still filling our days to the point that we...

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Overview

From the bestselling, National Book Award-nominated author of Genius and Chaos, a bracing new work about the accelerating pace of change in today's world.

Most of us suffer some degree of "hurry sickness." a malady that has launched us into the "epoch of the nanosecond," a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, computers, faxes, and remote controls. Yet for all the hours, minutes, and even seconds being saved, we're still filling our days to the point that we have no time for such basic human activities as eating, sex, and relating to our families. Written with fresh insight and thorough research, Faster is a wise and witty look at a harried world not likely to slow down anytime soon.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Do 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

Kera Bolonik is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the coauthor of Frugal Indulgents.

From the Publisher
"Fascinating and disturbing, amusing and informative, Faster is an eclectic stew combining history, academic research, and anecdotes drawn from the popular media." —The Boston Globe

"Well written and enjoyable. . . . A book that demands your attention." —The Christian Science Monitor

"Nimble, smart, often funny, and—best of all—fast." —The New York Times Book Review

James Poniewozik
...Eagerly anticipated....As Gleick's argument — developed, appropriately, in 37 rapid-fire chapters — shows, "hurry sickness" affects every aspect of our lives.
Talk
Tom Regan
...Faster</> is a book that demands your attention. As you follow his lead into the labyrinth of "time" and his musings on why life is so much faster these days, Gleick forces you to take a step back and slow down....[I]f anything, Faster will help us think about the way we "construct" time....[a]nd help us recognize that "neither technology or efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost.
The Christian Science Monitor
Chronicle Of Higher Education
Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers—they all run faster now than ever before. We have become a quick-reflexed multi-tasking, channel-flipping, fast-forward species. In Faster, Gleick explores the human condition at the turn of the millennium. He shines a light of enterprising and analytical reporting on the newest paradoxes of time. This books is a mirror held up to our times—and a mordant reminder of why some things take time.
Gina Imperato
Faster is a fast read...one worth every millisecond of your time.
Net Company
Barbara Ehrenreich
Nimble, smart, often funny, and—best of all—fast...Stuffed with tasty factoids about our fast, fast times...Reverberates with huge, weighty questions...
NY Times Book Review
Michael Swaine

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

Edward Neuert

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 day—the more words you can process, the more e-mails and faxes you can send and instantly answer—the 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."
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Technological advances in time measurement and time-saving devices have been fueled by the ever-quickening pace of our lives. Or is it the other way around? Gleick, twice nominated for the National Book Award (for Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman), offers a refreshingly contrarian view of the notion of time management and of the instantaneity ("instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant replay, and instant gratification") of everyday life. Many of us exhibit what doctors and sociologists call "hurry sickness"—arriving, for example, at an airport gate at the last possible minute—an obsession ironically matched by endless waits on expressways and runways. "Gridlocked and Tarmacked are metonyms of our era," writes Gleick, "...to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around us, as time passes and blood pressures rise." This paradox, and the "simultaneous fragmentation and overloading of human attention" that results, he contends, can be traced to a wide variety of everyday conveniences: microwaves and automatic dishwashers, express mail, beeper medicine, television remote control, even speed-dialing telephones ("Investing a half-hour in learning to program them is like advancing a hundred dollars to buy a year's supply of light bulbs at a penny discount"). Funny and irreverent, Gleick pinpoints the dilemma underlying many of today's technological improvements: that time-saving now comes more from "the tautening net of efficiency" than from raw speed, meaning that any snag in the system—whether a disabled airliner or one or two drivers unaccountably hitting the brake—can spread delay and confusion throughout the network. Paradoxically, too, the increasing pace and efficiency of our lives leads not to leisure and relaxation but to increased boredom: "a backwash within another mental state, the one called mania." This is a book to be studied... slowly. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
From Genius to Chaos to time itself, in all its scientific, psychological, and cultural ramifications. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
In Catch-22 a character named Orr pursues leisure activities he loathes because doing so makes time pass more slowly and, in effect, lengthens his life. What's the point, asks Yossarian, Joseph Heller's iconoclastic bombardier. What good is a long life if you spend your time in misery? The answer—of course—is, "What else is there?"

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.

Tom Regan
...Faster is a book that demands your attention. As you follow his lead into the labyrinth of "time" and his musings on why life is so much faster these days, Gleick forces you to take a step back and slow down....[I]f anything, Faster will help us think about the way we "construct" time....[a]nd help us recognize that "neither technology or efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost.
The Christian Science Monitor
James Poniewozik
...[E]agerly anticipated....As Gleick's argument — developed, appropriately, in 37 rapid-fire chapters — shows, "hurry sickness" affects every aspect of our lives.
Talk
Kirkus Reviews
In a hurry? This book will tell why—and how our times became so time-obsessed. After a visit to the Directorate of Time, the US agency responsible for determining the exact time, Gleick (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, 1992, etc.) examines that symbol of the man in a hurry, the Type A personality. As it turns out, the study that gave us that symbol was badly flawed, and yet the symbol was so apt that it has stuck with us. Time pressure weighs on us all, so that waiting—for anything—has become not an opportunity to look around and see what's going on, but a nuisance to be gotten out of the way. The "close door" button on the elevator—which may or may not really do anything—is a symbol of that hurry, and it leads to a discussion of elevator technology, which leads to a discussion of how the wristwatch displaced the pocket watch, and how the watch became electronic, and how it has become more than just a timepiece. This free-association organization allows Gleick to cover a wide range of subjects, one short chapter at a time. So we get an examination of H.G. Wells's Prof. Gibberne, who invented a potion to allow himself to live at high speed, and a history of stop-motion photography, which for the first time allowed the analysis of actions too fast for the eye to grasp in their details. The phrase "real time" comes in for dissection, and Gleick makes the point that it describes something for which we didn't need a word before the computer made it necessary. The book goes on to examine such modern phenomena as time and motion analysis, the quick-cut editing style of MTV videos, telephone redial buttons, multitasking, and dozens of otherfascinating offshoots of our obsession with time. Lively, detailed, and briskly written—this book is a fount of interesting information. Well worth your time.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679775485
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/5/2000
  • Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 622,233
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

James Gleick (www.around.com) was born in New York City in 1954. He worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times, founded an early Internet portal, the Pipeline, and wrote three previous books: Chaos, Genius, and Faster. His latest book Isaac Newton is available from Pantheon. He lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with his wife.

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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 themselves quickly. 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.

We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. "Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man," laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment ("He is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time . . ."). That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.

The finicality of the modern timekeepers departs even further from our everyday experience—a fact cheerfully acknowledged here at the directorate. Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond—a billionth of a second? "I tell you," Winkler says, "it wasn't on a human scale when we were measuring time to a millisecond, and now we are down to a fraction of a nanosecond." Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless.

Inhuman though these compressed time scales may be, many humans crave the precision. Internet users set their computers to update their clocks according to the directorate's time signal. The directorate fields millions of automatic queries each day. By pinging back and forth across the network, software called NanoSecond or RightTime or Clockwork or TimeSync or Timeset can correct for propagation delays along the phone lines between the atomic clocks and you. Free connections can be made to modems or to "time servers" with the whimsical pair of addresses, tick.usno.navy.mil and tock.usno.navy.mil. More crudely, anyone with a telephone can dial the Naval Observatory's Master Clock Voice Announcer, for fifty cents the first minute. The time-obsessed used to keep their watches accurate to within seconds; now they keep their computers accurate to within milliseconds.

Nanosecond precision matters for worldwide communications systems. It matters for navigation by Global Positioning System satellite signals: an error of a billionth of a second means an error of just about a foot, the distance light travels in that time. One nanosecond—one foot. That is a modern equivalence worth memorizing. Cellular phone networks and broadcasters' transmitters need fine timing to squeeze more and more channels of communication into precisely tuned bandwidth. The military, especially, finds ways to use superprecise timing. It is no accident that the Directorate of Time belongs to the Department of Defense. Knowing the exact time is an essential feature of delivering airborne explosives to exact locations—individual buildings, or parts of buildings—thus minimizing one of the department's standard euphemisms, collateral damage.

Few institutions are so intensely focused on so pure a goal. Keeping the right time brings together an assortment of technologies and sciences. The directorate's astronomers study the most distant quasars—admiring them for their apparent fixedness in the sky. A favored set of 462 quasars provides as rigid a frame as can be found. Meanwhile, the directorate has a team of earth scientists to study the slowing rotation and the occasional wobble—a problem that comes down to watching the weather, because the planet's spin varies each year with the wind blowing on mountains. In all, the scientists who control the clocks have achieved a surpassing precision. As the eighteenth century mastered the measurement of mass, and the nineteenth, with the establishment of international geodesy, conquered the measurement of distance, the even ghostlier quantity, time, had to wait for the technologies of the twentieth century.
The seconds pass here with a consistency that no pair of scales or rulers can match. The worst distortion that can accumulate, each day, remains proportionately smaller than a hairsbreadth in the distance from the Earth to the Sun—the equivalent of one second in a million years. "This is extremely important," Winkler says, the accent of his native Austria breaking through. His hand slashes through the air like an ax. "We want to be exact."

So synchronize your watches. Here are the pacemakers, the merchants of exactitude, the owners of the pulse in the global circulatory system. When the Lilliputians first saw Gulliver's watch, that "wonderful kind of engine . . . a globe, half silver and half of some transparent metal," they identified it immediately as the god he worshipped. After all, "he seldom did anything without consulting it: he called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the time for every action of his life." To Jonathan Swift in 1726 that was worth a bit of satire. Modernity was under way. We're all Gullivers now.

Or are we Yahoos?

Your eyes wander toward Winkler's wrist—what sort of watch would satisfy the director of the Directorate of Time?—but you cannot quite see it, as he asks: "Can you miss a plane by a millisecond? Of course not."

He pauses and adds with pride, "I missed one by five seconds once."

It has been noted by psychologists and airline managers alike that some people prefer to arrive at airports in plenty of time, keeping time to spare, so that they can have time on their hands in the lounge or kill time in the bar. Others cannot be happy unless they time their arrival so closely that, having dashed the last fifty yards to the gate, they race up the ramp, flash their boarding pass at the flight attendant, and slip into their seat with the thunk of the aircraft door fresh in their ears. Not a moment wasted. Perhaps these dashers, always flirting with lateness, are the victims of what some doctors and sociologists have named "hurry sickness." Then again, perhaps it is the seemingly calm, secretly obsessive early arrivers who suffer hurry sickness more.

Both types must be seeking peace of mind. One type can relax in the waiting lounge or even the check-in line, having minimized the risk of missing a flight. The other can hope to rest assured that they have minimized a different quantity: wasted time. Airport gates are not the only places where people like to flirt with lateness. But in their way they serve as focal points in the modern world, places where the technology and the psychology of hurriedness come together. Airport gates are where we contemplate the miraculous high speeds of air transport and the unmiraculous speeds associated with getting to air transport. One measure of twentieth-century time is the supersonic three and three-quarter hours it takes the Concorde to fly from New York to Paris, gate to gate. Other measures come with the waits on the expressways and the runways. Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era: to be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around, as time passes and blood pressures rise.

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Table of Contents

Pacemaker 3
Life as Type A 15
The Door Close Button 23
Your Other Face 31
Time Goes Standard 43
The New Accelerators 49
Seeing in Slow Motion 57
In Real Time 65
Lost in Time 77
On Internet Time 83
Quick--Your Opinion? 95
Decomposition Takes Time 101
On Your Mark, Get Set, Think 107
A Millisecond Here, a Millisecond There 115
1,440 Minutes a Day 121
Sex and Paperwork 127
Modern Conveniences 135
Jog More, Read Less 139
Eat and Run 147
How Many Hours Do You Work? 151
7:15. Took Shower 161
Attention! Multitaskers 167
Shot-Shot-Shot-Shot 173
Prest-o! Change-o! 181
MTV Zooms By 187
Allegro ma Non Troppo 191
Can You See It? 195
High-Pressure Minutes 203
Time and Motion 211
The Paradox of Efficiency 217
365 Ways to Save Time 227
The Telephone Lottery 233
Time Is Not Money 239
Short-Term Memory 249
The Law of Small Numbers 257
Bored 267
The End 273
Afterword 283
Acknowledgments and Notes 289
Index 313
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2007

    A reviewer

    Jam-packed with information and covering subjects that range from Richard Feynman's observations of theoretical physics to the rise of MTV, this book reads, well, fastly. I got a kick out of it and learned a lot. It has a very large number of chapters which are not always that closely tied together, but maybe an obvious point is that that is the intent of the author, to make the book read like modern Western society, with information flying at you from all directions. If so, that may make the book a little harder to get in to and less conventional in style, but it also makes it more original, and in a sense, more logical because it is consistent with its own theme.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 1999

    Sticks to the shallows

    A brisk and superficial look at the rapid pace of life, which tells the reader little that they didn't already know, with a sort of MTV style that left me vaguely dissatisfied. A deeper book on the same topic is 'Hyperculture, the Human Cost of Speed' by Stephen Bertman. Or read Michael Ende's charming little story 'Momo', a fairytale about the cost of saving time. Or Michael Whitelegg's essay 'The Pollution of Time' in 'Science for the Earth: Can Science Make the World a Better Place'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2011

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