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The Hurried Society and
Please let me tell you about boredom, let me go on about the exquisite varieties of boredom I have known and attempt to describe the range of my indifference. I promise to make it absorbing — indeed the very prospect of doing so opens before me such an ocean of boredom, such a dismal, flat, immensity in which to pull you in after me that I'd better not try it because it probably won't work. The failure of boredom is that it is never gripping.
"The Day the Moon Gave Up the Ghost"
In the 1950s we envisioned a promised land of halcyon days and pacific nights. Life, we thought, was on the verge of blossoming into an endless seascape of rest and relaxation. Books were even sold about how to cope with the impending "crisis" of having too much free time. Now, only a few decades later, this hypnotic vision of a golden age has mysteriously washed away into a never-ending stream of rapid-fire days and jetlag nights. We're either in a rush, recovering from the rush, or rushing to rush some more. As a cover of an Utne Reader magazine headlined in 1994, "TOO BUSY Even to Read this Magazine? Then Read this Magazine!" Of course we don't remember the national referendum to abandon our hopes and dreams for a tranquil future, because no such referendum ever happened. Far from being a choice, the hurried society is a curious and seemingly chronic cultural affliction. We know not from where it came; we're only certain that it's got to go.... And go it does.
How is it that we have become a nation strung out on excitement? Or, as the existential novelist Milan Kundera has asked, "Why have the pleasures of slowness disappeared?" Leisure, slowness, idleness, relaxation, simplicity — these all have become past-times of American culture, replaced by an almost singular obsession with speed. Even a British lord visiting over one hundred years ago took notice of the urgency that animates everyday American life, prompting him to ask: "Gentlemen, why in heaven's name this haste?" Another British lord, philosopher Bertrand Russell, wrote the essay "In Praise of Idleness," published in 1932 in Harper's magazine. He voiced a similar concern: "Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever."
For reasons we shall explore in this book, both leisure and slowness have been overthrown in a conquest for excitement and speed. This raises provocative questions: Is attention deficit disorder (ADD; or as it is now called, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD) really a newly discovered medical disease, or is it a culture-induced brain dysfunction that results from our growing addiction to speed? Might the craze over stimulants like cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, and ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s have a deep cultural connection to our speeding-up society? And might the rush for speed also be connected with the rise of coffee/caffeine culture and the Ritalin solution?
That we have become a Ritalin Nation is obvious when we look at the brief history of this stimulant drug. ADD has become the most commonly diagnosed child psychiatric disorder in the United States. Ritalin, prescribed as treatment for ADD in about 90 percent of all cases, is a powerful psychostimulant that, when taken via the same route of administration, has pharmacological and psychological effects that are almost indistinguishable from those of cocaine. Prior to the 1960s hyperactivity and attention deficits were rarely noticed and rarely treated as medical problems. Then, in 1961, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Ritalin for use in children with behavior problems. By 1975, 150,000 children in the United States were being prescribed drugs to reduce their hyperactivity, prompting Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky to write The Myth of the Hyperactive Child. By the late 1980s Ritalin was in regular use in about 1 million American children, and in 1988 there were twenty-nine chapters of the new support group, CH.A.D.D. (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder). In 1989 child advocate Alfie Kohn raised further doubts about the legitimacy of the "ADD" disorder in an Atlantic Monthly essay titled "Suffer the Restless Children." Since then Ritalin has grown in use to more than 2 million children (and increasing numbers of adults), with an almost fivefold increase in its consumption in as many years. In fact, the United States consumes a whopping 80 to 90 percent of the total Ritalin consumption in the world. Meanwhile, with the huge financial boost from Ritalin's manufacturer, Novartis (previously CIBA Pharmaceuticals), more than five hundred new chapters of the CH.A.D.D. support group have sprung up, welcoming more than 32,000 members. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that by the year 2000, 15 percent of all school-age children (8 million) will go on to use Ritalin. Welcome to Ritalin Nation.
THE RUSH OF RAPID-FIRE CULTURE
Questions about speed are gaining greater relevance in these times, as the pace of American life continues to accelerate; this century even the acceleration of culture itself has been accelerating. As a consequence of speedup, the overall pace of our lives, day in and day out, now far exceeds that of any other nation. To give an example of the rush in American culture today, a study found in 1971 that one in five adults surveyed said they felt "always" rushed. By 1992 this number had jumped to more than one in three. The lives of children have undergone a similar acceleration. As David Elkind writes in The Hurried Child, "Today's child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress — the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations." No wonder more and more Americans have begun questioning the virtues of our national obsession with speed, in which all things are to happen quicker, sooner, faster.
Now whether or not you see your life, or your children's lives, as sped up, chances are you're underestimating the changes that have taken place. One reason is that the speeding up of society has been gradual enough over the years that the current pace of life is often experienced as normal or ordinary. As society goes faster, so do the rhythms of our own consciousness. This is especially true for children, who grow up in concert with the latest speed. As an eighth-grade teacher complains, "The reason our children don't follow directions is that they're tuned out. These children don't listen. They have so much stimulation-they're used to the TV blaring, the stereo, the household commotion. I'm not sure so many are ADHD; they're just restless because they don't have anything inside. They're so used to being entertained." As this passage suggests, by our adapting to speedup, the transformation of human consciousness actually has the unanticipated effect of neutralizing its intended rewards. We pursue newness and change yet quickly come to experience these changes as no more stimulating than before. Hence, it's not until we compare our lives with the generation before us, or the generation before it, that we really see the hurried society taking shape.
When Sean Connery returned as James Bond in the 1983 production Never Say Never Again, the newest in high-tech gadgetry was, as usual, put at his disposal. When you watch this film today, however, you notice something peculiar: In a crowded casino setting, where various games of chance are available for play, many are shown playing Atari video games, as if they were some exotic activity. In one scene Bond actually finds himself in the middle of one of these games, playing for high stakes against his antagonist. What these scenes make clear, at least in hindsight, is how quickly the "state-of-the-art" technology can become just a silly old game. The mind neutralizes our gains by adapting to our attempts to rev it up.
Two other simple but revealing examples are the old rotary phones and the old-fashioned bathroom sinks with their separate hot and cold faucets. With the technological advances of Touch-Tone dialing and the single-tap faucet, these devices have not only been simplified but have also been sped up. They give us exactly what they always did, but they do it faster. Just how sped up we have become in return is apparent whenever we stumble upon these antiquated devices today. Have you ever stood there fretting, tapping your foot, waiting impatiently for the rotary dial to unwind itself, one number at a time? Have you ever scalded your hands with hot water because you refused to take the time to fill the basin with both hot and cold? If either of these actions applies to you or those around you, then you know, at least historically, that life is speeding up. Remember, these devices were not a source of frustration for earlier generations. The only reason this old, once very useful technology seems out-of-date today is that it has fallen behind the pace of contemporary consciousness. Indeed, these very same tools of daily existence were once "this year's model," and they too sped up the life that existed before them. Hence, it's not the advance of technology per se but rather its impact on our attention, awareness, desires, and frustrations that is important.
The rush of American life that has emerged as a consequence of this impact often gives outsiders the impression that some urgent task has been undertaken to save the nation. While there can be no doubt that the hurried society today has a connection to our energetic national temperament and the extraordinary technological revolutions of our time, the quickening of American life also seems to have much to do with individualist themes. When we hear liberal cries for revitalizing our communities or conservative cries for more traditional values — both of which are heard often enough — what we're really hearing is a concern people share about American life becoming too isolated, too hedonistic, and too short on civility. As we come to rely less on others and have fewer others to rely on ourselves, we lose the obvious virtues of social organization. If something needs fixing, we know no one who can (or is willing to) fix it; if grandma lives eight hundred miles away, she cannot take care of the kids; if an adolescent cannot stand the lack of privacy at home, she or he moves out.
None of these problems will be solved by our supposed technological interconnectedness. Technology always serves to mediate our experience, coming between one and another; thus it fits in best where human connections are already broken. Electronic mail and "chat rooms" are good examples since they represent how social interactions mediated by technology lack much or all of the emotionality and intimacy that we, as social animals, ultimately need and desire. Meanwhile, everyone knows the result: With everyone having to fend for himself or herself, we have become a societal puzzle made up of millions of distinct pieces, with individuals and families all scrambling in different directions trying to satisfy their own isolated wants and needs. Naturally, children are the ones who suffer most here, since these individualized priorities are not tailored by or even for them.
Consequently, because of the rush, the bottom line in American life has become — as the very phrase "bottom line" suggests — numerical. The world has become a more one-dimensional place, where all is evaluated quantitatively or economically. This quantitative worldview can be seen, for example, in the debate over assisted suicide, in which we're struggling to come to grips with the difficult fact that life is not only about quantity (how long we live) but also about quality (how well we live). The problem is that the first of these, quantity, seems so easy to formulate, whereas the second, quality, seems almost impossible. The numerical bottom line is also summed up in the prevailing assumption that "the person with the most toys wins," the ethos of shop-until-you-drop materialism. Today the acquisition of material goods as a way to infuse one's life with meaning has become an all too easy and all too common — and all too unsuccessful — solution. A 1997 study that tried to quantify this love of the inanimate object, for example, reported that 57 percent of women and 42 percent of men said they were more excited by the idea of an unlimited shopping spree than the idea of sex. And with the quantity question eclipsing the question of quality, we're seeing the soothing and solid replaced more and more by the fast and cheap. Typically this goes unnoticed, however, since the opportunity to consume more is afforded by the fact that things wear out faster or are thrown away rather than fixed. Sadly, this often includes even our own personal relationships.
As we find ourselves wanting to do more of A, B, and C, at the same time having to do more of X, Y, and Z, it's no surprise, then, that our lives are more hurried than ever before. Moreover, as our lives assume this shape, there's a growing need for each of us to connect the hurried society to our own conscious experience of it. In the end it's not just that we and our children are more hurried; we also feel more hurried. This feeling should be taken as a warning that we have fallen into attitudes and habits toward living that are not in fact leading to the promised land, for neither ourselves nor our children.
CONSCIOUSNESS UNDER FIRE
Life in rapid-fire culture means first and foremost a life in constant motion, an end to slowness. In these times of rush, either we are in motion or something's in motion around us. Within this hurried sphere of motion, both the pace of life and the intensity of the stimulus world around us continue to intensify, largely because of ongoing transformations taking place in the modes of human experience. Whether it's electricity, division of labor, industrial automation, the telephone, the cinema, the automobile, the television, the jet airliner, the computer, the fax machine, or the virtual worlds of cyberspace, the hard structures of daily life continue to cast and recast the nature of interpersonal relationships, from social and romantic relationships to relationships between parents and their children. As they do, they're also radically transforming time, space, and the fabric of human consciousness. Rapid-fire culture gives rise to a rapid-fire consciousness, an unsettling temporal disturbance of the self that then motivates an escape from slowness, thus keeping us forever in the grip of the hurried society.
The first step in drawing this connection between consciousness and the hurried society is to realize that we live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with stimuli. We all are in the world, and it is spinning around us faster and faster. Have you noticed how, wherever you go these days and whether you like it or not, there is always some sight, some sound, or some smell fighting for your attention? There's "Attention, shoppers!" at the market. There are bigger and brighter signs and billboards lining the stores, the streets and highways, and even whole buses. There's the blaring music (and TV!) when we fill up at the pumping station. There's the pounding bass that reverberates out of the rap mobiles and muscle cars cruising with their thirty-inch woofers turned up and their windows rolled down. There's the uninvited "entertainment" sent through the phone as we're put on hold, and there're the annoying, random phone calls we receive from our "friend" the telesalesperson. There's the constant begging for our money that shows up each day in our junk mail. There's the sensorium of watch alarms, car alarms, and ringing cell phones. Of course there's also the endless Muzak that fills every office, elevator, coffeehouse, or restaurant. Everywhere we go it seems something has to be playing.
When I sit in my office at the college where I teach, I can hear the dull roar of traffic from outside. I cannot see the traffic from my window, and I cannot hear the contribution of any one car, but I nevertheless work with a constant blanket of noise filling the background. It's not that this noise is distracting or irritating, however; there's every evidence to suggest that if we work or live around some constant sound or smell, even sounds and smells that newcomers find unpleasant, we're apt to grow accustomed to and perhaps even become dependent on them. We all know those smells that give farmers their sense of home and security. Yet when we drive by their farms, we say, "Oh, how can they live with this smell?" Another, more extreme example is the veteran soldier who finds him or herself missing in some strange way the intensity of the combat experience. As Vietnam vets proved, we cannot necessarily expect someone just to switch overnight from living a violent and varied experience to living a calm and quiet one, a discovery that also has implications for how we are going to recover from our growing sensory addictions.
Again we see that the intrusion of unsolicited stimuli into our lives does not need to feel obtrusive in order for it to have a real effect on the rhythm of our consciousness. As though we have stepped off a carnival ride and still feel the world spinning, there's a tendency to incorporate the sensory world into our own expectations about the speed at which the world should turn. Even if we do not find disturbing the bombardment of buzzes and whistles from the outside world, we are likely still to develop a psychological tolerance to them. Taken as a whole, then, this means that our sense of what is a "normal" sensory experience can, and for most of us does, far exceed that which was considered normal and acceptable by earlier generations. The negative consequence is that with uninvited stimuli constantly hitting us from all directions, we are developing an unconscious need for increased stimulation. We're not just moving through our lives faster; we're also acquiring a heightened need for speed.
This notion of tolerance takes on even greater importance as we consider a second and more powerful realm of stimulation in our lives; that ever-widening ocean of stimuli that both adults and children voluntarily bring to the shores of their own consciousness. If we return to my office for a moment, we can hear a murmur of traffic in the background that did not exist, say, twenty years ago. In the foreground, however, within the confines of my small office, there is a whole other dimension of buzzes and whistles that I myself can turn off and on. Even if I put up a note saying "Do not disturb," close my door, and open up a good book to read, there still remain several sensory worlds that can pop open at any time, gobbling up or short-circuiting my already shrunken attention span. From a single position in my small office, even if I exclude all those wonderful forms of stimulation that require no electricity (such as enjoying the view out the window), I can still print in any of several locations, write on either of two computers, send E-mail anywhere in the world, read Email, listen to phone mail, make a call, take a call, search the library shelves, wander around any number of databases, do some walking or talking on the Web, listen to my mini hi-fi stereo, or do any possible combination of the above. Thus, despite my sincere attempt to work in a rather isolated environment, it sometimes seems as if I am operating some kind of hotel switchboard, running the lives of dozens of people, all of whom go by the name me.
When looking at this sensorium of stimuli hovering around us, at all that is needed to make us feel alive in the moment, we have to wonder what this is doing to us in the long run. If we plug into potent sources of stimulation more and more, and stay plugged in for longer periods, what are the chances that at least some of us will develop restless minds and impulsive personalities? For children, this is an even greater concern, for they have more stimulus choices, less of an acquired taste for slow activities (such as chess or reading), and less self-control to manage these choices in a manner that produces a harmonious inner experience. Indeed, isn't it possible that over time we and our children are learning to indulge, rather than resist, our feelings of boredom by constantly switching our attention from one thing to something that is, at least for the moment, more immediately stimulating? Isn't it also possible that this switching strategy will make it gradually more difficult for us to take comfort in the quiet and the slow?
Of course not everyone has the kind of office switchboard available to him or her that I have. But it is a mistake to think you really need one. From the chemical shock wave of junk food to the bizarre, pseudoreality of phone sex, our society has gone to great lengths to ensure that there is plenty of stimulation to go around — twenty-four hours, seven days a week. In fact, when we do an anatomy of leisure time, it appears as though the single least expensive source of stimulation accounts for more than all the rest, especially for children: television.
Even if we ignore the overwhelming content problem that exists for television, there's still no doubting that TV fits the high-wired, impulsive lifestyle. How often do you turn on the TV "just to see what's on" and then find it difficult to turn it off? I've heard this confession dozens of times from friends and students, just as I have seen it described in studies of television addiction. That so many people drift into TV world without thinking, or find they cannot separate from it once it's on, tells us how easy it is to forfeit self-control and succumb to the never-ending providers of effortless stimulation. In the case of children, this takes its greatest toll, for we know that they are much less likely to develop other ways of occupying themselves — other habits, other skills — as long as the television sits on its throne, staring down at them.
Like a cartoon I once saw of a man lounging in front of a television, saying to himself, "To think people are watching this," the popularity of television tells us that the stimuli in our environment do not have to be earth-shattering to seize upon our conscious minds. Even most children diagnosed with ADD have no problem attending to self-chosen television programs. As soap operas and repetitive computer video games prove time and time again, a steady flow of passive stimulation appears to be just as powerful as an overpowering explosion of sights and sounds, all of which have the same effect of raising our need for constant sensory consumption. Indeed, the history of television itself shows how much our visual technology alters our conscious perceptions.
Soon after television arrived on the scene, it became an impressive, sometimes even dazzling experience to watch, one that quickly put radio in the shadows. Now, many years later, we have become accustomed to larger higher-resolution color screens, remote controls and cable programming. Indeed, we are now waiting for the next leap forward in television technology: digital television (DTV). Unfortunately our own short-lived history with TV tells us that DTV will likely do to people's appreciation of color TV what color TV did to their appreciation of black and white. After all, do we really enjoy our larger than life TVs that much more than did earlier viewers growing up on black and white? When is the last time you heard someone say, "Isn't this color picture just stunning?" or "Isn't this remote control just the handiest thing you ever saw?" As we know but refuse to accept, excitement has a habit of wearing off; that's why we keep trading in our old sets for new ones. True, amazing improvements have been made in television, from picture quality to programming to video and remote control. But have these technological innovations really resulted in a change in quality of life? Most of us simply take them for granted, wanting more.
The mind's perpetual tolerance to the latest in technology also means that we are caught in the middle of an escalating competition for our attention. This in turn means that more and more powerful stimuli are being pointed at our senses, ultimately leading to greater sensory needs and a greater likelihood of withdrawal. Just compare television advertisements and television programming from the 1960s or even 1970s with those from the 1990s (even a comparison of the earliest and latest music videos shown on MTV provides a striking example). While the former sends Generation X children bouncing off the walls, the rapid and relentless succession of highly complex sounds and images that come from much of the latter gives older generations a splitting headache. Another example is spectator sports. To meet the growing needs of the sport spectator, there have been a number of attempts in recent years to speed up baseball; for example, much like the shot clock in basketball, in professional baseball there is a new twelve-second limit, within which the pitcher is obligated to throw the ball? Similar attempts at speeding up sports include shorter time-outs and the elimination of jump balls in basketball, and the use of more powerful rackets in professional tennis. As these examples ultimately suggest, we are not going to understand why we as a nation have abandoned slowness — and why we suffer terribly as a consequence — until we realize that it is not just the hectic pace of life that makes the American experience unique. The speedup of culture means we experience more stimulus events each day, but the nature of these events also has undergone a dramatic transformation. This is why, to understand fully the nature and impact of rapid-fire culture, we must look at the intensity of the high-energy stimulus worlds that we, our friends, our children, and our fellow citizens all have been inhabiting since birth.
Why is it, though, that we are always turning up the stimulus? An obvious reason is that more intense stimuli do a better job of reaching our shortened attention spans; they may even keep us from making grave mistakes. Ultimately, though, the seduction of speed lies in the fact that once we develop expectations of a life of constant newness and change, the latest in speed becomes perpetually attractive. That is, once we engage in this inflationary logic, there is no escaping the consequence, which is that stimuli will have to be constantly intensified if we wish to recover the desired short-term rewards that can come from stimulus amplification. The history of the automobile demonstrates this inflationary practice. Many of the changes we interpret as mere aesthetic or technological improvements also represent changes in the intensity of the stimulus. Perhaps the best example is the change from the tiny taillights we see on wide-bodied cars from the 1950s and 1960s to the relatively giant taillights we find on many of today's economy cars. The fact that taillights have existed all along shows us that designers knew they were important. But why did they grow larger and brighter? It wasn't just speed, since many of the older cars drove at speeds similar to those of today. Rather, the answer seems to lie with the fact that the old lights no longer affect us as they once did. A related example is the brake lights that blind us from the rear window of the car in front. Again, why is it that we're having to add more light gradually to produce the same effect? A third example is the dashboard and interior lights. Anyone who drives a vintage car knows not only that today's instruments have been greatly expanded in size, but that their intensity has also been turned up several notches. Initially these changes probably enhanced the safety of driving. The real question, though, is whether these so-called improvements are lasting or simply producing a mode of consciousness that can now be reached only by the most intense stimuli.
This brings us to our third and final point regarding rapid-fire culture. With there being so many sources for obtaining effortless stimulation, and with these stimuli intensifying, we have to wonder not only about what we are spending our time doing but also about what we are doing no longer. While there is a rich complexity in the unplugged world, from working on a farm to building a table to reading a book, this nonelectrified mode of experience tends to be lost to the senses as we turn ourselves over to rapid-fire culture. Moving in and out of high-intensity environments is something done in many cultures around the world, from the fast, urban life of Japan to the autobahn of Germany. What keeps these accelerated moments in check are the pockets of slowness inserted between them. The French and Italians may drive like absolute lunatics (with their stereos blasting and their cell phones ringing), but they also may spend an hour or two each evening relaxing at the dinner table. On the other hand, we in the United States were the first to lose the checks and balances afforded by downtime.
To appreciate this loss of downtime, you might stop reading and consider all the activities of a typical week for you and your children; then examine the number of activities that could be considered relatively high in intensity (watching TV or a video, munching on snacks, switching from activity to activity), those that would be considered active and of low intensity (gardening, reading a book, talking with a neighbor, meditating), and those that should be low intensity but are not because they're done in a rush (interacting with your children and vice versa, making or eating meals, or doing housework or homework). If as children or as adults we are always on the run, from when we get up in the morning until we go to bed, little opportunity is left for us to push the reset button and return us (and our minds) back to a rhythm of comfort and slowness.
Each day we are the target of a flood of unsolicited stimuli, we are scheduling a constant and widening stream of activities into our daily lives, and in the meantime, we are gradually giving up the slow activities that could unwind us. The same holds true for kids. They too are bombarded by a flood of unsolicited stimuli, they are scheduled into the herky-jerky pace of daily life, and they never slow down enough to learn ways to live within slowness that could unwind them. These three points about consciousness under fire have, I think, a number of important psychological and social implications. Put in a nutshell, the problem of living in the hurried society lies in the utter impossibility of sustaining — minute by minute — the heightened sensory needs that result from chronic involvement in high-intensity lifestyles.
Everybody knows that each generation moves a little faster than the one before, but the pace of change this century, with its revolutionized modes of experience, has moved us into whole new dimensions of electronic reality and sensory drama. In fact, with the rise of the information age and the ubiquity of computers at home and work, we are splitting off into multiple selves. On the one hand, there is the technological self, in which the interface with technology synchronizes our conscious minds to the rhythm of the microchip and gives us increasingly realistic virtual worlds in which to live and dream; implants of microchips into the human brain (now under study in animals) may be the next step in our interfacing with the machine. There is, on the other hand, the social self, which moves within human relationships that operate at relatively slower speeds and with old-fashioned rules of engagement. It thus seems that until the former personality, the technological self, takes over the latter personality, the social self — a time when we will live only among virtual beings of our own design — the divided self will continue to be deeply conflicted. In other words, we will continue to suffer from wanting the best of two contradictory worlds: a technological, materialist world full of excitement and adventure and a social world full of security and tranquillity.
|1||The Hurried Society and Its Experience||15|
|2||Great Misadventures in Time||51|
|3||Speed and its Transformation of Human Consciousness||86|
|4||Sensory Addictions: How Culture Manufactures Disease||126|
|6||Deliberate Living: Because Patience Comes to Those Who Wait||216|