Speed Read

Gleick accurately diagnoses our addiction to speed. But does that mean we shouldn't hope for a cure?

By James Gleick
Pantheon; 324 pages; $24

Saving time takes time. The government’s Paperwork Reduction Act generates reams of brand-new paperwork. Airlines’ high-efficiency routing schemes lead to system-wide delays when a single plane breaks down. Worse, when we do succeed in saving time by deploying an improved technology, we instantly adjust to the new pace, canceling any psychological gain. The wait for the faster computer to boot up becomes an antsy, intolerable eon. Reading and returning e-mail feels like an excruciating chore. And just when we think some new gizmo or technique has given us an edge in the big race, everybody else adopts it, too, landing us back in the middle of the pack, in search of another marginal advantage that will prove as fleeting as the last one.

And so we climb the great StairMaster of progress, getting nowhere but tired. You’d think we’d learn. According to James Gleick’s Faster, though, we never will. Gleick, a master of popular science writing (a timesaving genre if ever there was one, granting miniature bachelor’s degrees in the time it takes to fly from Dallas to Newark) argues that the need for speed, the desire to body-surf the fourth dimension, is somehow wired into human nature. Doing more more quickly is a pleasure, and feeding the rush is a way of feeding the mind. Let’s admit it, he writes – we love the squeeze, the push. And we love the results. Productivity breeds wealth. Our lofty standard of living is supported on a billion whizzing hamster feet, and slowing them down is not an option, really, only a nostalgic fantasy.

That’s the bottom-line message of Faster: Stop worrying and learn to love the clock, however illusory its movements. First, though, Gleick explores the comedy of our allegedly helpless preoccupation with chopping up the hours and the minutes into microwaveable single servings that can be digested on the wing. Gleick’s style is swift and slick, his chapters brief, and the book zips by like an Epcot monorail, but like the timesaving frenzy it examines, Faster leaves an empty wake. It makes the same points again and again, perfecting a kind of quantum intellectualism. Gleick’s particle thoughts revolve inside a cyclotron, accelerating but never getting anywhere. The book leaves the reader precisely where he started, unenlightened but vibrating all over.

The theme is time, the tone is faint amusement, and the method is repetition. Gleick takes on a series of developments, from overnight-delivery services to instant opinion polls, and shows how they both do and don’t fulfill their promises. Irony and absurdity abound, and the mania for temporal compression is endlessly lampooned. We learn that the black space between TV shows is being steadily shaved by network programmers to an almost imperceptible pause; that Olympic sprinters win or lose according to how quickly they leave the starting block, not how fast they run the race; that leather jackets are sold with built-in scuffs, since no one has time anymore to break their jackets in. There’s no news here, and no new wisdom either.

Gleick’s other favorite trick, familiar from humorous posters and coffee mugs, is to break down the average person’s life into time spent sleeping, time spent eating, time spent working, etc., and demonstrate how the totals don’t add up. He also shows how tiny efficiencies, multiplied, add months and years to people’s stocks of free time – then demonstrates how the surpluses are inevitably eaten up by the same culture of speed that generated them.

Taking it easy is no solution, apparently. Gleick chuckles over the simplification movement that urges people to winnow their commitments. He laughs at the notion that doing more things at once yields a net gain of leisure time. Saving time is a zero-sum game: “If you can choose between a thirty-minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty-minute drive, during which you cannot, does the drive save ten minutes? Does it make sense to say that it saves ten minutes from your travel budget while removing ten minutes from your reading budget?”

Faster burns through such conundrums like rocket fuel. In a chapter on telecommunication, Gleick ponders the so-called telephone lotteries, which pit a million redial buttons against one another in pursuit of hot tickets and other desirable goods. The result: Touch-Tone gridlock. And, more subtly, the transfer of time from consumers to corporations. The more time that callers spend holding, the more time the folks on the other end have to work. Time is an economic tug-of-war. Your loss is their gain, to think about it one way.

Gleick is amused, not depressed. No Marxist, he doesn’t buy the idea that capitalism is robbing its poor subjects of their metaphysical essence in order to feed the global profit machine. No theologian, he doesn’t bemoan the loss of ostensibly soul-enriching quiet time to nerve-racking online plugged-in noisy time. No humanist, he doesn’t tally the costs of high-speed electronic connections on slow-speed human relationships. He’s too detached for these old concerns, too coolly postmodern.

His neutral stance gets boring, though. The questions that have burdened the ages – Why do the hard thing rather than the easy thing? Where are we going, and are we going anywhere? How does the gift of time oblige us to use it? – not only don’t seem to interest him much but may as well never have existed. Time is about making choices, he asserts, and not really a matter of gain or loss; but the nature of these choices earns no ink.

The subject of time cries out for moral analysis, or at least some social context, but Gleick ignores the big picture for the small one. For example, there’s not a word on human longevity. The real revolution in matters temporal has come in ever-longer human lives, not in ever-faster Web connections. Gleick’s clever zero-sum meanderings notwithstanding, people do have more time now than they used to (though a good many of them spend it on the butt ends of respirators). What’s more, the rationing of this extra time is far from equal; just ask the insurance companies. Is some people’s time – say, that of wealthy professionals – worth more than other people’s? And who makes up the difference? The future of time, of how it’s won or lost, endured or enjoyed, expanded or compressed, will depend on how it’s valued, not how it’s measured.

Speed Read