Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Making Time

Book ponders the frenetic pace of modern life

By Michael Sims

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Sometimes it seems that half the human race is busily inventing, manufacturing, distributing, and maintaining time-saving devices. This is only one of many ironies that will occur to you as you read through James Gleick's thoughtful and entertaining new book, Faster. All of us wrestle daily with the situation described in his subtitle: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Most of us merely grouse about it. Gleick has done some research and tried to make sense of the phenomenon.

James Gleick is best known as the author of Chaos, which made a difficult concept reasonably clear, and more recently for Genius, his biography of colorful physicist Richard Feynman. He deserves the acclaim that greets each book. Not only does he range through a vast amount of information; he presents it in straightforward prose that fits together so well the word "elegant" comes to mind. He writes as if he loves the English language.

In Faster, Gleick sets out to examine the speeding-up of modern life. In three dozen brief and (naturally) fast-moving chapters, adding up to only 250-odd pages of text, he explores topics diverse as elevator speeds, the unscientific designation "Type A personalities," the current obsession with multi-tasking, and, inevitably, MTV. Gleick seems to have read and seen everything. He has at hand an impressive fund of allusions and quotations that clarify his point with wit and a kind of offhand authority. With perfect timing, he brings to life an image with quotations from Woody Allen or Steven Wright.

Part of the sheer fun of this book is how much territory Gleick covers in his leaps and bounds. His topic takes him from the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the pace of Renaissance motets, from USA Today's page design to an analysis of the set of Lost in Space. We learn about the impact of clocks on the early Industrial Revolution work force, the intricate calculations of air traffic controllers, and the result of ongoing sleep deprivation. Faster is one of those books that will inspire you to turn to someone and say, "Listen to this...."

Few of the ironies of modern life escape Gleick. In Japan, he informs us, there is now a restaurant that charges customers by the minute, not by the amount of food they consume. An all-you-can-eat buffet is available, but customers try to eat as quickly as possible to save money. Gleick points out that customers stand in line awaiting the opportunity to eat as quickly as possible.

The author's way with words keeps each aspect of his topic lively. Of wristwatches, he writes, "We hold the time as closely as possible, where we can see it day and night. At night it glows." Elsewhere he sums up one ongoing problem: "The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole." He lampoons one-minute-long fairy tales, the person who wrote in to a gardening magazine to learn how to make compost piles decompose more quickly, and people who jab the "door close" button on elevators.

While Gleick's tone is frequently amused, it is also sympathetic. He seems to think that there's not much chance of slowing society as a whole, and he's not even sure that would be a good idea. At no point in technological history have human beings, when faced with a newer, faster way to do something, chosen to stand by the older, slower way. In most cases, Gleick insists, individuals are simply choosing the faster, more technologically dependent, more stressful lifestyle.

The accelerated rate of technological change and the built-in obsolescence it spawned aren't the only topics Gleick examines, but he keeps returning to them. They help drive advertising's endless task of making us feel bad about ourselves so that we will buy certain products to make ourselves better. And, in a way, they alienate us ever further from the past. Gleick points out an interesting aspect of our accelerated pace: "Whenever we speed up the present, as a curious side effect we slow down the past.... Peering back through history, we see scenes in a kind of slow motion that did not exist then. We have invented it."

As a result, we are obsessed with time, and with "saving" it--whatever that means. The serious question of what we mean by the notion of saving time is one to which Gleick returns often. How to save or spend or make such an intangible? When the creation of an extensive railway system across the ever-growing nation created "railroad time," Charles Dudley Warner complained, "The chopping up of time into rigid periods is an invasion of freedom, and makes no allowances for differences in temperament and feeling." What would he think of races now being measured in hundredths of a second?

Toward the end of Faster, James Gleick nicely sums up the vicious circle resulting from "the acceleration of almost everything" with a story from Through the Looking-Glass. Alice informs the Red Queen that back home in her country, if you run fast, you generally wind up somewhere else. "A very slow sort of country!" the Queen snaps. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

Gleick doesn't mention that even the Red Queen was a multi-tasker worthy of our own era. "Curtsey while you're thinking what to say," she advises Alice. "It saves time."

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