The faster I go, the behinder I get, runs the rustic saw, which would have made a good epigraph to James Gleick's Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. For that matter, so would the famous cry from Walt Kelly's comic strip, Pogo, We have met the enemy, and he is us, because in just about everything we modern Westerners do concerning time, we are our own worst enemy.
This utterly engaging book by the author of Chaos: Making a New Science is the best work in the science/technology/sociology genre I have read since Stanley Coren's Sleep Thieves: An Eye-opening Exploration Into the Science and Mysteries of Sleep of three years ago. Like Faster, it, too, dealt with attempts to gain more time in its case, by stealing it from sleep time, a practice that is not only dangerous but almost always self-defeating.
Self-disappointing might be a better description of the efforts at saving time as with money, we never have enough depicted in Gleick's book, which goes beyond such efforts to examine the concept of time and what we do with it. It is a book-length meditation studded with fascinating facts.
If there is a focus to this wide-ranging book, it is our frustration with our own desires in regard to time. We say we don't have enough of it, yet our efforts to get more make our lives seem hurried and harried, a feeling we say we deplore but which we actually like.
We thought by squeezing more activities into less time, we'd be better off. Gleick quotes social historian Theodore Zeldin: Nobody expected that it would create the feeling that life moves too fast. Innovations fast ovens, quick playback, quick freezing, instant credit give us more minutes to bank, yet we still feel impoverished, so we cut back even more on sleep, breakfast, lunch, leisure.
Yet we thrive on it. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power, Gleick writes. It thrills us. If we have learned the name of just one hormone, it is adrenaline. No wonder we call sudden exhilaration a rush. So we look for more, because the connectedness pleases us, though it creates glut. Because we revel in the glut of cell phones, e-mail, multitasking, what have you. Entire technologies are devoted to facilitating multitasking think of waterproof shower radios. Economist Herbert Stein says the hordes of men and women walking the streets with cell phones pressed to their heads are trying to reassure themselves that they are not alone. Ultimately, he says, no matter who's on the other end, they're really calling Mommy.
It comes at a price, of course. Now it is rare for a person to listen to the radio and do nothing else, Gleick says. Even lovers of classical music find it hard to devote chunks of time solely to their passion. There is even a CD called Presto! World's Fastest Classics, even though music is the art form most clearly about time. There are other, less benign forms of the price, but, as the author says more than once, it is a price we are happy to pay. While these ruminative aspects of the book are a delight, so are the facts upon which the ruminations rest. Such as the way telephone companies compress elements in a directory-assistance call to save time, or the elaborate flimflam of being put on hold for such things as computer technical support an estimated 3 billion minutes per year. They are simply shifting time from your ledger to the company's.
There is a circuitousness about Faster that reflects the circuitousness of its topic. The complications beget choice; the choices inspire technology; the technologies create complication, Gleick says as he chases the tale of our chasing our tails, and there is no answer, unless acceleration finally gives way to paralysis.
Well, there is another answer, really. We could be like the Ankore of Uganda, whose slow pace of life makes them, by our lights, seem lazy. Yet in their laziness they are, in effect, contentedly creating, producing, and making time, as much time as they want, and none of it wasted. Whereas we are overbusily using, selling, and buying time, and constantly feeling it's wasted.
But that's no answer for us. We have been captured by our own worst enemy, and we love the captivity, going ever faster and getting ever behinder.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.