Faster: the pace of modern life

imagesI picked up James Gleick’s book Faster and read it slowly – something it says people rarely do anymore.

The subtitle is The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I was hoping for some insight into the human condition as affected by modernity; our lives are radically different from what we evolved for. But the book reads more like a Seinfeld monologue than a sociology essay – a string of quickie observations, never connected into some over-arching theory or viewpoint. Unknown-1I was reminded of Churchill saying of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”

Yes, in many ways, life has gotten faster. We all know that. But what does it really mean for us? Gleick seems unsure, ambivalent – the book’s tone is bemusement.

He even contradicts himself at times. One chapter (“Short Term Memory”) starts, “As the flow of information accelerates, we may have trouble keeping track of it all.” Gleick explains that the media on which information is recorded quickly becomes obsolete. Tons of data are on floppy disks and microfilms – but can you find the machines today to read them? Et cetera. This is indeed a real problem. Yet then Gleick says: “amnesia doesn’t seem to be [our] worst problem. This new being just can’t throw anything away . . . It has forgotten that some baggage is better left behind. Homo Sapiens has become a packrat.”

But perhaps such contradictoriness really is the essence of this book, in exploring our modern relationship with time. Gleick returns repeatedly to the concept of “saving time,” and how slippery it is. Talking about the genre of self-help books on time-saving, he says this (his emphasis):

Unknown-3“[The authors] reveal confusion about what it means to save time. They flip back and forth between advertising a faster and a slower life. They offer more time, in their titles and blurbs, but they are surely not proposing to extend the 1,440-minute day, so by ‘more’ do they mean fuller or freer time? Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? . . . when we seize it away from a low-satisfaction activity, like ironing clothes, and turn it over to a high-satisfaction activity, like listening to music? What if we do both at once? 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? . . . What if you can listen to [an] audiotape . . . ? Are you saving time, or employing time that you have saved elsewhere . . . ?”

But Gleick doesn’t really philosophize about the nature of time. In physics, it is indeed a tricky and elusive concept. There seem to be fundamental particles of matter, and maybe of space, but not of time; no unit is the limit of smallness in measuring time. Unknown-5And while we all think we know what time’s passage is, we actually don’t experience it as a sequence of moments; “living in the moment” is impossible because as soon as a moment occurs it’s already in the past. The “now” sandwiched between anticipation and retrospect never actually exists as something we can experience.

Time is the one thing which, once lost, can never be replaced. That might not matter much once we achieve immortality (or near-immortality); but as long as we know our allotment is limited, we value every minute. While people may have a lot of mis-judged values, the quest to save time is not one of them.

In my coin business, I used to mail out price lists (very laborious); then take down all the orders on the phone (even more laborious). Now I post the list on the web, and print out the orders. The time savings is great.

One point the book makes is that time has become a commodity, and a lot of our economy concerns its allocation. A business often tries to get customers to pay not just with money but with their time – “some assembly required” – thereby relieving the business of some costs. images-2Buffet restaurants are another example, the customer doing some of the work theretofore done by restaurant staff. There’s a new buffet concept in Japan – instead of “all you can eat” for a fixed price, or charging by the ounce, this eatery charges by the minute. Diners punch a time clock, then rush to the buffet, and wolf down their food as fast as they can. Conversation among dining companions is a casualty (though they can eat with eyes glued to phones). The advantage to the restaurant is obvious – without gourmands lingering over their repasts, many more of them can be serviced. Yet the scheme is quite popular, Gleick reports; Tokyo residents wait in line for the opening gun.

Speaking of eyes glued to phones, Gleick quotes economist Herbert Stein: “It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone . . . deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cellphones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people.”Unknown-7

Reading this made me check the book’s publication date: 1999. Seems like ancient history now. Today many folks are fixated on their phones 24/7 – oblivious to people around them.

This is, again, a mode of existence radically different from our evolutionary antecedents. Some see it as dystopian; yet its extreme popularity tells us that it satisfies human needs in a very deep way. People always had a profound yearning for what their phones provide – but until recently, they just didn’t know it.

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