James Gleick is a former science reporter for The New York Times and cofounder of an early Internet service provider, Pipeline. He has also written Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992) and Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), each of which was nominated for a National Book Award.
In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, Gleick delivers a treatise on a too-common complaint at the end of the twentieth century—the lack of time—in appropriately short, punchy bursts of easily digestible prose, one fast-paced, factoid-filled narrative tumbling into the next. This is no ponderous tome; only three chapters are more than ten pages long.
Gleick’s book is not one of the burgeoning genre of time- management books— which, as he points out, have only existed as a major category in bookstores since the 1980’s. Before, the few books on time were geared toward helping one fill one’s hours productively. Now, industrialized countries have changed from having time to fill and time to spare to societies in which time is a precious commodity to be guarded, hoarded, and managed, and lack of time has become a status symbol.
The book begins and ends with Gleick’s visit to the Directorate of Time, the military agency at which the United States’ atomic clocks are kept, coordinating with others at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures near Paris. The opening chapter’s subject sets the tone for the book: the displacement of natural time, based on observation of the planets and seasons, by technology. Just a few decades ago, “real time” would have been a redundancy, but now people must distinguish between real time and virtual time, between real life and virtual reality. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, time can be split into more infinitely discrete segments. Scientists can measure time in nanoseconds, but the human mind cannot experience a nanosecond. Nevertheless, as people place increasing reliance on technological advances, the need for infinitesimal accuracy increases. For example, a one-nanosecond error translates into an error of a foot in a calculation of a global positioning satellite (GPS) system.
Although humans become more precise in the ability to measure time, the perception of time continues to be inconstant. The head of the Directorate of Time has codified this familiar feeling in an equation showing that the more one has experienced, the faster time seems to go. In the chapter entitled “Your Other Face” (which refers to watch faces), Gleick argues that the advent of the telegraph, railroads, and factories began our obsessive mechanization of time. In ancient societies, time was a mystical and religious concept. Later, agricultural societies had to work around time, but with nothing resembling the precision demanded in the twenty-first century. Factories and assembly lines, on the other hand, relied on time-sequenced events and, as Gleick points out, timekeepers became agents of social organization. The introduction of time zones and daylight saving time brought people together through standardization, but simultaneously divided people. Gleick believes the widespread adoption of the wristwatch at the beginning of the twentieth century was a major leap in the miniaturization of machinery, similar to the microchip at that century’s end, as well as a personalization of the concept of timekeeping that drives society currently.
Even early technological advances that one might not think of as having affected the perception of time have altered it in profound but subtle ways, as Gleick points out. For example, one might not associate photography with the speeding up life. However, the camera’s ability to freeze time and motion allows them to be dissected into segments: “It expanded the reach of our eyesight in the temporal domain, as microscopes and telescopes expand it in a spatial domain.” Pictures both explicate and obliterate motion. Motion pictures intensify this process by stopping time and motion and allowing them to be reassembled in a new way, including speeding up (or slowing down) the action.
An earlier social critic, Marshall McLuhan, believed that television could not be background, that watching it would take one’s full attention. Still, as it has become larger, more colorful, and more varied in its offerings, it has degenerated, in Gleick’s term, into just a noisy light bulb. Gleick argues that children...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)