Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823
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 who are exposed to television shows constantly from infancy do not see or experience things in the same way that those born before television did. Moreover, everyone, he says, has been changed psychologically by exposure to speeded-up videos, commercials, and films. Even classical music stations—the few that remain—routinely play shorter or livelier pieces and may even delete the barely perceptible pauses between movements. As people become used to the faster pace, they have trouble concentrating on, much less enjoying, the slower, more stately music.
Although this has been dubbed “The Information Age,” it does not equate to absorbing more information, since the information travels by and through people too fast for them to process and absorb it all. Being connected to the Internet promises greater knowledge and efficiency, but at the same time creates such a vast array of places and chances to spend time that most people find themselves feeling overloaded rather than fulfilled. The World Wide Web is a prime example of information overload: Even the most sophisticated search engine available at the end of the twentieth century could only identify a fraction of the Web sites that deal with any given subject. While speed is the essence of on-line connectedness, the very computers that work in nanoseconds keep one waiting while they boot up, load applications and Web browsers, save, crash, and restart.
As electronic communications such as e-mail and faxes have raised expectations for instant transfer of information, overnight package delivery has begun to supplant the normal postal delivery of packages. Such technologies speed communication, but at a price: When delivery could not be made in a few hours, no one expected it, but now that quick delivery is not only possible but commonplace, it has become expected, adding to the feeling of stress when one has to wait for gratification. What was once an advantage has become an expectation, so everyone is equally speeded up.
Not only is there a limit to how fast the human brain can process, react to, and absorb information, but the human body is limited in other ways as well. The ability to cope with acceleration, like the ability to comprehend the division of time into incomprehensible units, is limited. For example, as buildings become taller, the time it takes for customers to move fifty or a hundred floors becomes a serious issue. However, human physiology cannot withstand rising or falling as quickly as elevators could be made to move.
Gleick also points out the growing number of diseases of technology, such as radiation poisoning, carpal tunnel syndrome, and jet lag—the latter a unique malady, a disease of clocks and time itself. The truest clocks are humans themselves: The body knows when a day is up and rebels when one tries to convince it otherwise. Humans are programmed to need pauses, rest, sleep. In fact, a growing problem in industrialized societies is sleep deprivation. Having so many channels to watch, Web sites to surf, e-mails to read, has left people with less time to sleep and little time to contemplate. People can speed up, but pauses force themselves into lives in less restorative ways: being put on hold, waiting for images to load on browsers, waiting in line to use the automatic teller machine.
Gleick does not just research and report on these phenomena; he takes readers backstage to see where the time is going. In one of the most fascinating chapters, “High Pressure Minutes,” Gleick takes readers behind the doors of a phone company in metropolitan New York. Much like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain pulling levers that created the illusion of magic, the wizards at the phone company are magically saving their time at the expense of their customers’ time. A person calling a directory assistance operator is not really talking to an operator; rather, the caller’s voice is digitized and sent through software that deletes pauses and stumbles, speeds words up slightly, and only then passes them to the headset of an operator who was finishing up the previous call while the customer actually spoke. The operator finds the listing and presses a button that sends the electronic voice with the numbers requested into the caller’s phone handset, while the operator is already taking the next call. The process takes about twenty-one seconds of an operator’s time, although operators have been known to average sixteen seconds for a call: 394 calls in one hour and forty-five minutes before taking a fifteen-minute break. However, the time saved by the phone company is not saved by the customer.
Using the intricate airline scheduling that sends planes to a roundabout series of cities to minimize the amount of time any plane is sitting unused, Gleick points out the frustrating irony of bleeding the last second of time out of schedules: The tighter, the tauter the web, the more vulnerable it is to snapping. Even the smallest delay can spill a toxic time dump of missed connections and appointments behind it.
Faster raises many profound and fascinating questions, but leaves the reader to struggle with the answers. What exactly does it mean to save time?
Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? Does time- saving mean getting more done? If so, does daydreaming save time or waste it? . . . If you can choose between a thirty-minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty-minute drive, during which you cannot, [do you save] ten minutes from your travel budget while removing ten minutes from your reading budget?
Moreover, where does all the “saved time” go? At the nanosecond level, there is no way for a human to distinguish past from present, so where, what, and when is now?
Perhaps such questions have no answers beyond the choices each individual makes regarding his or her personal allocation of time. Often, though, the information presented leaves the reader hungry for expansion. For example, in “Quick—Your Opinion?” Gleick mentions cognitive theorist Douglas R. Hofstadter’s theory that intelligence is tied in with speed of thought; if reflexes were faster or slower, humans probably would have evolved differently. This intriguing fact, tossed off without explication or explanation, is a good example of the sound bite that the chapter discusses. While readers could find Hofstadter’s book and learn more about his thoughts—Gleick’s book has a thorough section of references and is well indexed— where would they find the time?
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (July, 1999): 1890.
Library Journal 124 (October 1, 1999): 131.
New York 32 (August 23, 1999): 53.
Publishers Weekly 246 (August 9, 1999): 330.
The New York Times Book Review 104 ( September 12, 1999): 9.
Time 154 (September 20, 1999): 81.