Americans feel they do not have the time to do everything that needs to be done. Sound true? James Gleick says so in his still-relevant book (1999) Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (1999). It’s a documentary in colorful words, a good read for those of us who are overwhelmed by the rate of change of change.
Gleick says it’s true—we work harder and have less spare time than our grandparents did. We develop, produce, and buy time-saving devices—dishwashers, microwaves, computers, faster cars. But where did all the saved time go? Can we understand speech that is ever more rapid (as our kids apparently do and older people don’t)? Do we measure ourselves against our machines and movies that switch scenes faster than we can follow? A human can’t keep up. Marketers sell tapes—no not tapes any more, downloadable files—to help you make money immediately or to learn languages while you sleep. Thirty years ago you read a book. Fifteen years ago you set up your computer to download megabytes overnight. Now you expect the information to arrive in seconds, but you don’t have time to digest it. We have a societal sleep deprivation and fatigue. Gleick says sleep time has dropped twenty percent over the last century.
Highways are set up for 70 mph but we crawl in traffic jams. The traffic delays amount to the equivalent of dozens of life prison sentences each year. Tickets for national parks and big cultural events (plays, concerts) are reserved months or a year in advance. These are strange dynamics.
Gleick describes surveys that indicate we rank sex as our most pleasurable activity, but on average we give it only one-half hour per week—excluding the hours spent beautifying ourselves to enhance its probability.
Gleick indicates a microwave saves you four minutes per day. But how much time do you spend reading manuals, fixing, testing, programming, filing guarantees, buying batteries, and keeping track of all of those time-saving devices?
Your grandparents might have read one or two newspapers per day. With all of the electronic input crashing upon us, who has time for reading? Or writing the articles that no one has time to read? Baseball is the only thing that still runs at its old pace, but, as Gleick says, baseball has lost its preeminent role in American culture. Football is faster.
According to Gleick, Americans in the 1990’s watched more than three hours of TV per day. Are we switching channels at minute intervals? Modern food is fast. Pop tarts replaced pancakes. But even instant coffee has been replaced by instant brews, and pop tarts pop too slowly. We trade quality for time. Do we make that trade in relationships, too? Gleick doesn’t answer that question. He doesn’t have to. You know the answer.
Faster, although nearly fifteen years old, is as modern as the tomorrow that is accelerating toward us, then leaving us behind. If you wonder why your life seems harried, be assured that it is. And read this book to reveal why.