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The Acceleration of Just About Everything. By James Gleick

James Gleick: Faster. The Acceleration of Just About Everything, New York 2000, Vintage, ISBN 0-679-77548-X, 330 pages

02.05.2000 · Reviewed by Douglas Merrill

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The new paperback edition of Faster applies theory to practice on its cover, where the title reads Fstr and the author's name is rendered Jms Glck. Like the time-consuming but apparently unnecessary vowels, many of life's shorter pauses are disappearing, especially where money is involved. Radio stations in America broadcasting the well-known commentator Rush Limbaugh squeezed the pauses and imperceptibly sped up his speech enough to come up with an extra six minutes out of each hour's broadcast. These they sold to advertisers. The right wing star got over his shock quickly, though; he shares in the revenue. Gleick notes that listeners "can process speech reaching the ear at 500 or 600 words a minute," so even if the difference were perceptible, it would pose no challenge to human capabilities.

Gleick addresses the tension arising from apparent acceleration in everyday life at the end of the twentieth century, our simultaneous unease with it and our demonstrated addiction to it. Along the way, he punctures exaggerated seriousness on both sides and takes a detached view of a phenomenon that produces nothing but hand-wringing.

The book is not systematic, nor is it mean to be. It is a relatively rapid tour of a number of related phenomena, all of which add up to the apparent acceleration of contemporary life. These items include the measurement of time, hard-driving personalities, the use of computers and other accelerating technologies, media changes, and the paradox of efficiency. Faster is terrific to read, and although it is fast, it does not sacrifice depth. Gleick returns to his themes in several variations, and notes sounded at the beginning play in the finale as well.

He begins in the Directorate of Time, an agency of the United States military devoted to the precise measurement of time. The Directorate maintains a large number of atomic clocks, consults with comparable observatories around the world, and a standard international time is promulgated by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Paris. They're measuring in nanosecond precision, an inhuman time scale, but one that matters in today's world. It matters for signals from the Global Positioning Satellite system; it matters for anyone trying to squeeze more bandwidth into mobile phone signals.

While nanosecond precision makes some of our wondrous technology possible, in everyday life we are confronted by the simultaneous appearance of speed and congestion. The Concorde could, until recently, fly travelers across the Atlantic in three hours and forty-five minutes. Getting in from Heathrow or JFK could take a significant fraction of the same period. The addition of a relatively small number of cars tips urban centers from movement to gridlock. And phone networks allow instant connections - to customer service queues.

The advantages of speed are not small. Gleick writes, "A study widely quoted among management consultants found that products coming in 50 percent over budget are far more profitable than products coming in six months late." McDonald's, Federal Express, and the dozens of one-hour photo businesses, to name obvious examples, have all reaped enormous rewards from both servicing and inducing our need for speed.

With that need, and the underlying drive for efficiency, comes the paradox of efficiency. Inefficient enterprises have, by definition, more slack in them to cope with surprises. As networks, firms, societies, markets become more efficient, they eliminate this slack and couple one event more tightly with another. (Edward Teller discusses this more deeply in Why Things Bite Back.)

While the suspicion lurks in intellectual corners that companies create haste to serve their bottom line, there is ample evidence that people adapt to and enjoy speed. In 1901, H.G. Wells wrote in a short story, "Imagine yourself with a little phial, and in this precious phial is the power to think twice as fast, move twice as quickly, do twice as much work in a given time as you could otherwise do," a formulation as tempting then as it would be now. In a daily display of impatience, the "Close Door" button is often the one most used on elevators. In big cities in the early part of the twentieth century, as many as one phone call in ten may have been a request for the current correct time.

Gleick points the finger squarely, "We complain about our oversupply of information. We treasure it nonetheless. We aren't shutting down our E-mail addresses. On the contrary, we're buying pocket computers and cellular modems and mobile phones ... Without these information sources we would feel sensory deprivation, as if stripped of our hearing aids and corrective lenses." Just a fast couple of paragraphs later he adds, "Every time we curse the overflowing in-box and pass another chain-mail joke along, we expose a disparity between how we feel and how we act. ... We like the E-mail. We like the connectedness. We do not seem interested in an about-face toward the simpler lives we recall with that rosy, nostalgic glow. Our speedy, in-touch lives can feel good in their own way."

In one of the book's crisper insights, he points out how older times only look slower in retrospect. If someone who has ridden a horse for twenty years before the invention of automobiles suddenly starts driving, that not only increases the person's speed of travel, it makes the old mode something it had not been before - slow. Gleick adds, "Peering back through history, we see scenes in a kind of slow motion that did not exist then. We have invented it."

Gleick illuminates with anecdotes, and does not intend to reach an absolute conclusion about what is right. He ackknowledges the paradoxes of accelerated living: "If the minute hands, or even the second hands, could be legislated off our watches, we would suffer. We might relax, but we would suffer anyway."

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