James Gleick,
Faster: The Acceleration
of Just About Everything

(Pantheon, 1999)

We are all limited by our culture in many ways, and I believe our most significant limitations are the ones that seem so natural to us that we don't even see them. Reading, I think, offers us a way of peeking around our culture's and period's boundaries; for me, this is its greatest charm. James Gleick, in Faster, puts our current culture's passion for speed into a context, historically, technically, and psychologically.

We are a culture inclined towards extremism. Seldom do we create an ability to do something and then choose to foreswear it for the sake of other values; more usually we embrace it and integrate it as thoroughly as we can. Gleick shows us how the ability to measure time in ever more exact ways has affected us and the world in which we live, in ways more diverse than I would have recognized prior to reading this book. Several of these were especially striking to me.

The chapter on watches is titled "Your Other Face." I seldom wear a watch myself, and when I do I check it infrequently. I now have a better idea why I've been making these choices for so long. The ability to measure time so easily and accurately affects the way we approach the world. In particular, being able to accurately measure a delay or wait seems to increase its psychological duration for the person waiting, and thus increases impatience. (Gleick's chapter on elevators ties in to this, too.) I've noticed this in myself: when I wear a watch and wait, I focus on the passage of time; when it's not as convenient to measure the time passing I can focus on other things and am not quite as bothered by the delay.

I enjoyed the chapter on "Sex and Paperwork," too. Did you know the "average American" spends almost as much time per day filling out paperwork for the federal government (4 minutes) as on sex (4.5 minutes)? I'm sure that if state and local paperwork, and the paperwork required for the rest of our lives (even without including job-related items) were included in the total we would be amazed. This brings out a form of tax that we normally don't even realize is required of us: the tax of time. I know my husband and I resent the loss of time consumed by such things as paying taxes and tolls far more than we resent the money paid! And, unlike the money, the government cannot use these minutes and hours it requires; they are lost to us and benefit no one. Yet this tax is invisible in the ongoing tax debates.

The accelerating speed of media is discussed in many chapters, and it ties in with our desire to multitask. I seldom do "only" one thing at a time; right now, I am writing this review, listening to music and baking bread; I also have several art pieces lying fallow in the back of my mind. When forced to do only one thing, I grow impatient. I usually prefer to watch movies at home rather than in a theater, since there I can only watch (and maybe eat popcorn), while at home I can watch, sew, talk about the movie and interrupt it to add even more tasks sporadically! I wonder, though, if the acceleration of the media itself in an attempt to be more gripping -- to make us not want to multitask -- isn't reaching a limit; I am finding the rapid speed of many movies and television shows to be, in itself, boring. It's so shallow. Perhaps readers differ from non-readers in this.

The penultimate chapter in Faster is devoted to boredom. Gleick puts boredom into a historical context which I found fascinating. Boredom is apparently a relatively modern phenomenon: "The word boredom barely existed even a century ago" (pg. 270). He relates the concept of boredom to our cultural approach to time, and contrasts it with other cultures' concepts and their possible results.

These are only a few of the themes Gleick discusses in Faster. The chapters are mostly brief, in keeping with our reduced attention span (and an amusing comment itself on the book's subject). This book analyzes, explains and puts into context so many things about which I've noticed the symptoms, and it increased my understanding in a way I find very exciting. I know I'm going to apply some of this understanding to my own life -- the inevitable inefficiency of attempting to achieve perfect efficiency in this imperfect world, for one thing! Gleick writes clearly and well, and the short chapters are quickly read and thought-provoking. An excellent bibliography is included, broken up by chapter so one can easily find some of the works and information referenced on particular subjects. The interior design is excellent and readable, despite the cover which I found odd; the angled and blurred text did not strike me as effectively depicting either speed or acceleration.

I look forward to Gleick's next book, and suggest that if you read and like Faster, you may enjoy his excellent Chaos: Making a New Science, on chaos theory.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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