SPEED, FOR SPEED’S SAKE
Review by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt
University of Iowa
This Is an early draft of the review published as:
Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline, Review of James Gleick’s, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19, 1999;
So much to do! So little time!
Fragments of old hippie hymns ring in the ear: “Slow down, you move too fast/ Got to make the morning last”; “No time for a gentle rain.... No time left for you.”
Now there is precious little time left for anyone. All is speed and rush, whirl and flux. Our lives race ahead, the pace ever more breathless. And the race gets longer. We become long-distance runners, plunging headlong at a sprinter’s pace.
What happened? Where are we going, and why so fast?
In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (Pantheon, $24), James Gleick gives us a delightful, troubling book that describes the seemingly irresistible quickening of modern life. A virtuoso of the popular science genre, Gleick is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and has written two National Book Award finalists; Genius: The life and Science of Richard Feynman and Chaos: Making a New Science.
Gleick’s book imitates what he describes. Like his topic, his book is super-charged, fast-paced, scattered, restless. Short chapters, several three pages in length, introduce topics; examples cascade. The next chapter begins, the focus shifts; another flood of examples shower the reader. There is little time for reflection, analysis, or development. The book hastens forward.
Type A personality. He is in such a hurry he is killing himself. “Can we take the strain?” Elevators! Too slow. Anger boils if the wait is longer than 15 seconds. Time deforms. Heaven help us if we wait two minutes; it seems like ten. The “close door” button disintegrates under assault from frenzied jabbing. As time distorts, “time madness” and mania follow.
TV? Too Slow. Offered a choice of hundreds of channels, we (men at least) channel surf. We don’t care what’s on TV. We want to know what else is on TV. With the VCR we fast forward movies, skipping credits and trailers, condensing the action.
The networks feed the mania, providing instant surveys and “real time” programming, reinforcing a “sound-bite mentality” and helping create a mercurial public opinion that changes hour by hour. Producers shave seconds from transitional “black screens,” producing a rapid-fire effect. “MTV zooms by.”
Nature? We try to hurry compost, for goodness sakes. We sleep less, 20% less over the past century. Our biological clocks are reset to dash. Time is compressed. We “multitask,” squeezing several activities into the same crowded moment. Computers? The embodiment of “faster.” We are “On Internet Time.” Information whizzes by, bullet-like. Attention spans contract further.
Our choice of drugs? Speed of course, or at least its respectable cousin, caffeine- the “New Accelerator.” We are overworked-- academics quibble, but we know it. More is required of us at home, commuting, and certainly at work. We are never through. The reward of success? More work! “Every office an Augean Stable.”
Assessing the quickening of life, Gleick maintains the book’s tempo. He introduces, hastily, critical analyses of the building stress, overwork, the intrusion of the machines into our lives. Compressing, excruciatingly, the work of scholars such as Juliet Schor and Sabastian de Grazia, he acknowledges that “faster” has a downside.
The price we pay is alienation; arguably the dominant complaint of the critics of technology for over a century. Capitalism and the machine separate humans from themselves, their very essence; exiling moderns to a stunted and restless artificiality and transforming all into what Herbert Marcuse called One Dimensional Man
Having to go so damn fast to keep up, we miss stuff- our existence is truncated. Some things simply cannot be done going full speed- love, sex, conversation, food, family, friends, nature. In the whirl we are less capable of appreciation, enjoyment, sustained concentration, sorrow, memory.
Most music is no longer accessible. Our attention deficits are such that we cannot listen to the likes of J.S. Bach- we even have a hard time watching old movies.
In the rush we forget joy. Gleick quotes Randall Jarrell:
you needn’t mind.
The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
Nor referees: it wastes its time.
It wastes its time.
The universe of things done for their own sakes, whose primary purpose is to “waste its time,” not to get it over as soon as possible, has fallen victim to speed.
Gleick asks, briefly, “What is all the speed for?” His answer? Speed is for more speed. Now, speed is the thing-for-itself.
In short, Gleick acquiesces. Alienation is inevitable. There is no going back- get over it. There are consolations; the exhilaration, the sense of being connected, in touch immediately with everything. Indeed, according to Gleick we are not so much alienated by the pace of life as advanced in evolution. “We are different creatures, psychologically speaking, from what we were a generation ago.” We expect, no, need, the stimulation, the rush of acceleration. The alternative is boredom.
Those who are not true believers in technology , may, like this reviewer, squirm at Gleick’s tepid defense of speed, wishing for a more robust critique. We are losing chunks of our humanity for crying out loud. Shall we not rail in protest?
I am most uncomfortable with Gleick’s speed-the-antidote-to-boredom prescription. Perhaps boredom is symptomatic of our loss and alienation, of something deeper, and “faster” makes things worse.
I am reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s splendid essay on Sloth, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.” For centuries, Sloth (one of the seven deadly sins) had two forms; idleness/boredom, and the opposite, the desperate attempt to escape in manic activity (going “faster”). Thomas Aquinas called this “rushing after various things without rhyme or reason.” According to Soren Kierkegaard the root of Sloth is “a despairing refusal to give consent to one’s own being.”
Pynchon concluded: “unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern” we will forget, and perhaps embrace Sloth. I would add that we will continue to wallow in “faster,” mindless of our lost humanity; ignorant of the past and dumb before the future, always in the cascading present. Like the character, Benjy Compson, in William Faulkner’s novel, doomed to the present, we will continue to tell each other, in ever more excited and manic fashion, the same tale of whirl and flux, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.