FASTER: THE ACCELERATION OF JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING By James Gleick Pantheon 324 pp., $24
If you want to understand how time has accelerated, you need only wait for a green light at any street corner in Boston. Because no one else will. Instead, other pedestrians will scan for the smallest sliver of a break in traffic and dodge across the street so they can get to work, lunch, a haircut, etc. about 30 seconds faster than if they had waited for the light to change.
Meanwhile, as you wait for the walk signal, you can't escape the nagging feeling that you're doing something wrong - that by obeying the law, you're an oddball, that you're not making the best use of your time, even if it means endangering your life in a city where drivers slow for a pedestrian about as often as the Red Sox win the World Series.
In a way, reading James Gleick's "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" is like waiting for "Walk" while everyone else rushes across the street. Perhaps you do feel like a bit of an oddball, and maybe you could do something more "useful." Yet, there is something vaguely comforting in the sensation of stepping outside the stream of time that everyone else swims in. And pausing.
Because "Faster" is a book that demands your attention. As you follow his lead into the labyrinth of "time" and his musings on why life is so much faster these days, Gleick forces you to take a step back and slow down. In a masterly (and somewhat mischievous) analysis, he examines the successive technologies that have pushed us into the fast lane - the watch, the typewriter, the phone, the TV, and of course, the computer. You'll need time to digest and enjoy the wonderful ironies he uncovers about the ways these "time-saving" devices have influenced our world, or indeed, about how they have created the opposite effect of what was intended.
But, alas, it's hard to ignore the irony of the book itself. After all, as well-written and enjoyable as "Faster" is, not many people will read it because, well, they just don't have time for this kind of book. (It's fun to imagine fans of the "One-Minute Manager" books mistakenly thinking "Faster" is the latest guide to improving efficiency.)
Unfortunately, the book's overall effect is not helped by an undercurrent of Luddism. While
Gleick makes sure to give each technology its due, you sense he finds these examples of "progress" more disturbing than empowering, but in a way that is more nostalgic than insightful.
Then again, Gleick probably knows this nostalgia is misplaced. As he points out, there never has been a "Golden Age" for time. Acceleration seems to be the choice of humanity. After all, has there ever been a generation that by choice moved at a slower pace than the generation before it?
Perhaps, if anything, "Faster" will help us think about the way we "construct" time - for it is surely a construction. And help us recognize that "neither technology or efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It's not a thing you ever had. It's what you live in. You can drift or you can swim, and it will carry you along either way."
So why not drift a little, and take the time to read the delightful "Faster"? You might actually find yourself waiting for more green lights.
*Tom Regan is associate editor of The
Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society