By Jeff Gainer
(Author’s note: This article appeared in the December 1999 issue of Cutter IT Journal.)
Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything. James Gleick.
Parthenon Books, 324 pp. ISBN: 0679408371. US $24.00
Those who could learn the most from James Gleick’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything are those least likely to learn anything from it, let alone read it. It is unfortunate that Faster is a book which can be read, well—quickly. It brings to mind Francis Bacon’s observation that there are three kinds of books. In the first category are those ephemeral books which need only to be tasted, then there are more significant tomes which should be swallowed, and the third, more rarefied category of books which should be chewed and thoroughly digested. Faster belongs to the third category, but the paradox is that the digestion of a book--reflecting on and analyzing its ideas--requires unhurried time.
Gleick is the author of Chaos: Making A New Science, and Genius, a biography of Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Both books were nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. With Faster, however, Gleick explores not so much the scientific, but the historical, sociological, and philosophical implications of our invention of, and obsession with, time and the perceived lack of it. Often wildly funny, Faster invokes cultural and scientific references ranging from Beavis and Butthead, Marcel Duchamp, Einstein, and inevitably, the Internet. Writing about, or even describing Gleick’s new book leads one into the irresistible urge to use staccato, hyphenated, hyperactive phrases. He explores the birth, growth, use and misuse of phrases like "multi-tasking," and "real-time," phrases which many IT professionals routinely employ as a form of verbal shorthand.
"Pacemaker," the first chapter, begins, "You are in the Directorate of Time. Naturally you are running late." Indeed, every chapter leaves us with the nagging sense that we’re behind, we’re late. The Directorate of Time, Gleick explains, is where time is carefully monitored in the vibration of the subatomic particles of cesium atoms. Time is no longer referenced by celestial bodies; we have reinvented it as a self-referenced manifestation, and in turn, have made it our obsession.
After this introduction, Gleick observes that "Our culture has been transformed from one with time to fill and time to spare to one that views time as a thing to guard, hoard and protect." Where we once sought to kill time, today we are reluctant to even wound it. Witness our ubiquitous time-savers: cell phones, email, Day-Timers, Palm Pilots, One Minute Manager guides and, reserved for that special, precious quality time when we tuck our children into bed, we now have One-Minute Bedtime Stories. This obsession with time and the lack of it seems to be self-perpetuating. Where once we never envisioned such inventions as automatic teller machines, photocopiers, cellular telephones, pagers, remote controls, or microwave ovens, we now regard them as essential. They create their own demand and fill our already overfilled schedules, as we compulsively check items off our ever-growing to-do lists.
The tone of Faster invokes the title of one of Gleick’s earlier books: Chaos. Certainly, a disturbing majority of software development organizations have been described using these two succinct syllables, and Faster embodies the very notion of chaos, in lives personal and professional, as well as in culture, both social and corporate. But let’s face it: chaos is sometimes exciting. It may not be very efficient, but it can undoubtedly be exciting. This excitement, however, may well mask the root cause of our perpetual "lateness." One wonders if this pace is more fashionable than substantive. Many corporate cultures today emphasize the need for speed, as if haste, speed, and merely being busy were desirable goals in themselves. Being so busy one does not have enough time is often a status symbol. And if you do have enough time, your status is immediately lowered, of course, for if you have too much time on your hands, you couldn’t possibly be very important, anyway.
IT professionals are arguably largely responsible for the time crunch, and, after all, it is we who have created the technology that is in a large measure responsible for the increasing flow of information that requires our increasing attention in our decreasingly available time. And IT professionals are some of the greatest victims of the time crunch: as market pressures build, we are forced to create products in increasingly shorter time frames. And even when we’re not quite sure what were supposed to be doing or how we’re supposed to do it, one imperative is clear: that we’d better do it faster.
The "Lost In Time" chapter begins with an introduction of Moore’s Law, the now-familiar postulate that computing power doubles every 18 months. Gleick takes a longer view, moving back in time and extrapolating this exponential increase to the pace of increasing technology from Gutenburg’s printing press to the spread of telephones and space travel, with a humorous flashback to the television premiere of Lost In Space, in which the action takes place in the far, far away galaxy of 1997.
"On Internet Time" portrays the manic emphasis of "faster" in the business world. We demand expedited orders for just in time delivery for our cost-effective just in time inventory, all this to support our just in time manufacturing, which presumably spawns still more expedited orders. How did this come about? "Federal Express," Gleick notes, "sold its services for ‘when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.’ In the world before FedEx, when ‘it’ could not absolutely, positively be there overnight, it rarely had to. Now that it can, it must. Overnight mail, like so many of the hastening technologies, gave its first business customers a competitive edge. When everyone adopted overnight mail, equality was restored, and only the universally faster pace remained."
Gleick continues this theme by illustrating the growing usage of fax transmissions in the 80’s and the glut of email today. Everyone, it seems, complains about getting too much email, whether they receive a dozen or several hundred per day. (Curiously, I have heard software developers boast about how much email arrives in their already bursting email folders each day, as if being overwhelmed were a mark of pride.) The chapter concludes with what has to be the funniest section of the book: a review of the books, courses, organizers and tapes offered by the simplification gurus who are "…giving birth to an unmistakable Simplify You Life information glut."
Faster is organized into 37 short, punchy chapters. Not counting the index, which is parenthetically, superfluous, the book weighs in at 305 pages, of these, 23 pages are acknowledgements and notes. For those who don’t have time to read the remaining 281 pages of rapid-fire text, the publisher has thoughtfully condensed it into an abridged audio cassette edition, easily skimmed while fielding telephone calls amid rush hour traffic. For those with really short attention spans, the book’s Web site (http://www.fasterbook.com) has snippets culled from each chapter.
Reading the book gives one the impression of watching a philosophical discourse on modern life as produced by MTV. This is unfortunate, because Faster is not, as noted earlier, a book to be skimmed in haste and summarily checked off one’s to-do list. Its implications are greater than its apparent content. The unspoken theme of Faster is that in our haste to go faster and faster, we have lost or forgotten the need to reflect, to analyze, or even to plan just where we are going so quickly. Is time, as Ovid noted in Metamorphoses, truly the devourer of all things ("Tempus edax rerum.")? Some things simply can’t be hurried, Gleick reminds us, for example, love, compost, or a soufflé, a memorable juxtaposition of metaphors if ever there were one.
I had been reading and re-reading sections of Faster, and so while returning from recent business trip, I took special notice of my fellow business travelers and what they did to occupy their waiting and traveling time. On a Friday evening in the airport in New York, I read a newspaper while the people surrounding me dialed their cellular telephones, and with a universal sense of urgency, all explained that they were in the airport in New York and would arrive at their destinations at _____ p.m., local time. While on board the aircraft before takeoff, the man sitting behind me dialed his cell phone, explained that he was on the plane at the gate in New York, and would arrive at his destination at ______ p.m., local time. As they aircraft pulled away from the gate, he concluded his call, but as soon as we were airborne, he began busily dialing again, presumably notifying everyone he could think of that he would indeed, arrive at his destination at _______ p.m., local time.
I had a brief layover in Salt Lake City, so I went to the airline lounge to check in for my connecting flight to Colorado. While there, I went to the men’s room, where I heard an unmistakable beeping, followed by a voice echoing from a stall, "I’m in Salt Lake City now—"
I left, not really wanting to overhead the rest of the conversation, and besides, I didn’t want to be late.
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Jeff Gainer is a software development management consultant and writer based in Grand Junction, Colorado. He became professionally involved with software in 1984 as a humanities graduate student while using prehistoric computers to perform textual analysis on the works of various English and American authors. Mr. Gainer’s technical articles have appeared in Cutter IT Journal, Enterprise Development, Contract Professional and Visual Basic Programmer’s Journal. In addition to his technical writings, Jeff occasionally writes mystery fiction; his work has been published by MysteryNet’s The Case (www.thecase.com).
Copyright 1999, by Jeff Gainer