James Gleick’s “Faster” is a wry, many-faceted meditation that takes as its starting point the notion that our lives, both at work and at leisure, have inexorably sped up. That’s not a new idea, of course. Get any group of people 35 or older reminiscing, and the topic will eventually be chewed over till everyone sounds like Dana Carvey’s Cranky Old Man on “Saturday Night Live”: Why, we remember the days when you had to actually go into a bank and see a teller to get cash, when nobody had a fax machine, when we had to keep from playing our favorite tunes too often because, as every audiophile knew, the grooves on the LP needed time to rest; and, dammit, we liked it that way!
Employing a knowing, tongue-in-cheek style and, yes, a suitably fast pace, Gleick examines every time-related dimension of life in what he calls this “epoch of the nanosecond.” He observes that “a compression of time characterizes the life of the century now closing,” and he proceeds to peg our obsession with correct time, our frustration with things that go too fast or too slow, the evolution of the concept of speed, the pervasive influence of the computer and the effect of the culture of acceleration on the arts.
His most resonant chapter heading is “The Paradox of Efficiency.” Gleick uses the phrase to describe the complicated systems that businesses use in order to become vastly more efficient (and less likely to bend to your whim). Missed your connecting flight? Thanks to modern flight planning programs that keep far fewer “extra” planes on hand, you stand a good chance of waiting longer than ever for another one. But the paradox of efficiency doesn’t apply to customer service alone. The nemesis of the “just in time” inventory systems that have made auto production much more efficient is that little spare parts factory in Ohio that, each time it suffers a strike, shutters every GM plant in the Midwest.
Closer to home, this paradox is the creepy certainty that the more you have the resources to work with every day — the more words you can process, the more e-mails and faxes you can send and instantly answer — the more expectations of your output expand. You can now do more, so you can’t do enough. One day the Internet is a marvelous new tool; the next afternoon you’re drumming your fingers during transfer time, despairing that it takes 15 seconds to have an entire library catalog a continent away at your fingertips.
With the rise of time consciousness has come, Gleick notes, the rising status of the overbooked. Think of all the exaggerators you know who with straight faces claim 80-hour work weeks. Why revel so in the notion of overwork? For many people today, having time on your hands feels downright dirty. What kind of a slacker are you? “The transformation of time into a negative status good has odd social consequences,” Gleick writes, and he quotes Michael Lewis on the “wonderful new prestige [of] any new time-saving device. After all, who needs such a device? People who have no time. And who has the least time? The best people!”
There is a benefit to reading about acceleration beyond the fact that this book is consistently witty and fine: “Faster” makes you consider your own role in accepting the acceleration of modern life. Time, Gleick reminds you, “is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift or you can swim, and it will carry you along either way.”