A four-minute interview with the author of "Faster"

James Gleick pauses to consider the spiritual side of speed.

Published October 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

James Gleick is the author of the new book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." In his book, Gleick describes the "close door" buttons in elevators as a useless pacifier for the impatient, investigates instant coffee and high-speed film and contemplates the nanoseconds saved at the microwave oven and channel surfing.

He also claims we spend four minutes a day on sex.

There's only one way to interview you -- quickly. This interview will last the same amount of time we spend daily on sex -- four minutes. The clock is running. You claim speed makes us superficial. But is superficiality really superficial, or could it be considered holy?

[00:54] That sounds deep. You mean "holy" in a religious sense?

[00:56] Yes.

[00:57] [Long pause.]

[01:02] Could contemplation just be an illusion? A waste of time?

[01:04] I'm almost willing to go along with that. The most direct answer to that is in the end of the book where I talk about being alone with your thoughts. And how we're not always able to come up with anything interesting. That's why we have priests because they help us organize our confessions. That's why we like to talk to other people. I think I say that language was not invented for us to talk to ourselves. We're social creatures. That's why so often when we're just alone with our thoughts, we prefer the computer's on/off button. Or a magazine. A telephone. A combination of those. We actually find it more interesting to get a little stimulus. The question is, Do we have to feel guilty about that? I hope not.

[03:02] But what if God talks really quick and we're becoming spiritually advanced by learning to move quicker?

[03:09] Instantly I look for the non-religious corollary to the question, and it's that our technology talks really quickly. There is a range of possible reactions to that and we have all of them. One reaction is, "I'm not good enough for my technology." Some people feel that all of the time and all of us feel that some of the time. It's scary. Another feeling is, "Great! Now I'm firing on all cylinders! Now we can really accomplish something!" A feeling we often have, too -- especially when we're doing three or four things at once.

[03:43] Have you ever tried writing by hand? There's a whole line of thought that you write better if you take the time to write by hand.

[03:47] I'm familiar with that line of thought. I don't believe it. I think there is a grain of truth in there somewhere. Namely I do think if we're not careful we can write for too long [be long winded] at a word processor. I think it's completely possible for an intelligent person to be aware of that tendency and overcome it.

At 04:08, I terminate the call -- eight seconds (a kazillion nanoseconds) over our four-minute limit.

Later, I find the perfect idea to end this interview on. It's from a book. Not Gleick's. But "Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West," a book by John Ralston Saul. "Slowness is only in part a response to heat or cold [environments]," he writes. "I remember being slowed by a young woman in the Arctic who pointed out that my enthusiasms and surface energy would be misunderstood. If people in Igloolik, the village where we were, saw me moving so fast, they would think there was an emergency and, if no emergency, that I was deranged."

I think this is the question really: Is life one long emergency and that's why we must rush so much? Or are we all just crazy? James Gleick doesn't have an answer, but then, of course, it's not his question. It's mine.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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