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Time, in Brief

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything
January 1, 2000

Let’s cut to the chase: Faster disappoints. James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science was a marvel of clarity and beauty, deserving its status as one of the best-selling popular science books of the last two decades. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman made a complex, elusive figure human, and contained just the right mix of physics and storytelling. So when I heard that Gleick was coming out with a book about time, I expected a serious exploration of time’s role in relativity, or chronologists’ quest for accuracy, or perhaps the neurology of time perception, leavened with character sketches and anecdotes and cultural references (all of which Gleick excels at). But Faster gives the leavening without the bread.

To be sure, what we get is tasty. Gleick has penned about three dozen bite-sized essays on everything amusing, ironic, manic or maddening about modern society’s relationship with time, from the time-and-motion studies used by Henry Ford to speed up work on the factory floor to the origins of the odd phrase “real time” (as opposed to fake time?). You might not know, for example, that broadcast TV stations with multiple antennae use an atomic clock to keep the signals from getting out of sync and causing funny interference patterns on your screen, or that clock owners with accuracy fetishes complain to the Directorate of Time, the Defense Department agency that tends the nation’s master clock, every time a leap second is inserted on New Year’s Eve to compensate for the
slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

Gleick also shows how the modern obsession with “time-saving” techniques has altered many of our daily activities-in case you hadn’t noticed-from breakfasts of microwaved Pop Tarts to bedtime stories condensed by one publisher into literary quickies that “can be read by a busy parent in only one minute.”

This is all very stimulating. But like the remote-toting, attention-disordered TV audiences described in one of his chapters, Gleick doesn’t alight long enough on any subject to give it depth. I would like to know what Gleick really thinks, for example, about how e-mail and instant messaging have changed the way people write, or what psychologists and social historians have to say about people’s pervasive sense of time pressure. Could it be that we actually like living faster? If so, what does this mean for family life, for civic involvement, even for our spiritual selves? Gleick only hints at his, or anyone else’s, learned opinions. Maybe he ran out of time.

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