december 01, 1999
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Faster, faster, faster! That sometimes seems to be the mantra of many of my friends and co-workers. Get a faster computer. Get a faster modem. Get a faster car.
And it's also, appropriately, the title of a new book by James Gleick, a New York author who has the rare gift of making the complicated not only interesting and easy to understand but fascinating.
In past books he did an amazing job explaining chaos theory and some of the ideas of the late, great brilliant physicist Richard Feynman. In this book Gleick turns his gaze towards this world-wide push to make everything faster.
How bad is the speed problem?
Have you noticed that at the end of television programs they don't just roll the credits anymore? No, they found that viewers, especially men, changed stations while the credits were rolling, so network honchos said, "chop off the credits!"
Or, more often, the station switches to a split screen where credits still scroll but another part of the screen shows a promotion for another program or a teaser for the news... anything to make sure that the viewer's inundation with information and entertainment doesn't stop, even for a minute. The days of bathroom breaks between programs has apparently come to an end.
How bad is it? Some directory assistance companies don't ask "what number please?" anymore because the wait while that one word, please, is stated annoys callers who want information now, manners be damned. But this leads to my problem with the book. I know, and I'm sure most people are aware, that society is lurching ahead, trying to do everything faster.
What I want to know is this: Now what? What society should do about the problem?
But that, I'm afraid, is asking for a remarkably different book, more of a self-help for society book than this work.
Gleick circles around the question, suggesting a few times that we are reaching a point where we can't get much faster, but I wish he had taken the next step and predicted what will occur next.
Parts of the book are hilarious, such as when he describes people's obsession with setting their watch exactly right. This need to have the time exactly, precisely correct led phone companies to charge for that information after operators grew tired of being constantly asked for the exact time.
Gleick does an excellent job detailing fascinating details about the changes in society and technology with regard to speed. But I am left wanting more, hoping to find evidence that the world will slow down at some point.
Or maybe such evidence doesn't exist. Maybe the fact that I felt anxious just lying down reading this book, wanting its pace to pick up and move faster, is a bad sign.
But I can still hope, right?
Scott Butki is a newspaper reporter in Hagerstown, Md.
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