Cover image for Faster : the acceleration of just about everything
Faster : the acceleration of just about everything
Gleick, James.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 324 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
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QB209 .G48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QB209 .G48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QB209 .G48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QB209 .G48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Synchronize your watches. We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. If one quality defines our modern, technocratic age, it is acceleration. We are making haste. Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers -- they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel. InFaster, James Gleick explores nothing less than the human condition at the turn of the millennium. He shines a light of enterprising and analytical reporting -- as well as sly wit -- on the newest paradoxes of time. His journey takes us through the bunkers and trenches of a war we barely knew we were fighting: to the atomic clocks of the Directorate of Time, to the waiting rooms that focus our impatience, to the film production studios that test the high-speed limits of our perception, to the air-traffic command centers that give time pressure new meaning. We have become a quick-reflexed, multitasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding species. We don't completely understand it, and we're not altogether happy about it.Fasteris a mirror held up to our times -- and a mordant reminder of why some things take time.

Author Notes

He wrote the worldwide bestseller Chaos, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was the 1990 McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University.

(Publisher Provided) James Gleick was born in New York City on August 1, 1954. He received a degree in English and linguistics from Harvard College in 1976. He helped found Metropolis, an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis. After the newspaper folded, he worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times. In 1989-1990, he was the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. He has written several books including Chaos: Making a New Science, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier, and The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gleick, author of a superb biography of physicist Richard Feynman (Genius , 1992), is fluent in complex concepts and skilled in relating them to everyday life, qualities as essential to the success of this stimulating narrative as its irresistible subject: our perception of time. Why, he wonders, do we feel as though life has sped up and we never have enough time to do what needs to be done? Looking to the past, Gleick observes that the measurement of time was a casual matter until the advent of railroads created a need for uniformity and precision. Further exactitude was required for the time-dependent mass media of radio and television, and the telephone and its offspring, the fax and, in partnership with computers, the Internet, high-speed technologies that end up making us feel harassed and overwhelmed. Gleick's shrewd dissection of the "psychology of hurriedness" leads to many provocative observations. He is intrigued with our habit of channel-surfing and how it has radically altered the pace of television programming and films. Gleick also assesses the Internet's impact on traditional publishing and artistic venues as well as our obsession with work, the practice of multitasking, the sacrifice of leisure time, and our penchant for constant connection via beepers and cell phones. Although the negative aspects of all this busyness are obvious, Gleick suspects that we actually love the frenzy we've whipped up and, further, that we are developing new proficiencies and modes of expression in response to it. As we evolve, so, it seems, does time. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Technological advances in time measurement and time-saving devices have been fueled by the ever-quickening pace of our lives. Or is it the other way around? Gleick, twice nominated for the National Book Award (for Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman), offers a refreshingly contrarian view of the notion of time management and of the instantaneity ("instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant replay, and instant gratification") of everyday life. Many of us exhibit what doctors and sociologists call "hurry sickness"Äarriving, for example, at an airport gate at the last possible minuteÄan obsession ironically matched by endless waits on expressways and runways. "Gridlocked and Tarmacked are metonyms of our era," writes Gleick, " be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around us, as time passes and blood pressures rise." This paradox, and the "simultaneous fragmentation and overloading of human attention" that results, he contends, can be traced to a wide variety of everyday conveniences: microwaves and automatic dishwashers, express mail, beeper medicine, television remote control, even speed-dialing telephones ("Investing a half-hour in learning to program them is like advancing a hundred dollars to buy a year's supply of light bulbs at a penny discount"). Funny and irreverent, Gleick pinpoints the dilemma underlying many of today's technological improvements: that time-saving now comes more from "the tautening net of efficiency" than from raw speed, meaning that any snag in the systemÄwhether a disabled airliner or one or two drivers unaccountably hitting the brakeÄcan spread delay and confusion throughout the network. Paradoxically, too, the increasing pace and efficiency of our lives leads not to leisure and relaxation but to increased boredom: "a backwash within another mental state, the one called mania." This is a book to be studied... slowly. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Fax me, beep me, send me an e-mail, call me on my cell phone, or at worst send me an overnight delivery...just don't waste my time. "Real time" is what people perceive, but many machines are capable of working much, much faster. Technology has pushed the psychology of speed near human limits, so that "race conditions" and "hurry sickness" often prevail. In his other books (Chaos: The Making of a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynmann), Gleick took his time to capture the complexities of his subjects, but here his pace is appropriately breathless, and his short chapters will be easily digested by busy people. Has the frantic pace of electronic society made us slaves of our own machines? Do they really make us more productive or even save our time? These are questions that many people are asking, so this book will attract a large readership. Read the book quickly, thoughÄor else you'll fall behind everybody else. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/99.]ÄGregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



You are in the Directorate of Time. Naturally you are running late. You hurry past a glass-paned vault in which the world's number-one clock is soundlessly assembling each second from nine billion parts. It looks more like a rack of computers than a clock. In its core, atoms of cesium vibrate with a goose-stepping pace so sure, so authoritative, so humbling--but your mind wanders. There is not a moment to lose. Striding onward, you reach the office of the director of the Directorate of Time. He is a craggy, white-haired man called Gernot M. R. Winkler. He glances across the desk and says, "We have to be fast." The directorate, an agency of the United States military, has scattered dozens of atomic clocks across a calm, manicured hilltop near the Potomac River in Washington. Armed guards stand watch at a security gatehouse down below, mainly because the Vice President's residence occupies the same grounds. Once past their scrutiny you can walk alone up the long drive to the stately 150-year-old Naval Observatory, the first national observatory of the United States. Long ago a four-foot ball of Charles Goodyear's Gumelastic rubber hung from a mast atop the observatory dome and dropped daily at noon to signal the time. Now the signals come more quickly. The Master Clock consults with fifty others in separate climate-controlled vaults--cesium clocks and hydrogen masers powered by diesel generators and backup batteries. They check off the seconds as an ensemble and communicate continuously via fiber-optic cable with counterparts overseas. The clocks monitor one another, and individual devices can come on or off line as their performance warrants. Out-of-sync clocks reveal themselves quickly. Winkler offers an analogy: "It's like a court of law, where you have many slightly different stories and one wildly different story." When the plausible witnesses are chosen and assembled, their output is statistically merged, worldwide, at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, outside Paris. The American contribution is the largest. The result is the exact time. The exact time--by definition, by worldwide consensus and decree. The timekeepers at the directorate like to quote the old saw (Winkler quotes it now): "A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure." Humanity is now a species with one watch, and this is it. Through most of history, time was fixed by astronomical reference points--the Earth spins once, call it a day. No more. The absolute reference has shifted from the stars to the atomic beams in their vaults. Particles are steadier than planets. Never mind the uncertainty principle; it is the heavens that cannot be relied on. Stars drift. The Earth shivers ever so slightly. With the oceanic tides acting as brakes, the planet slows in its rotation by fractions of a second each year. These anomalies do matter, in a time-gripped age. To compensate, the official clocks must every so often perform a grudging two-step, adding an odd second--a "leap second"--to the world's calendar. Most often, leap seconds are inserted at the close of December 31. The New Year clicks in sneakily: 11:59:58 p.m., 11:59:59, 11:59:60 (!), 12:00:00 a.m., 12:00:01. The descendant of the Naval Observatory's old Gumelastic rubber ball drops, studded with light bulbs, in Times Square. Elsewhere, astronomical observatories, television networks, and time-obsessed computer users make an adjustment to catch the leap second. Observatories have been known to get the sign wrong, ruining a night's sky-watching with the difference between +1 second and -1. As the Earth continues to slow, leap seconds will grow more common. Eventually we will need one every year, and then even more. Scientists could have avoided these awkward skips by choosing instead to adjust the duration of the second itself. Who would notice? That is what they did, in fact, until 1955. They defined the second as 1/86,400 of a real day, however long that was. The second had to lengthen a tiny bit each year. The atomic clocks were retuned as necessary. This did not trouble most of us, even subliminally, but it did start to annoy atomic physicists, because they needed a temporal measuring stick that would not stretch: come on, a second is a second--give me a real SECOND. So here is the real second. Here the technologies of speed reach the ultimate. "Fifty years ago," Winkler says wistfully--he was a schoolboy in Austria--"we made measurements of a tenth of a second from day to day. That was great. Then more and more applications came in with greater refinements. It is like anywhere in life. When you have a capability, people find a use for that. "Submarines have to surface for communications--they have atomic clocks," Winkler continues. "Television transmitters have atomic clocks. If you have two transmitters on the same channel, and you are between two cities, the picture will go up and down unless they are on exactly the same frequency. All good television stations have a rubidium clock." You are briefly aware of something incongruous about this exactitude--but the hyperprecision is all too familiar, all too closely in step with the rhythms of your more ordinary haunts. We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. "Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man," laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment ("He is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time . . ."). That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind. The finicality of the modern timekeepers departs even further from our everyday experience--a fact cheerfully acknowledged here at the directorate. Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond--a billionth of a second? "I tell you," Winkler says, "it wasn't on a human scale when we were measuring time to a millisecond, and now we are down to a fraction of a nanosecond." Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless. Inhuman though these compressed time scales may be, many humans crave the precision. Internet users set their computers to update their clocks according to the directorate's time signal. The directorate fields millions of automatic queries each day. By pinging back and forth across the network, software called NanoSecond or RightTime or Clockwork or TimeSync or Timeset can correct for propagation delays along the phone lines between the atomic clocks and you. Free connections can be made to modems or to "time servers" with the whimsical pair of addresses, and . More crudely, anyone with a telephone can dial the Naval Observatory's Master Clock Voice Announcer, for fifty cents the first minute. The time-obsessed used to keep their watches accurate to within seconds; now they keep their computers accurate to within milliseconds. Nanosecond precision matters for worldwide communications systems. It matters for navigation by Global Positioning System satellite signals: an error of a billionth of a second means an error of just about a foot, the distance light travels in that time. One nanosecond--one foot. That is a modern equivalence worth memorizing. Cellular phone networks and broadcasters' transmitters need fine timing to squeeze more and more channels of communication into precisely tuned bandwidth. The military, especially, finds ways to use superprecise timing. It is no accident that the Directorate of Time belongs to the Department of Defense. Knowing the exact time is an essential feature of delivering airborne explosives to exact locations--individual buildings, or parts of buildings--thus minimizing one of the department's standard euphemisms, collateral damage. Few institutions are so intensely focused on so pure a goal. Keeping the right time brings together an assortment of technologies and sciences. The directorate's astronomers study the most distant quasars--admiring them for their apparent fixedness in the sky. A favored set of 462 quasars provides as rigid a frame as can be found. Meanwhile, the directorate has a team of earth scientists to study the slowing rotation and the occasional wobble--a problem that comes down to watching the weather, because the planet's spin varies each year with the wind blowing on mountains. In all, the scientists who control the clocks have achieved a surpassing precision. As the eighteenth century mastered the measurement of mass, and the nineteenth, with the establishment of international geodesy, conquered the measurement of distance, the even ghostlier quantity, time, had to wait for the technologies of the twentieth century. The seconds pass here with a consistency that no pair of scales or rulers can match. The worst distortion that can accumulate, each day, remains proportionately smaller than a hairsbreadth in the distance from the Earth to the Sun--the equivalent of one second in a million years. "This is extremely important," Winkler says, the accent of his native Austria breaking through. His hand slashes through the air like an ax. "We want to be exact ." So synchronize your watches. Here are the pacemakers, the merchants of exactitude, the owners of the pulse in the global circulatory system. When the Lilliputians first saw Gulliver's watch, that "wonderful kind of engine . . . a globe, half silver and half of some transparent metal," they identified it immediately as the god he worshipped. After all, "he seldom did anything without consulting it: he called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the time for every action of his life." To Jonathan Swift in 1726 that was worth a bit of satire. Modernity was under way. We're all Gullivers now. Or are we Yahoos? Your eyes wander toward Winkler's wrist--what sort of watch would satisfy the director of the Directorate of Time?--but you cannot quite see it, as he asks: "Can you miss a plane by a millisecond? Of course not." He pauses and adds with pride, "I missed one by five seconds once." It has been noted by psychologists and airline managers alike that some people prefer to arrive at airports in plenty of time, keeping time to spare, so that they can have time on their hands in the lounge or kill time in the bar. Others cannot be happy unless they time their arrival so closely that, having dashed the last fifty yards to the gate, they race up the ramp, flash their boarding pass at the flight attendant, and slip into their seat with the thunk of the aircraft door fresh in their ears. Not a moment wasted. Perhaps these dashers, always flirting with lateness, are the victims of what some doctors and sociologists have named "hurry sickness." Then again, perhaps it is the seemingly calm, secretly obsessive early arrivers who suffer hurry sickness more. Both types must be seeking peace of mind. One type can relax in the waiting lounge or even the check-in line, having minimized the risk of missing a flight. The other can hope to rest assured that they have minimized a different quantity: wasted time. Airport gates are not the only places where people like to flirt with lateness. But in their way they serve as focal points in the modern world, places where the technology and the psychology of hurriedness come together. Airport gates are where we contemplate the miraculous high speeds of air transport and the unmiraculous speeds associated with getting to air transport. One measure of twentieth-century time is the supersonic three and three-quarter hours it takes the Concorde to fly from New York to Paris, gate to gate. Other measures come with the waits on the expressways and the runways. Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era: to be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around, as time passes and blood pressures rise. Excerpted from Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything by James Gleick All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Pacemakerp. 3
Life as Type Ap. 15
The Door Close Buttonp. 23
Your Other Facep. 31
Time Goes Standardp. 43
The New Acceleratorsp. 49
Seeing in Slow Motionp. 57
In Real Timep. 65
Lost in Timep. 77
On Internet Timep. 83
Quick--Your Opinion?p. 95
Decomposition Takes Timep. 101
On Your Mark, Get Set, Thinkp. 107
A Millisecond Here, a Millisecond Therep. 115
1,440 Minutes a Dayp. 121
Sex and Paperworkp. 127
Modern Conveniencesp. 135
Jog More, Read Lessp. 139
Eat and Runp. 147
How Many Hours Do You Work?p. 151
7:15. Took Showerp. 161
Attention! Multitaskersp. 167
Shot-Shot-Shot-Shotp. 173
Prest-o! Change-o!p. 181
MTV Zooms Byp. 187
Allegro ma Non Troppop. 191
Can You See It?p. 195
High-Pressure Minutesp. 203
Time and Motionp. 211
The Paradox of Efficiencyp. 217
365 Ways to Save Timep. 227
The Telephone Lotteryp. 233
Time Is Not Moneyp. 239
Short-Term Memoryp. 249
The Law of Small Numbersp. 257
Boredp. 267
The Endp. 273
Acknowledgments and Notesp. 283
Indexp. 307