Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

Paperback | September 5, 2000

byJames Gleick

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From the bestselling, National Book Award-nominated author of Genius and Chaos, a bracing new work about the accelerating pace of change in today's world.

Most of us suffer some degree of "hurry sickness." a malady that has launched us into the "epoch of the nanosecond," a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, computers, faxes, and remote controls. Yet for all the hours, minutes, and even seconds being saved, we're still filling our days to the point that we have no time for such basic human activities as eating, sex, and relating to our families. Written with fresh insight and thorough research, Faster is a wise and witty look at a harried world not likely to slow down anytime soon.

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From Our Editors

This observant treatise, by James Gleick is about how time seems to be speeding up into today’s world. Faster The Acceleration of Just About Everything analyzes what the author describes as “hurry sickness.” He points out the irony of how such alleged timesaving devices such as fax machines; computers, remote controls and ...

From the Publisher

From the bestselling, National Book Award-nominated author of Genius and Chaos, a bracing new work about the accelerating pace of change in today's world.Most of us suffer some degree of "hurry sickness." a malady that has launched us into the "epoch of the nanosecond," a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, compu...

From the Jacket

From the bestselling, National Book Award-nominated auhtor of Genius and Chaos, a bracing new work about the accelerating pace of change in today's world. Most of us suffer some degree of "hurry sickness." a malady that has launched us into the "epoch of the nanosecond," a need-everything-yesterday sphere dominated by cell phones, comp...

James Gleick ( was born in New York City in 1954. He worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times, founded an early Internet portal, the Pipeline, and wrote three previous books: Chaos, Genius, and Faster. His latest book Isaac Newton is available from Pantheon. He lives in the Hudson Valley of N...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.7 inPublished:September 5, 2000Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:067977548X

ISBN - 13:9780679775485

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hurry up and read it!...kidding (I think) It's probably just my own private neurosis...but all the while I was reading 'Faster' I had this compulsion to finish it rightawayNOW, before I flunked some unspecified speed test. One of the many, many such tests that, as Gleick proves here, have woven themselves into daily life without our even realizing it. Not, mind you, that I wasn't being hugely entertained in the meantime; the author has a fun knack for weaving bits and pieces of the pop-culture experience into his scientific treatises. (Very few physics books take in quotes from Richard Feynman AND 'Mystery Science Theater 3000.') His style is that of a tourist visiting daily life, flittering from aspect to aspect, pausing to bemusedly examine whatever time-related absurdity catches his eye. It's a complex ride, but worth, if you'll excuse me, I have ten more pages to go before lunch, and that's only five minutes from...
Date published: 2001-03-10

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Read from the Book

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.

Bookclub Guide

A conversation with James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About EverythingQ: You actually met the Director of the Directorate of Time. What is his job exactly, and was it as surreal as it sounds?A: I hope I didn’t make Dr. Winkler sound too surreal. He’s recently retired. He was head honcho of the official U.S. government bureau that keeps track of the time. They say what time itis (with a little help from other countries). Whatever time they say it is, that’s the time. So he was in charge of the scientists and engineers who manage, calibrate, and interpret the atomic clocks.These days (maybe they thought "Directorate of Time" did sound too surreal) they tend to call it the Time Service Bureau. I like the original name better.Q: What is "hurry sickness," and is there a cure?A: The dirty little secret of my book is that I don’t really think there’s any such thing. Except we all think that there is, and that we’ve got a terminal case. Some of our fears of hurry sickness show up in the whole Type A idea -- the notion that people who drive in the fast lane and pound the Close Door button on elevators are heading for heart attacks. That doesn’t really turn out to be true, or at least no one has ever proved it. But we do feel that we’re more time-driven and time-obsessed and generally rushed than ever before, and that IS true, and if it’s a kind of disease, it’s a social disease.Q: What were some of the strangest examples of time obsession that you encountered while writing Faster?A: Some of the strangest examples were encountered in my very own household. Occasionally I would catch this guy about to heat up his lunch in the microwave oven, punching 8-8 instead of 9-0 to save the millisecond it would have taken him to move his finger from one button to the next. Then I would catch the same guy looking for something to read, or calculating the roundtrip time to the bathroom, so he wouldn’t feel the pain of actually wasting 88 seconds standing and doing nothing.And this same guy is trying to tell you there’s no such thing as hurry sickness!Q: You write that we are "bumping against a speed limit" and "have finite cruise speeds." What is our limit, when will we max out?A: I’m sure I meant to write, "maybe." Who knows? There must be a limit to how fast a human being can run 100 meters or 22 miles, but somehow the records keep getting broken. They get broken by tinier and tinier intervals, but that’s OK, because we have better and better technology to deploy at the finish lines -- another example of how finicky we’ve gotten about tiny intervals of time.Anyway, there must be a limit to how quickly we can process information. How many different frames can we handle in the 30-second television commercial? We certainly feel as though we’re pressing against a limit. But then a new season comes around, and the music videos are faster, and the news cycles are shorter, and stock trading and instant foods and TV game shows all seem to have sped up yet again.Q: You explain that our speed is as much in how we see as how we move. How are future generations going to see and move and react differently, given that they grew up in speedy times?A: It does seem clear that the younger we are, the more comfortable we tend to be with a multitasking, channel-flipping, quick-reflexed existence. Then again, the younger we are, the less comfortable we seem to be with long periods alone with our thoughts. These are generalizations, of course, and highly suspect. Still, you know what I mean, right? Have we lost our capacity for deep concentration, or have we gained a capacity for fast and flexible visualization?Maybe a little of both.Q: What’s the downside of an increasingly fast paced existence?A: Get rushed. Lose control. Act hastily. Think superficially. Feel stressed.Q: Do you feel more connected since the advent of email, or do you think it also creates a sense of disconnection?A: I wish this were a difficult question. I feel more connected. I think that’s completely clear. However, connectedness is not necessarily an unalloyed good. It is intimately related to acceleration, or so I try to argue in Faster.Q: With all of the time saving technologies we have devised, where does all of the saved time go?A: Where indeed! When we press the Fast Playback button on the telephone-answering machine, or use a laser printer to accomplish in one minute what formerly took typists a day, we imagine that we’re saving time for some mythical thing called leisure, which presumably involves doing nothing at all. Somehow it doesn’t work that way. The more time we save, the more we do. Even leisure has become a very busy, fast-paced business.

From Our Editors

This observant treatise, by James Gleick is about how time seems to be speeding up into today’s world. Faster The Acceleration of Just About Everything analyzes what the author describes as “hurry sickness.” He points out the irony of how such alleged timesaving devices such as fax machines; computers, remote controls and computers have only served to shave more precious moments off our free time. Gleick is also the author of Genius and Chaos.

Editorial Reviews

"Fascinating and disturbing, amusing and informative, Faster is an eclectic stew combining history, academic research, and anecdotes drawn from the popular media." --The Boston Globe

"Well written and enjoyable. . . . A book that demands your attention." --The Christian Science Monitor

"Nimble, smart, often funny, and--best of all--fast." --The New York Times Book Review