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Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

‘Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything’ by James Gleick; Abacus, 1999. 326pp

Reviewed by Peter Smith | 25 July 2003

Faster is a quick paced, entertaining description of the spread of technology and its impact on our lives. Unlike other superficial accounts Gleick locates recent developments in consumer goods and information technology within a broader context of development, citing railroads and the telephone in the US as having a key impact on our perceptions of time and space.

Essentially Gleick charts raising productivity from paid labour over the last 100 years or so but with the focus very much on more recent developments. For those who welcome development, Gleick’s description should present few problems.

Faster takes on two central themes: acceleration and time. Reading Gleick you do get a sense of his characterisation of the “acceleration of everything ” and Gleick’s rapid-fire prose emphasises the quick pace of contemporary life. When Gleick uses Douglas Coupland’s description of a “type A personality”, the time obsessed characters in Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, we recognise much of ourselves. Gleick asks, for example, how fast “fast food” can be when in 1997 McDonalds promised to service their US customers in 55 seconds or your money back, or, in pressing the lift button for the second or third time do we really expect the lift to arrive quicker?

Despite the wealth of examples Gleick employs to demonstrate the “acceleration of everything” interestingly Faster questions how far we’ve really come. Gleick points out that, as of the end of the US moon programme in 1972, only 24 humans have travelled further into space than the low skimming orbit of the space shuttle. We’ve come a long way but not that far it would seem.

Our obsession with time is Gleick’s other central theme. We’ve become used to discussions of our work/life balance, over work and work related stress and so on. The contemporary fashion for the “local”, best illustrated by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage television programmes, suggests we feel we’ve just not got our work/life balance right. Writer James Heartfield in his analysis of Office for National Statistics figures has shown that in the UK the time spent in paid employment is characterised by a secular decline over the last 30 years from 236 minutes a day in 1961 to 193 minutes in 1984 to 147 a day in 2000. In terms of working hours they peaked in 1988 at 44 hours a week and have since declined.

With much “work time” in reality being paid Internet surfing and private e-mailing it’s worth us questioning the money-rich but time-poor discussion. This is one of central weaknesses in Gleick’s analysis with much of the work v time discussion taken at face value. Gleick’s description of our time obsession might be close to how we feel but if in reality we work less and have more money than previous generations are our anxieties located elsewhere?

Gleick suggests that in our accelerated world we need to put more time aside to contemplate – and who could argue with that? The problem is that despite us having more leisure time and higher disposable incomes we still feel our lives are “too fast”. In this sense Faster is very much a book of the moment, if anything reinforcing our fears rather than challenging them.

Taking development seriously we should be arguing for acceleration and speed in those areas that really matter. The recent decision to mothball rather than replace Concorde now means that the travelling time from London to New York in exactly the same time as 30 years ago – 7 hours, slower than when Concorde was introduced in the early 1970s. Not the “acceleration of everything” Gleick ‘s title would suggest. If we argued for acceleration in those areas that really made a difference, this, rather than retiring to the country could really begin to answer our common complaint that there is never enough time.