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14 December 2008 / April

How long it takes to eat an apple, and related issues

It’s ironic.

Faster, a book by James Gleick written in the late ’90s, feels decidedly outdated thanks mostly to the very phenomenon that is its theme and subtitle: “The Acceleration of Just About Everything”.  Including the development of technology in particular.

Sure, Gleick mentions “cellular phones” and “E-mail.”  But he also notes that people in the company of other people never use cell phones.  Why would they, if it’s human contact they’re seeking? he asks rhetorically, not knowing that just down the road of time are classrooms full of teenagers texting each other from the vast insurmountable distance of a few feet.

As another example, he also sees great potential in that little gadget everyone (apparently) once had, the watch, and marvels over the possibility of a “wristwatch pager linked to a Website.”  Clearly, the world of 1999 was not a world that could contain an iPhone.

I could poke fun at such datedness all day, but the point is that this “hurry sickness” Gleick is writing about has only gotten worse in 2008 compared to 1999.

His chapter on multitasking especially struck home with me.  And I think Gleick underestimated the potential internet in this regard.  I can’t remember what doing homework was like without Facebook breaks after every problem or every sentence.  My e-mail inbox is never not open.  Tabbed internet browsing has been a godsend, for me and probably my entire generation.   Case in point: as I write this, I happen to be on both Facebook and Gmail, and I’m listening to music, and my math textbook is lying open in front of me as its contents leap off the page and burrow into my brain.  So the theory goes, at least.

Actually, disturbingly large portions of the text read like a slightly altered biography of myself.  He talks about the door close button in elevators, for instance.

I have always been proud of knowing that this button does nothing at all (EDIT: from here).  But learning that the button for impatient pedestrians at intersections does the same (or little more, anyway) was somehow still an unpleasant surprise to my small illogical lizard brain.  Because when I hit Green and North Cayuga on my pilgrimage from high school to public library, I pound that button– not once, but multiple times.  I had a whole wonderful theory worked out explaining how this button worked its magic and why pressing it twice was better than once and 20 times better than twice.  Alas!  As a wise woman once told me, there is nothing like an ugly fact to destroy a beautiful theory.

Gleick wants us to rethink those theories and consider more carefully our obsession with time and efficiency.  His book is less like a self-help book telling us how to embrace idleness than a collection of newspaper articles reporting in amused wonder on hurry sickness in its myriad incarnations, from the whole industry behind fine-tuning elevator systems to telephone operators answering 411 calls to how TV programs manage to hold viewers’ attention with fast cuts and split screens,

In some ways, this is a little unsatisfying.  You are constantly asking, “But what can I do about it?” as you check your e-mail while in line to get a coffee on your way to work, or time how long it takes for you to eat an apple*.  But Gleick isn’t telling you.  In fact, he gently mocks people who think they can, who suggest time-saving regimens (saving it for what, exactly?), charts and books and calculators that would only clutter your life more.

What he is doing is reminding you of the futility of eternally filling your life with activity, because chances are you will become bored nonetheless.  He is reminding you that always trying to speed things up may come back and bite you in the end.  “The complications beget choice; the choices inspire technology; the technologies create complication.”

I feel like a hypocrite telling you this, as I type on my blissfully speedy laptop and nervously check the clock.  (Good Lord, how did it get so late so quickly?  I was even multitasking!)  Because even after reading this book, I can’t seem to stop myself from obsessing about time.  It must be human nature.  Come to think of it, Gleick might have something to say about that too– but I haven’t got the time to tell you about it.

* About 12 minutes, if I’m in a hurry.

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9 Comments

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  1. Ryan / Dec 14 2008 10:31 pm

    Sometimes, the button does do something at the crosswalk. I have tested this theory myself, in that I neglected to press it to see if it turned to walk anyways. It didn’t, after a full cycle.

  2. April / Dec 14 2008 11:15 pm

    Well, that’s good to know. I guess I can keep on being OCD about it then. (Maybe I’ll just press it once though.)

  3. sillionshine / Dec 14 2008 11:20 pm

    The ‘Door Close’ button in elevators does nothing? I beg to differ. It, rather unsurprisingly, closes the door. So if someone has just gotten off and you are still in the elevator, and you can see that there is no-one getting on, you press it and the door closes instantly, without waiting for whatever the pre-determined ‘Door Stays Open’ time is.

    This will save you some precious seconds which you will more than waste later on in the day, meaninglessly updating your Twitter page with what you think is a hilarious entry, adding significantly to your ‘hurry sickness’.

    Alternatively, if your travels take you to a building that you know you will not be frequenting again, and you are in the lift and see someone hurrying to make it before the doors close, you can smile reassuringly at them and make as if you are going to use you hand to keep the doors from closing, but in reality you press the Door Close button, and as their disappointed “almost made it” faces are shut out, you collapse with laughter as the elevator either rises to the heavens, or more appropriately plunges netherwards directly into the very depths of hell.

  4. April / Dec 14 2008 11:34 pm

    I invite you to see whether the door close button really closes those doors as instantly as you think they do, given how soon they would have closed anyway. (It’s certainly possible that it really does work in some elevators.)

    There’s also a rather lengthy article about elevators that mentions the door close button, which I should have linked to: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_paumgarten?currentPage=all

    Also, the update to my Twitter page is automatic– saving those precious seconds for something more useful, like writing a pointless comment.

  5. Rachel Z / Dec 16 2008 9:25 pm

    Who would have guessed that a blog post on elevators could generate such controversy?

  6. April / Dec 16 2008 9:34 pm

    Indeed, the human capacity for disagreement is astonishing…

  7. sillionshine / Feb 19 2009 7:13 am

    Apologia:

    Well now. I received, a few weeks ago, a comment from an acolyte of yours, Miss Tuesday. Asking that I not publish the comment on my blog, he/she writes only to inform me of my general unworthiness, and berates me for my ‘petty’ attack on (if I may introduce an element of calendrical ambiguity) the august April.

    April? Who was this April? All I know of April is that it is the cruellest month. And also a character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thinking that I was merely the victim of a case of mistaken identity, I was about to ignore this strange communique, but for two things. i.) I am rather petty. So it could be me. And ii.) the use of the term ‘smart alec’. I have never heard this term apart from when it is uttered by someone on T.V. who is supposed to be from the decades of yore. Was this mysterious complainant The Fonz?

    Obviously, this warranted further investigation. So, after an exhaustive search, made even trickier by the fact that I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to all things tech, I finally alighted on the referrers page, and began a painstaking sifting through the ways and means people arrived at my blog. Lo and behold, a link for ‘apriltuesday’. The plot thickens! So I click on it, and end up here.

    Wondering what kind of foul abuse I have supposedly heaped upon the now identified April, I see that, of all things, a lift button is at the centre of the maelstrom. Perhaps I shouldn’t wonder; it is a little known fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually stems from a council complaint regarding a hedge.

    Now I realize that my strange sense of humour may not translate well in text, but I really fail to see the cause of the outrage. The best I can come up with is this:

    Seeing as you posted the link about elevators after my comment, I had no way of knowing of the nefarious schemes of lift builders in the U.S. and their intricate psychological warfare against their patrons. Here in Australia, we are much simpler folk (and me being a Kiwi, even simpler stil…) and here I can attest that the ‘Door Close’ button works.

    The second thing was my reference to ‘your’ Twitter page. Reading over my original comment, I can see how you (or more accurately, one of your readers) thought I meant ‘you’ specifically. But I was referring to ‘you’ as in (ironically) the reader, or ‘everyman’. (or ‘everyperson’ if you (and here I mean ‘you’ as in April) prefer). It is a continuation of the same non-specific ‘you’ I address in the first paragraph of my comment.

    I merely used Twitter as an example of another (relatively) modern phenomenon like Facebook where we (or “you”) fritter (or ‘twitter’) away time, adding what we think are hilarious/significant entries, adding to the ‘hurry sickness’ referred to in the original article.

    The point being, that no matter if we save a little time somewhere, there are more than ample opportunities to waste that time and a lot more in the nexus of ‘pointless’ leisure activities available to us these days.

    So as I hope it clear, it was not a personal ‘attack’ but a response to themes mentioned in the original post. Hence, I extend an olive branch to you April and to anyone who thought otherwise.

    Now please, call off your evil minions.

  8. Rafael Lizarralde / Feb 19 2009 1:57 pm

    April has no minions. If anyone’s telling you that you suck compared to April, that’s really an issue between you and them; I couldn’t imagine April ever inclining anyone to do that.
    (And I want to point out, in a purely constructively critical sense, that the use of vague and abstract terms in your explanation severely degrades its value as such)

  9. April / Feb 19 2009 2:25 pm

    Raffi, I’m pretty sure the reference to minions was not a serious one. As I pointed out via email to sillionshine, I definitely do not agree with whoever thought his (quite reasonable) comment was a personal attack.

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