Monday, November 1, 1999

Q&A James Gleick: On Speed


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review

James Gleick: On Speed

James Gleick is the author of "Chaos: Making a New Science," and "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman." His new book is "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything".


We have learned a visual language made up of images and movements instead of words and syllables. It has its own grammar, abbreviations, cliches, lies, puns, and famous quotations. Masters of this language are the artists and technicians, Muybridge descendants, who create trailers for movies and thirty-second commercials and promotional montages of film clippings. And we in their audiences are masters, too, understanding the most convoluted syntax at a speed that would formerly have been blinding.

"Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything"


HB: What do you think someone from an earlier generation, even an earlier television generation, would see if they saw, say, an MTV video or a rapid fire ad?

JG: I think they would see a sort of blur. They would see something that's just not quite comprehensible to them. As the great film director Barry Levinson points out, in the past, television commercials were like sagas, like epics, compared to the commercials of today. There would be one shot and someone talking into a camera for 60 seconds. Now, it's a thirty second spot with twenty or thirty images, or forty images less than a second long. It's right at the edge of comprehension. In a way, the makers of those commercials are involved in the science of perception. Their stuff has to work or they're dead. They know when we understand and they know when we get bored.

HB: You make the point that the great dialogue of '40s films was a result of the fact that the camera wasn't mobile. The actors don't move around much and had to have a lot of good things to say. Now that the camera is mobile movies and commercials are packed with images and movement. Is this technological determinism?

JG: We do it because we can do it. You can see the same thing in the design of those early and amazing MTV spots, where videographic designers had a great suite of tools that allowed them to create special effects. People who were there remember: you did it because you could.

Before there was a digital realm, we were exposed to and comfortable with fast information collecting in the auditory realm. People were able to talk fast, to develop the machine gun style of speech that was part of the great screwball comedies. Now, for example, we have a television show like "Sports Night", which is a fast show, fast on the soundtrack as well as visually. The camera's always moving around, nobody ever stands still while they talk, they're always in motion. The idea is that if we aren't veering down the hallway we're going to be bored.

HB: You point out, in "Faster", that we've grown used to multitasking, which is another form of speedup.

JG: It's one of the great examples of what we're terribly ambivalent about. I do a kind of man in the street reporting on my web site, saying we all multitask in peculiar ways, and inviting people who know of interesting forms of multitasking to let me know. I get very interesting mail from people who'd worked out ways of booting up their computer while brushing their teeth while listening to the radio while so on. When we do this, none of our particular tasks get our full attention.

Once, advanced technology meant sitting around listening to the radio -- and doing absolutely nothing else. Now when people listen to the radio if they're in the car or shower or exercising or eating.

HB: You write: "Is the accumulation of speed, along with the accumulation of variety, along with the accumulation of wealth, a one-way street in human cultural evolution? is there no possible return to patience but the exit ramp?"

So, OK, now we've got speed. Does that mean we can't do slowness?

JG: That is the $64,000 question. I don't think that's the implication. But it's a personal question that's going to vary from person to person.

We are all aware of time pressures. This is the first time I wrote a book where I was able to tell my friends what I was working on, and they understood it. With my previous books, I got a lot of blank looks. But with speed, we know the issues. We may be perplexed or we may not have had time to think the question through but we are aware of the issue and speeding up is not necessary. We speed up by choice; we choose technologies and styles of living that make us faster.

I keep finding examples since I wrote the book; already it's out of date. I came across a news item recently about MacDonalds testing machines to dispense food, and concluding that people seem to like them better. They order more hamburgers and fries from the machines than from people. Again, it's a matter of choice. Fast food is just a way of saying bad food. It's completely clear that for a quality Epicurean experience you go for a place where you're going to sit for hours. Slow food.

HB: But couldn't you say, very simply, that speed is addictive? It's true about the drug. Why not about the whole phenomena?

JG: Yeah, I think it's true. It's a question of whether it's addictive like heroin and tobacco, to which you shouldn't get hooked in the first place, or whether it's addictive in different way.

HB: Is it possible that once we hit the speed wall, the absolute limit, we will bounce off and experiment with slowness? I'm thinking, for example, of the music of Gorecki -- extremely slow, one tone extended indefinitely.

JG: But of course all kinds of music plays with time. I have some favorite movements I think of as being incredibly slow.

HB: You allude to musical passages that "evoke death by information deprivation." Will lose the ability to enjoy that?

JG: There is danger of losing it. If you are sitting in front of the tube with a remote in their hands, and as soon as things get a little slow, you switch, you wind up with summer action films.

HB: When Keats's writes of the "foster child of silence and slow time," he's writing as if that kind of time -- "slow time" -- were already under attack. Where does the impetus for speed begin?

JG: It's been a very long story. We've been speeding up for as far back as you can look. For example, pony express was a powerful tool, and carried the mail at a rate of a lot of bits per second compared to smoke signals.

HB: So it all comes down to baud rate.

JG: Yeah, baud rate. Of course, there was no word for baud rate until recently, because the number of bits per second was too low for anybody to think in those terms. A hundred years ago, there were lecture tours. Mark Twain would give speeches for three or four hours at a time to packed halls. It was high quality stuff that wasn't available any other way.

HB: How can you reduce Mark Twain in person to baud rate? Isn't there something else there than bits per second?

JG: Yes, of course. It's important to point out, though, that there was always a lot of junk. Now that baud rates are high, you can get overwhelmed by it; anybody who points out that 99 percent of the info we get today is junk is right. But that was true in Mark Twain's day, too. 99 percent of the conversation that came your way in the course of a day was junk.

HB: Since there was less information, wouldn't you say it penetrated deeper?

JG: Absolutely true. When it was hard to get a book, we valued books more, we spent more time with them. In writing about Richard Feynman, I got a certain picture of what was available to him in Far Rockaway, Brooklyn. A book really mattered. He describes getting a calculus book when he was a boy and spending a whole summer going through it. Today, when it would be easy to get the book, would anyone today ever spend a whole summer with it? Is it possible for anybody today to do the kind of deep thinking people did in Feynman's day?

HB: Thinking about "Faster", and your previous work on chaos, including the wonderful book with Eliot Porter, "Nature's Chaos", I was wondering what chaos has to do with speed. Well, maybe nothing. But let me say that with speed, science is pushing us towards boundaries we never could have approached before. Science shows us what's within a second so we try to find ways of getting as close to that reality, perceptually, as we can. I am trying to say science has exposed us to the raw underpinnings of nature, to the subatomic world, to inconceivable speeds. This is stuff that doesn't flatter our perception. And we're dragged along with it.

JG: That's an interesting way of putting it. You could say that for whatever reason we're hungry for information. I'm thinking of a popular idea I write about in the book, namely that we only use 10 percent of our brains.

I don't think any serious scientist today would say that's possible. How could we have evolved so much brain we don't use? I propose that the reason for the story of our using only 10 percent of our brains is cultural. Especially in this century, when technology took off, we discovered we were capable of doing a lot we weren't capable of doing before. We're masters of technology compared to our great-grandparents.

HB: What genre of science writing do you think "Faster" fits into?

JG: I'm just amazed people think "Faster" is science writing.

HB: What would you call it?

JG: I don't know. I didn't really think about it. When I actually got the finished books, well, the publisher has to say something, so here it is: "time; psychological aspects, popular works" and "time; social aspects, popular works", and there's another place where they say the book is social science.

When I was official science reporter for the New York Times, I wrote two books on scientific topics but I didn't have any training. My background was as a reporter: go out and get the truth. If it happens to be about science, it's about science. If it happens to be about politics, then it's about politics. I was an editor on the city desk, and wrote pieces that had nothing to do with science.

HB: The switch to science must have been intimidating.

JG: Scary. I struggled to do the physics for both book projects, and wished that I'd at least taken a couple of years of college physics. I guess "Faster" has some science reporting in it but I think I'll have to leave it to reviewers to tell me what category it is.

HB: After working for The New York Times, you set up an Internet service provider. Did working with high speed transmission of information it put you in the direction of "Faster"?

JG: I did some reporting about telephone technology for The New York Times Magazine, but for other reasons I had become interested in the Internet before anybody had heard of it. I spend a fair amount of time with scientists and felt jealous; they were sending each other messages by email, and I wanted that. I wanted to bring the Internet to New York City and make it inexpensive.

HB: One of the images you summon up in "Faster" will stay with me. You write: "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."

Is there a comparable image for you, an image that is most telling?

JG: There are two, from novels. In Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" (1995), he writes, "Type-A personalities have a whole subset of diseases that they, and only they, share, and the transmission vector for these diseases is the DOOR CLOSE button on the elevators that only gets pushed by impatient, Type-A people."

And there's John Updike, in "Toward the End of Time". He writes: "Nature refuses to rest." And when he sees falling snow, writes: "The transient sparkles seemed for a microsecond engraved upon the air."

(Harvey Blume can be reached at hblume@world.std.com)


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