Modern life is too fast. Everyone is always in a hurry; people skim-read and don’t take the time to eat properly; the art of conversation is dying; technology places too much stress on the human brain. This litany of familiar complaints comes, of course, from the late 19th century, as collected by the American writer and XKCD comic artist Randall Monroe in his arch cartoon ‘The Pace of Modern Life’. And here we are in the 21st, in another culture that both worships and deplores its ostensibly unprecedented speed.
Today we have hookup apps and high-frequency trading, and ‘tl;dr’ (too long, didn’t read) is the all-purpose internet comment; but on the other hand we have long reads and slow food. The Earth’s spin, as it happens, is slowing down, owing to tidal friction caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon, so days are getting longer, and months are also getting longer as the Moon slowly floats away from us. Is everything even getting faster down here on the planet’s surface? Anyone who has taken a suburban train recently might demur. There is masochistic pride in a culture that deplores its own excessive speed, just as people who are always complaining about how much they have to do are really showing off. (That phenomenon was already familiar to Samuel Johnson, who observed: ‘Idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry.’)
The world’s increasing speed, nonetheless, is taken as read in modern publishing, which likes to issue handbooks on how to deal with it. Robert Colvile’s The Great Acceleration is an excellently researched and thoughtful guide to the changes wrought by technology on the media, pop culture, finance, medicine, transport, and teenagers’ social lives. Calmly, Colvile observes both problems and benefits in each realm. Sure, the internet is full of superficial listicles and cat videos, but 700-page novels and box sets of very sophisticated TV drama are still blockbusters. The 24-hour news media encourages politicians to waste time managing the gossip juggernaut with soundbites; on the other hand democracy may be enhanced by online petitions, and lots of money can be saved on failed government IT contracts by using agile in-house teams of developers instead.
Colvile mentions useful quick fixes for things like poor-quality sleep because of late-night smartphone and laptop use. (There are apps that automatically change the colour temperature of the screen, away from wakefulness-promoting blue light.) And to those who complain that their flighty internet habits mean that they no longer think the way they used to, Colvile responds, sensibly: ‘That’s perfectly true — but we never were.’ The brain’s plasticity, after all, means it changes according to how it is used. You can always change it back.
Is his governing metaphor of ‘the great acceleration’ actually any more true, though, than it was a century ago? Perhaps it is just an artefact of unwarranted
extrapolation from the unusual decade we have just lived through, in which iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, Uber and the like all first appeared. As Colvile himself points out, the network effects that have granted such companies monopoly power very quickly might prevent this wave of what punkish tech people like to call ‘disruptive’ innovation continuing ever more quickly. (Facebook’s unofficial motto used to be ‘Move fast and break things’; now it is the rather more sedate ‘Move fast with stable infra’— for infrastructure.)
Whether everything is getting faster and faster or not, though, it remains the case that fast things are happening. What, then, is to be done? In politics and finance, Colvile suggests regulation rather than slamming on the brakes; and in general, he argues sensibly: ‘What we need most is not to slow things down, but to develop the right strategies to cope.’
Strategies, too, are on offer in Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better (the lack of commas is yet another symptom of modern performative impatience) — this time personally focused on what the reader can learn from modern research about how to improve productivity. Productivity, of course, is the religion of an age that conceives of itself as accelerating, though in our time it is usually defined in a philistine way, as consisting of sheer volume rather than quality of work output. This title promises, though, that we can have everything: doing stuff faster and also better. The obvious and time-tested solution is to drink vast quantities of coffee, but might there be others?
Duhigg’s book turns out to be one of those stylish and comfortable volumes that tells exciting stories about narrowly averted plane crashes, kidnappings, film-making, and poker tournaments, and combines their morals with research in the psychological and business literature in order to arrive at key takeaways for the reader to apply to her own life as a manager or worker. Duhigg brings impressive reportorial and narrative skills to the project, and in a disarming appendix relates how he applied the lessons on productivity he had learned in order to enable him to stop procrastinating and actually write the book.
Smarter Faster Better is packed with fascinating details — for instance, on how the theme song of Frozen was improvised by the woman co-composer in a park, or on how Google is interested in ‘debugging human interactions’ — but as ever with such books, the one-liner lessons that it finally draws are a bit anti-climactic. (How teams work may be more important than exactly who is in them; ‘When we encounter new information, we should force ourselves to do something with it.’) I ended up thinking that the title is something of a bait and switch. Everyone has always known that, ceteris paribus, there is a trade-off between rapidity and quality of work. So can you really perform ‘smarter’ and faster? Faster and better? Well, Duhigg spent several years working on this elegant project. And, sceptical from the start, I decided not to speed-read it. We both did the right thing.