Monday, March 10, 2014

The Speed of Life

Sometime in the late 1980s I got interested in what I called "the speed of life."  Life was getting faster in many ways, as the economy and society were demanding that human life be governed by the maximum speeds allowed by new technologies. 

I began researching what turned out to be a potentially huge subject.  I worked on book proposals and article ideas, but perhaps the only evidence in actual print was an oped published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1993.

Since then the challenge of technology and how it is used to human biology, psychology, relationships, families, peace of mind etc. has only grown.  The factors involved in accelerating the speed of life are more complex than faster machines.  Cell phones for example may not in themselves make for faster communication, but their portability means that people are more accessible--in fact, in the cliche that established itself in the mobile phone era--they are connected 24/7.  And because they can be accessible all the time, employers often expect that they must be accessible all the time.  There is no escape from work demands, and so everything else gets crowded into less time, which accelerates the speed of life.  

It's true of social life as well, thanks to texting and social media. Smart phone compete on the basis of how fast they can deliver information, so that people can instantly act on it.  

So aspects of this phenomenon I noted in the 90s have only gotten worse.  Particularly workplace pressures--I just saw a reference to post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of such pressures.

In the years since my researches began, a number of books have been published on the general subject of speed (including James Gleick's Faster) and "the speed of life" has been attached to television shows, sermons, etc.  

 When that 1993 oped was published I learned that it had been tacked up on bulletin boards at workplaces all over Pittsburgh.  An editor at the P-G called me her hero.  What follows is a re-ordering of that piece, plus more from a longer essay.

The Speed of Life

From the Pony Express to the expressway, America has always loved speed.  We invented a culture based on the efficiency of the assembly line and time-saving technology, on rapid promotion and upward mobility, the can-do and the quick fix, instant coffee and instantaneous communication; on fast cars on fast highways making fast deliveries of the newest products, promising quick results and fast, fast relief for those on the fast track.

But now we're not so sure.  America looks increasingly like the land of the frazzled and the home of the frayed.  It's crept up on us unconsciously but now in one way or another we're saying it out loud: we're worried about the speed of life.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, the productivity of American workers increased by 4% in the fourth quarter of 1992, the biggest gain since the early 1970s.  But the February report also showed that there was little new hiring.  "It's good for the improved efficiency of our companies and thus for competitiveness," said a senior economist at Morgan Stanley.  "But it is tough on workers, who are victims of the downsizing that has been required to boost productivity."

Business journalists confirm that with corporate downsizing, each white collar survivor is often doing the work previously done by three or more.  Some would point to the new productivity figures as proof that downsizing has worked but productivity is not the same as efficiency or effectiveness. Sooner or later the snap decisions, the sloppy work, the mail that gets lost or ignored and the phone calls never returned, are going to hurt the bottom line.  But the long-term health of people is at much at stake as the long-term viability of the economy.

Productivity gains are made possible by faster technology.  This results in longer work days, especially as communications and transportation become globalized. But it also means workers operate faster during those hours. The faster information flows and the more accessible everyone is to that flow, the more work there is processing and responding to that information, and the more time is taken up by that work.

Meanwhile, the bathroom breaks as well as the supposed productivity of laborers in electronic sweatshops are monitored by the machines they use.  They either deal with that kind of stress and long hours at their computers and telephones, or deal with the stress of no income.

But that technology also means that fewer workers are needed.  More people are working two and three jobs, spending more time commuting and away from their families--all of which accelerates the daily spin for everyone. The impact of so many frenzied hours scrapping for sustenance sends out devastating ripples through private life and society.  More and more must be done in less and less time. The health and social problems are already apparent: from stress-related chronic illnesses to alcoholism and drug abuse,family abuse and neglect, suicide, and accidents on the job and the highway caused by the sleepy and the wired.

According to Harvard economist Julie Schor, the combination means that Americans in every income category are working much longer hours than forty years ago, and more than in most other advanced societies.  At the same time, others deal with the stress of the job-search treadmill, as the world speeds by.  Schor's The Overworked American sits uneasily on the book shelf next to Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work.

No institution has felt these impacts more than the family.  When half of American fathers and a third of mothers work more than 40 hours a week, poor parents must often leave children unattended, and even higher income parets rush around from job to child care, schools to swimming lessons, scheduling residual "quality time" when they can.  Meanwhile their hurried children are pressured to learn more faster, take more tests affecting their future sooner, while spending more time in the work world learning valuable lessons in fryer management and smileology.

It's the speed of life that has helped turn the suburban dream of peace and surcease into a blur of entrances and exits, and made the famous New York Minute about 45 seconds too long.  Today for both the fast track man (who sometimes takes more parenting and household responsibility) and superwoman (fighting traffic and running the rat race while still being mom) "having it all" seems to include having a nervous breakdown.

While time management consultants offer to start with six year olds, the tension of over-organized lives can reach the breaking point--we never know when one of us will snap like elastic, like an over-regimented postal worker with a grievance-loaded gun.  The Girl Scouts now give a merit badge in stress management.

Information floods us constantly but it blips and vanishes faster than we can take it in.  Every item masquerading as vital knowledge in the competing clutter is a perishable product clamoring for our attention so insistently that inflated claims and distortions routinely add to the constant rush of inescapable ballyhoo.

Our memories are overrun, and our battle to just keep up obliterates our appreciation of the present and our vision of the future, so today we are literally destroying the forest for the trees.  In what Joni Mitchell memorably called this "land of snap decisions, land of short attention spans," we are overbooked, overextended, overstimulated and overloaded, but we are also spiritually, intellectually and experientially underfed.

The general effect is that more and more of us are exceeding the human speed limit.  Our problem is that we are not made of silicon and plastic.  We are flesh and blood.  We are not tireless machines powered by electric current.  Time is part of our nourishment.  We do not operate at the speed of light.  We live at the speed of life.

As individuals and as a society, constantly breaking the speed barrier of life not only makes us crazy and sick, it leaves us with split focus, divided selves and cognitive dissonance that have become the norm.  Leisure is disappearing, and so is civility, craftsmanship and reflection.  We're outrunning our own senses--of sight, smell, taste and hearing as well as of perspective, decency, hope and humor.

Time seems abstract and ethereal until you realize you don't have enough of it.  Then it becomes clear that time is the very substance of life.  But the quandary is how to slow down without giving up; how to get control of the speed of life.

Even in tough economic times--in fact especially then--we need to think about this.  We will need the creativity, judgment and sense of values only time can allow.  And we need rest.  Despite our manic diversions, we have fewer traditions and rituals for real rest and relaxation than probably any culture in the world.  We act as if sleep is a shameful crime against efficiency rather than an integral and restorative part of life.

So we may have been more productive in the fourth quarter, whatever that really means.  But in addition to a sustainable economy and sustainable environment with sustainable energy sources, we must find a speed of life that we can sustain, and that can sustain us.