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James Gleick

      . . .writer/reporter. Author of bestsellers Chaos: Making a New Science, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists and widely translated,) and Faster:  The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Mr. Gleick collaborated with photographer Eliot Porter on Nature‚s Chaos and with developers at Autodesk on „Chaos: The Software.š A native and resident of New York City, Mr. Gleick graduated from Harvard College, helped found an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis, was an editor/reporter for „The New York Timesš for 10 years and a Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton. His website is

Excerpts3:35 secs
[This Program was recorded October 12, 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

      Speed is addictive, according to James Gleick. We love it and hate it. But mostly, we are ambivalent about the acceleration which has been fueled by computers as surely as the telephone altered an earlier age, says the author of "Faster:  The Acceleration of Just About Everything."

      We want things to hurry up at the same time we suffer from „hurry sickness.š We instinctively feel there‚s something unhealthy about racing across a commuter train platform with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand and a laptop in the other, as if our entire culture were victims of attention deficit disorder. And yet, it is exhilarating. We multitask at every opportunity and we crave the stimulation when things slow down. In spite of evidence Mr. Gleick found that there is no such thing as a „Type A personality,š he says we all seem to have become just that.

      Where have all the pauses in life gone, he wonders? Pauses are critical to music and language and their steady erosion has had a toll across the board, from financial markets and the news to bedtime stories.

      While Mr. Gleick is confident that we pay a price for today‚s unrelenting acceleration, he resists taking sides, uncomfortable with a lot of „oughtš and „ought-nots.š The right way to approach all the questions generated by both apparent and demonstrable speed-up, he believes, is a resounding, „Yes and No.š No, he says, things weren‚t really all that great in The Good Old Days. In fact, he believes, we‚ve made a lot of choices -- many of them good -- and improved a lot of things. But, he says, we also feel (and we‚re right) that we are losing something with our unrelenting acceleration. It would be good, he thinks, if we were forced sometimes to stop. Do nothing.  Just think. Instead of constantly broadcasting and digesting information.

      Those who complain about the acceleration of modern life are part of a distinguished tradition traceable to the Roman Plautus, who hated the wretched sundials that divided his days into little parts. We are more in control of time than ever before, Mr. Gleick says, but we are also more driven by it, sometimes even feeling we are time‚s victims.

      On the other hand, it‚s not so bad. We do need to compress things and we‚ve learned to assimilate a lot of information in a little time. But we‚ve gotten used to the pace, we‚re impatient if it slows. We‚ve learned not only to save time but to shift it, he says, able to see both the convenience and the social estrangement that can follow.

      There still are some things that you just cannot hurry, Mr. Gleick reminds us. Composting is one. Love is another. Biological processes just take time. Speeding them up only creates tension. Which gets us back to having to accept responsibility for those choices we are loath to make about today‚s ambivalent fast forward that we love to hate.

Conversation 1

James Gleick describes for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the structural dilemma posed by rapidly changing times about which he was writing in Faster. He describes what drew him to and links the topics in Chaos, Genius and Faster.

Conversation 2

Mr. Gleick links ideas of time to science and scientists. He acknowledges the fiction-like character of his non-fiction work, reminding us that he is a reporter. He describes what the Directorate of Time is and what they do. He points out what time is and is not, how it is different for scientists and lay people.  He notes how our perception of time changes and that many now feel that they are time‚s victims. He uses „type A personalitiesš as an example of a cultural totem about time -- even though the original research does not hold up well -- observing that we all have become „type A.š

Conversation 3

Interested in the technology which can speed up audio, Mr. Gleick comments on the implications of digital audio manipulation, relating it negatively to sound bites and positively to our learned ability to assimilate more information in less time.  He describes time-shifting devises, from answering machines to one-minute bedtime stories. Mr. Gleick suggests a vital role for pauses, with multiple examples from music to financial markets to news, expanding on the ambivalence he senses we all feel that pauses are disappearing from our lives.

Conversation 4

Mr. Gleick describes and gives examples of how we are attracted to and repulsed by our cultural addiction to speed. He discusses our cultural attention deficit disorder, using radio and cellular phones as examples of multitask media. Refraining from taking sides about whether people can drive and talk on cellular phones simultaneously, Mr. Gleick maintains our impatience is exacerbated in cars. He explains why many questions about today‚s culture have ambivalent answers. He cites examples of today‚s need to make conscious decisions about our use of time. He mentions signs in the culture of counter-reactions. He gives further examples of our approach/avoidance to speed.

Conversation 5

Humans have never chosen to slow down, Mr. Gleick contends, with evidence.  He expands on why he is not clear what the future holds. He explains why the telephone (more than the railroad) was the great accelerator of modern life a century ago, compared to today‚s leap forward which is powered by computers.  He describes the impact of the standardization of time.  He compares a social sense of chaos to the scientific one. Daylight Savings Time is Mr. Gleick‚s springboard for describing our world‚s organization and its dependence on precise timekeeping. He describes how television splits our attention and layers streams of information.

Conversation 6

Mr. Gleick considers whether our biological and cultural evolution are keeping up with our explosion of technology. He describes composting and love as among the things we cannot hurry.


We are delighted that the paperback publication of James Gleick‚s book, _Faster_, brought Mr. Gleick to Atlanta. We thank Renee Louis at Vintage Books for her help in making the arrangements for this Conversation and in making sure we had what we needed to be prepared.

For our friends interested in open source software, the following from James Gleick‚s website,, may be of interest:

„A while ago I worked with three extremely cool software developers at Autodesk on a project way out of their main line, to illustrate ų and give people a way of playing with ų some of the ideas in my book Chaos. This became Chaos: The Software, a DOS program by Rudy Rucker, Josh Gordon, and John Walker. Autodesk doesn't sell it anymore, so we're making it freely available here,, and we're offering the source, too, in case anyone wants to fool around with it.š

Related Links:
Faster:  The Acceleration of Just About Everything is available from Vintage Books, as is Gleick's best seller Genius:  The Life and Times of Richard Feynman.
James Gleick‚s website is .

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