Tag Archives: James Gleick

Faster, James Gleick

<em class="BookTitle">Faster</em>, James Gleick

Vintage, 2000 reprint of 1999 original, 330 pages, C$21.00 pb, ISBN 0-679-77548-X

I am one of the people James Gleick complains about in Faster.  I am the guy who walks past other people on the sidewalk.  I am the guy who fumes whenever cars drive just under the speed limit.  I am the guy who gets annoyed whenever other people don’t pay attention, dawdle, can’t decide or otherwise start messing with my own hyper-efficient schedule.  I am, in other words, part of the problem that Gleick describes when he talks about “the acceleration of just about everything”.

Now, keep in mind Faster‘s copyright date of 1999, right at the peak of the dot-com boom; a short era during which “dot-com time” came to shake what was people’s sense of time.  Suddenly, the online world changed every six months; companies doubled in 60 days, crashed and burned in 18 months.  And things kept accelerating, at least until the dot-bomb recession of 2000-2001.  Faster is very much a book of its era, a horrified contemplation of how fast things can possibly go, alongside doubt that anyone but a few inhuman freaks will be able to hold on to the monster we have collectively created.

As such, most of Faster feels very familiar.  Gleick, the author of such seminal science vulgarization books as Genius and Chaos here turns his attention to a mixture of historical explanation, technical vulgarization and cultural criticism.  In a nutshell: Here’s why/how things went from slow to fast; here’s how fast they really are at the moment; here’s why this is a problem.  Fast food!  Workaholics!  Over-optimized airline schedules!  24-hour news cycle!  Multitasking! Quick-cutting!  MTV!  After a while, it becomes easier to portray Gleick as the stereotypical old man shouting at the kids, not just because they’re on his lawn, but because they can get off of it faster than he can shake his cane at them.  (Also; grandpa, there are better examples of action moviemaking than Sphere.)

The irony here is that Gleick is not wrong, nor has his kvetching been disproven by the past twelve years.  The world has indeed become much faster, and on a very personal level: You just have to contemplate Twitter or the Facebook news feed to find out that near-real-time publishing to the masses has become ubiquitous: It just takes a moderately-good smartphone with an average data plan to consume and broadcast the most trivial details of our lives.  Meanwhile, the big boys of corporate media have grown even savvier in getting their product to the consumer even faster: As of 2011, DVDs are available not much more than three months after theatrical release; eBooks are launched simultaneously with their paper equivalents (otherwise customers complain loudly on Amazon); most music is sold instantly through digital channels (goodbye music stores); news stories are filed and dissected in minutes… and wristwatches (a subject of one of Faster’s early chapters) are now fashion accessories, because there are now built-in clocks in just about any electronic device that surrounds us.  Our culture digests ideas, fads and memes in weeks (Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was released when I read Faster, almost still hip when I wrote this review a month later, but passé to the point of nostalgia by the time I edited it three further months later) and visibly shows signs of impatience whenever it has to wait.  We have become Faster’s worst nightmare.

And yet we still deal with it.  One thing that Faster doesn’t do very well is in pointing out that it’s still relatively easy to punch out of the schedule whenever convenient.  Journalists and politicians may be stuck feeding the news channels, but the rest of us can lay low for a few days and stop paying attention to what’s not part of our lives.  Facebook’s reported recent loss in popularity hints at a truth that Social Media apologists and James Gleick alike aren’t happy to acknowledge: That once past the newness effect, everyone self-selects their pace of life.  After a few days/weeks/months/years, many people move on from their blog postings, twittering or facebook updates: What remains at the slower core is the kernel of what we are.

But as much fun as it is to critique the social critique, there is plenty to like about Faster: The early part of the book has some fascinating material regarding how the notion of globalized time came to be (every American town had its own clock before railways required some standardization), and a chapter on airline scheduling makes the good point that the more efficient a system is, the more it is vulnerable to even small problems –they cascade into big problem due to the lack of slack built in the system.  There are good digressions here and there, such as the sequence in which Gleick pushes the clichéd “Americans spend X minutes every day doing…” statistics into an absurdist dead-end, and a demonstration of “The Strong Law of Small numbers” (ie; there aren’t enough small numbers to be useful.)

I does help that even if Gleick may be a curmudgeon in training, he’s a dependably readable writer.  Faster is entertaining even when its relationship with reality turns a bit suspect; its thesis may be equal part dubious and paranoid, it’s still largely correct.  I do miss the more scientifically-minded topics of Chaos and Genius compared to this more free-flowing cultural/technical critique, but if Faster is a bit of a disappointment, it still has enough good material for compelling cocktail party chatter.

Genius, James Gleick

Vintage, 1992, 531 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-679-74704-4

There is a chapter, “In Search of Genius”, more than midway through James Gleick’s Genius, which dissects the nature of brilliance and asks where, in today’s world, are the dozens of world-shaking geniuses we could expect from a world packed with more than five billion humans. From a Western European pool of less than a billion souls, the past has produced Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart; where are today’s geniuses, and why aren’t they more distinctive? [P.313]

It’s a disingenuous question in many ways (today’s world is more egalitarian, more complicated, more specialized, more susceptible to trivia, etc. than the times in which the afore-mentioned geniuses lived) but it’s a question well worth pondering whenever we’re considering the life of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, a man who in many ways exemplified the type of genius everyone can recognize as such; he made significant contributions to modern physics, had a career that spanned from the Manhattan project to the Challenger investigation, including a significant rewriting of quantum theory. Showman to the Nth degree, Feynman cracked safes, played bongos, dated abundantly and tried to annoy whoever he could. And that’s just the back-cover version of his life.

Genius is a curious book, an attempt to cover his life that deliberately avoids some of the better-known stories that Feynman himself wrote down in his own memoirs. (Which is useful only those those who have read Feynman’s memoirs, obviously.) James Gleick covers the scientist’s life from birth to death, with plenty of asides on the state of scientific knowledge during the twentieth century. The amount of material crammed in the book is awe-inspiring, and Genius thankfully comes complete with a comprehensive index as well as two separate (and extensive) bibliographies.

It’s a fascinating read in no small part thanks to Feynman himself. Tragedy (his first marriage) and comedy (safe-cracking at Los Alamos), genius (how his drawers were packed with “substandard” research that would mean publication for other scientists) and conflict (his gentle feud with Schwinger over the dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics) all intervene at one time or another in his life, and the best that Gleick can do is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Let’s not kid around; you will need a physics degree to follow Gleick’s description of the spheres of science in which Feynman evolved. But that’s only a small part of his life: the rest of the book is unusually readable and accessible. Feynman makes a sympathetic hero, a genius that wasn’t without flaws (his romantic life after the death of his first wife, for instance, could be seen as an exercise in pure cynicism) but whose comprehension of the world did much to advance ours. The portrait of the various scientists with whom he interacted (Gell-Mann, Dyson, Oppenheimer, etc.) are just as interesting, but obviously we know who holds center-stage. The biography deftly balances science with life and gives a good portrait of a man as a scientist, not just the other way around. Inspiring reading, perhaps especially for physics students and other fledging scientists.

Ultimately, Genius is a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth century’s foremost scientist, perhaps the last time someone could fly around from one part of physics to another and make key contributions in passing. Until the next genius, of course, for the question remains: Where are the other Feynmans? Worse; if there are Feynmans in the world today, will we have to wait until their death to know about them?

[September 2004: Yes, Feynman’s own “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is indeed a recommended prerequisite for Genius. Ironically enough, it’s more accessible, more representative and a great deal funnier than Gleick’s work.]