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Zoom, zoom, zoom

Imagine a regular, mundane errand, such as a trip to the grocery store. How long does it take? And how much time are you willing to spend on it?

If you drive 1 or 2 miles faster than the speed limit, you probably won’t get pulled over. Look around — everyone else is doing the same thing. We aren’t a nation of scofflaws, intent on bending the rules just for ourselves. Unless, of course, those rules involve time.

By driving a little faster, you’d probably save no more than five minutes. But when you have to squander those five minutes waiting through a slow checkout line, you feel cheated.

Ultimately, you get through in about the same amount of time you would have by traveling the speed limit. What you gain in one pocket, you lose in the other.

Consider your groceries. If you filled your cart with microwavable meals, quick snacks, pre-prepared salads and instant, rather than the slower one-minute, oatmeal, you’re not alone. You might even have a package of Gorton’s new fish sticks, which promise to be ready — from freezer to frying pan to plate — in half the time it takes to cook regular frozen fish sticks.

But on the way home, you’re already hungry, so you hit the nearest fast-food drive-through lane and multitask by eating while you steer. Time saved? Enough to check your e-mail with that super-fast cable modem and maybe watch a movie. If you’re really fanatic, you’ll rent a foreign film and watch it on fast-forward, not so much viewing the movie as reading subtitles to catch its essence. You’ve got hurry sickness, and bad.

Talk faster

Hurry sickness? It’s a term to describe the way these little speed-up efforts pervade our lives, often in conjunction with some new technological innovation.

For example, few would argue against voice mail. But some systems, such as the one used at one MT freelancer’s day job, offer two options: normal delivery or urgent delivery. I asked the writer what the difference was.

There is none, he told me. The system doesn’t even shuffle the urgent message to the beginning of the queue. “If someone marks it urgent when it isn’t, it just leaves a sour taste in our mouth,” he says.

Writer James Gleick’s wife noticed how everything has come to a screaming pace, but she was too busy to write about it. So Gleick, of Garrison, N.Y., took on the task in his latest book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (Pantheon, 324 pp., $24).

Multitasking mania

In an interview, Gleick sounds surprisingly unhurried, despite his own admission to being something like the king of multitasking. (Then again, for all I know, he could be flossing his teeth, preparing a crème caramel and organizing his tax returns while we speak.)

Gleick says he’s caught himself reaching for the remote while listening to music and reading a magazine, or exercising while doing any of the above. “I enjoy doing a lot of stuff at once, doing things fast,” he says.

So do we all, it seems. But doing more things at once has yet to be scientifically proven the best way to do any one thing well. I’m trying to get this piece finished so I can rush home, eat a microwaved meal and read the mail while playing with a toddler and preparing to go holiday shopping. I’m typing with one hand, eating a snack with the other and running a Web search in the background on my computer. Am I doing any of these things to the best of my ability? Probably not. Do multitaskers really achieve more?

Speed fiends

And yet, the faster things go, the more we structure our lives around the potential for speed — and sometimes (as with the useless door-close button on elevators, according to Gleick) around the mere illusion of speed.

Instead of driving four hours to Chicago, we’ll take a flight that gets us there in an hour, even though we’ll spend an hour-and-a-half on either end of the trip in getting to and from the airport. Total time elapsed? Four hours. But in the middle there, for that blissful hour, we were cruising at 500 mph. Now that’s fast.

“I think there is something really core and visceral about our love of speed,” says Gleick. “I think that it’s something that gets us on a gut level, like a kid riding down a snowy hill on a sled.”

Or like surfing the Internet with a really fast connection, listening to music and clicking channels while we wait the seemingly everlasting four minutes until our microwave popcorn is ready.

“We don’t like to be bored.”

In the past, he suggests, lives were emptier in terms of information. But with the advent of the telephone, then radio, then television, then the Internet, we’ve had more need (desire?) to pack it all in.

Never has that been more true than in the Internet age, which developed rapidly in the six years Gleick spent working on his book. (And because the published book must now remain static, Gleick has a Web site, fasterbook.com, that provides updates, links and comments on the book.)

“Technologies of connectivity have been big players in the trend of acceleration in our lives,” he notes. So has technology in general.

Time is money

We’ve all heard that before. But with a growing demand for time-saving devices, time-saving has become a big business — just check your nearest stack of holiday catalogs for a selection of instant shower cleaners, quick-boil kettles and radar detectors so we can get away with speeding.

General Electric, for one, has recognized this trend and now offers the Advantium oven with “Speedcook” technology. This halogen light-powered 21st century answer to the microwave (or Easy-Bake oven) promises to cook some foods “up to eight times faster” than a conventional oven. Plus, it converts to a microwave for added speed.

But that thing about time being money? Of course. The oven costs $1,699-$1,899, which is, ironically, about eight times more than a really good microwave oven.

Hold on, there

At some point (perhaps when working overtime to pay for that expensive time-saving device), we tend to wonder whether it’s all worth it. All this hurrying is making some people start to think twice about what they’re doing.

“People are feeling a sense of overload,” says Gleick, mentioning how some folks have rebelled against the trend of hurry sickness.

Proponents of the slow food movement, for example, celebrate the joys of home-cooked, nonfast food. No microwaved, halogen-accelerated steak for them. And the simple-living movement, another slowdown effort, requires people to streamline their needs (and desires, unfortunately) to the most basic levels.

“It’s important for people to avoid participating in the same kinds of speeding up they’re rebelling against,” says Gleick. “But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for people to try, as a culture, to become more intimately aware of the mixed blessings of some of these fast things.”

Then again, he says he hasn’t got a speeding ticket since he’s worked on the book.

And ultimately, some things are impossible to speed up. No matter how much compost accelerator you add to the pile, for example, it still takes time to decompose your kitchen scraps. You can’t have an instant relationship with someone, though you might try. Babies still gestate in 40 weeks or so, and arrive, for the most part, only when they’re ready.

And who really wants to accelerate their life span in order to get it over with more quickly?

“We don’t save time. Time is not a thing we possess,” says Gleick, summing it up. “We’re just in it.”

Alisa Gordaneer is MT features editor. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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