I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Books: Faster, by James Gleick

I have decided that sometimes I should also recommend books, not just criticise the books I don't like.  Here is the first one.  Let's see how it goes.

The book is Faster, by James Gleick, the well known author of Chaos.

I picked up a copy of the book in a reminders' bookshop and it was a very good buy.

Gleick analyses the roots of the frenetic and ever faster modern life.  The book was first published fifteen years ago, but it hasn't aged at all.  What follows is my interpretation of the essence of the book and my reflections on its content.

The world has become very competitive.  As a result, everybody keeps looking for "an edge".  That is, for something that will give them a bit of an advantage over their competitors.  This applies to every organisation and individual living in a modern society, and especially in western-style capitalistic societies.

An edge could consist of working a little bit longer, employing a new technique or tool, optimising your time, exploiting other people's work, focussing on what counts most, or (and), effectively, anything that will increase our output, either in terms of quality or (more often) in terms of quantity.

How we use/spend/employ/waste/enjoy our time, according to Gleick (and I agree), is of paramount importance.  That's why we keep looking at our watch; that's why we are so impatient; that's why we hate queues; that's why we plan and prioritise our days.

Unfortunately, every edge we develop has already been developed by others, or soon will be.  In our attempt to emerge from the masses and be successful, we keep struggling up a downward escalator, whereby failure to become more productive means going backward.  And, to push the metaphor further, the downward escalator doesn't move at uniform speed.  It accelerates.

This is an intrinsically unstable system, in which a positive feedback leads to explosive conclusions: we work harder and faster to emerge but, as everybody else does it as well, we need to work even faster.  This has made possible incredible achievements, but we are paying those achievements with our health and wellbeing.

It wasn't always like this.  Before the industrial revolution or even just before the introduction of production lines, time was not money.  But for the past good one hundred years everything is money, including time.  Even if, contrary to money and despite colloquialisms, time cannot be gained or saved: every second spent is lost forever and cannot ever been recovered.

H.G. Wells, in his "A Modern Utopia" of 1905, described a future in which we would work five hours a week.  Modern technology might allow to do so, but the increase in efficiency and productivity generated by technology, instead of automatically resulting in a reduction of working hours, is used to a large extent to fuel growth.  The average number of weekly working hours has been steadily falling in developed countries, but we are still very far from the Utopian levels predicted by Wells.

During my working life in Italy, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and France, I was steadily under pressure to work longer hours.  Australia was the worst offender, and I often had to work 60 h/week or more.  You might think that it was because I was slow or not good enough, but that was not the case.  Everybody around me struggled.  When I worked at Prime R&D in Canberra, we had a HR person to take care of only thirty developers.  Such a very high ratio (1/30) was deemed necessary to enable us to survive the pressure we had to endure and the resulting conflicts.  Perhaps I enjoyed reading Faster because it resonated with what I had experienced.

The book is also full of snippets of time-related information that I found very interesting.

For example, at MacDonald's, in 1997 its marketers tried to speed up [...] by offering refunds to any customer not served within fifty-five seconds (p.245).  That's what I would call a pressure-cooker environment, even if at MacDonald's everything is fried!  ;-)

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