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James Gleick on Our Anxiety About Time, the Origin of the Term “Type A,” and the Curious Psychology of Elevator Impatience

“We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.”

James Gleick on Our Anxiety About Time, the Origin of the Term “Type A,” and the Curious Psychology of Elevator Impatience

“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed of the difficult pleasures of presence in the middle of the twentieth century, as the mechanized acceleration of modern life was beginning to take our already aggravated relationship with time to new frontiers of frustration. I thought of him one November morning shortly after I moved to New York when, already overwhelmed by the city’s pace, I swiped my brand new subway card at the turnstile and confidently marched through, only to jam my hips into the immobile metal rod. Puzzled, I looked over to the tiny primitive screen above the turnstile, which chided me coldly in cyan electronic letters: “SWIPE FASTER.” Just these two words, stern and commanding — no “PLEASE,” not even “TRY TO.” In the world’s fastest-paced city, even the mindless machines are temporally judgmental and make sure you remain on par.

Our leap into temporal expediency had several pivotal launching pads since Galileo invented modern timekeeping and set into motion our forward-lurching momentum. At the end of the 19th century, the invention of railroads and motion pictures catalyzed “the annihilation of space and time.” By 1912, a satirical children’s book mocked a man who failed to rise from bed fast and early enough as “a stupid guy.” When Bertrand Russell wrote in 1918 that “both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom,” it was both a valediction to an era freer of illusory urgencies and a foreboding of our own epoch, in which the tyranny of time has rendered us incapable of distinguishing between urgency and importance.

Illustration by Peter Newell from The Rocket Book, 1912
Illustration by Peter Newell from The Rocket Book, 1912

Science was already hijacking time from the domain of metaphysics and fomenting the popular imagination with its rush of discoveries, so when Einstein and Bergson sat down for their famous debate in 1922, the moment was ripe to forever change our experience of time. (It may be a coincidence, but it is nonetheless an emblematic one, that 1955 was both the year Einstein died and the year scientists concretized the second itself by ceasing to tinker with its length, until then defined as 1/86,400 of the mutable duration of a real day.)

The impact of these and related developments on society and the human psyche are what the inimitable James Gleick explores in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (public library) — a book written nearly two decades ago that has not only stood the test of time but has grown all the more perceptive and prescient in the years since.

Half a century after German philosopher Josef Pieper argued that leisure is the basis of culture and the root of human dignity, Gleick writes:

We are in a rush. We are making haste. A compression of time characterizes the life of the century.

[…]

We have a word for free time: leisure. Leisure is time off the books, off the job, off the clock. If we save time, we commonly believe we are saving it for our leisure. We know that leisure is really a state of mind, but no dictionary can define it without reference to passing time. It is unrestricted time, unemployed time, unoccupied time. Or is it? Unoccupied time is vanishing. The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole. The very variety of experience attacks our leisure as it attempts to satiate us. We work for our amusement.

[…]

Sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it: that is a myth we now live by.

Illustration by Vahram Muratyan from About Time, a minimalist illustrated meditation on our fraught relationship with time

To fully appreciate Gleick’s insightful prescience, it behooves us to remember that he is writing long before the social web as we know it, before the conspicuous consumption of “content” became the currency of the BuzzMalnourishment industrial complex, before the timelines of Twitter and Facebook came to dominate our record and experience of time. (Prescience, of course, is a form of time travel — perhaps our only nonfictional way to voyage into the future.) Gleick writes:

We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences — whether, perhaps, we face the biological dilemma of the waterflea, whose heart beats faster as the temperature rises. This creature lives almost four months at 46 degrees Fahrenheit but less than one month at 82 degrees.

[…]

Yet we have made our choices and are still making them. We humans have chosen speed and we thrive on it — more than we generally admit. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power. It thrills us… No wonder we call sudden exhilaration a rush.

Gleick considers what our units of time reveal about our units of thought:

We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. “Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man,” laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.

[…]

Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond — a billionth of a second? … Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless.

Illustration from Just a Second by Steve Jenkins, a children’s book about what takes place on Earth in a single second

If the nanosecond seems too negligible to matter, it is only because we are fundamentally blinded by the biological limits of our perception. (We are, for instance, only just beginning to understand the monumental importance of the microbiome, imperceptible to the naked eye yet crucial to nearly every aspect of our bodily existence.) In 1849, when trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell became the first woman hired by the U.S. federal government for a non-domestic specialized skill, she labored as a “computer of Venus” — a sort of one-woman GPS, performing mathematically rigorous celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe. The nanosecond was still decades away from being measured and named, so her calculations, however adroit, were crude by modern standards. Today, as Gleick points out, an error of one nanosecond translates into a misplacement by one foot in modern GPS systems. This means that just a dozen nanoseconds can steer you the wrong way altogether.

But perhaps the most striking illustration of just how frantically we’ve fragmented time and how insistently we’ve imbued the fragments with restlessness comes from an unlikely source — a mid-century social science study published in 1959 under the title “Association of Specific Overt Behavior Pattern with Blood and Cardiovascular Findings,” the validity of which has since failed to hold up against scientific scrutiny but the linguistic legacy of which has only grown in the half-century since: In addition to originating the notion of “hurry sickness,” this study also coined the term “Type A,” which has since planted itself firmly and anxiously in our collective conscience.

Gleick writes:

This magnificently bland coinage, put forward by a pair of California cardiologists in 1959, struck a collective nerve and entered the language. It is a token of our confusion: are we victims or perpetrators of the crime of haste? Are we living at high speed with athleticism and vigor, or are we stricken by hurry sickness?

The cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, listed a set of personality traits which, they claimed, tend to go hand in hand with one another and also with heart disease. They described these traits rather unappealingly, as characteristics about and around the theme of impatience. Excessive competitiveness. Aggressiveness. “A harrying sense of time urgency.” The Type A idea emerged in technical papers and then formed the basis of a popular book and made its way into dictionaries.

The archetypal Type A was a person the researchers called “Paul,” whom they described unambiguously:

A very disproportionate amount of his emotional energy is consumed in struggling against the normal constraints of time. “How can I move faster, and do more and more things in less and less time?” is the question that never ceases to torment him. Paul hurries his thinking, his speech and his movements. He also strives to hurry the thinking, speech, and movements of those about him; they must communicate rapidly and relevantly if they wish to avoid creating impatience in him. Planes must arrive and depart precisely on time for Paul, cars ahead of him on the highway must maintain a speed he approves of, and there must never be a queue of persons standing between him and a bank clerk, a restaurant table, or the interior of a theater. In fact, he is infuriated whenever people talk slowly or circuitously, when planes are late, cars dawdle on the highway, and queues form.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The study ultimately didn’t live up to its hypothesis that a Type A personality predisposes to heart disease — the researchers failed to account for various confounds, including the facts that patients in Group A drank, smoked, and ate more than those in Group B. But what it didn’t prove in science it proved in society — the need for a term that confers validity about an experience so prevalent and so intimately familiar to so many. (In her beautiful essay on language and creativity, the poet Jane Hirshfield has written about how, through the language of poetic image, “something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed” until we begin to feel that without its existence “the world’s store of truth would be diminished.”) Gleick writes:

If the Type A phenomenon made for poor medical research, it stands nonetheless as a triumph of social criticism. Some of us yield more willingly to impatience than others, but on the whole Type A is who we are—not just the coronary-prone among us, but all of us, as a society and as an age. No wonder the concept has proven too rich a cultural totem to be dismissed. We understand it. We know it when we see it. Type A people walk fast and eat fast. They finish your sentences for you. They feel guilty about relaxing. They try to do two or more things at once…

Perhaps the most perfect place to study the psychological machinery of the Type A person is the elevator — the social life of small urban spaces, on steroids; a supreme testing ground for our terror of idleness, once celebrated as a virtue and now reviled as a sin; the ultimate petri dish for the contagion of hurry sickness (for, lest we forget, the elevator is a prime environment for groupthink). Gleick explains:

Among the many aggravators of Type A-ness in modern life, elevators stand out. By its very nature, elevatoring — short-range vertical transportation, as the industry calls it — is a pressure-driven business. Although there are still places on earth where people live full lives without ever seeing an elevator, the Otis Elevator Company estimates that its cars raise and lower the equivalent of the planet’s whole population every nine days. This is a clientele that dislikes waiting.

Illustration by André François from Little Boy Brown by Isobel Harris, 1949

Gleick cites a curious and revealing passage from a 1979 report by Otis researchers studying elevator behavior:

Waiting, some stand still, others pace, and another may make small gestures of impatience such as foot tapping, jiggling change in a pocket, scanning the walls and ceiling with apparent concentration… At intervals, nearly everyone regards the elevator location display above the doors by tipping their head slightly back and raising their eyes… Men, but hardly ever women, may rock gently back and forth…

The long silences, the almost library hush, that we can observe where people wait for elevators are not only what they seem… The longer the silence the more likely one or more of us will become slightly embarrassed… the more embarrassing and tense are the little interior dramas that we play out each within our own theater of projection…

The actual period of waiting that elapses before a particular group may feel that waiting has become a nearly unendurable torment will probably vary significantly with the composition of the group, the time of day, and the type of building in which they are traveling… The wait is hardly ever long, however much the subjective experience may stretch it out.

What makes the elevator so upsetting to the Type A person is that it forces upon us perpetually moving moderns the anxiety of stillness, a punishing counterpoint to the self-elected exhilaration of speed. An interesting, if discomfiting, thing to consider: At the time of Gleick’s writing, elevator riders tended to fill that anxious space of time with bodily fidgeting, occasional small talk, and no doubt large quantities of quiet inner rage; today, the average elevator is filled with people hunched over their devices, heads bent, looking like a congregation of mourners — an alarmingly apt image, for we are now irreversibly bereaved of that bygone era of innocent fidget-filled idleness, unburdened by the tyrannical impulse for productivity. We no longer allow ourselves boredom, that crucible of creativity, even in the elevator.

Building engineers have long tried to address the collective malady of elevator impatience — a problem only exacerbated as buildings grow taller and taller, requiring a greater number of elevators to prevent infuriating elevator traffic jams. For a while, a fanciful solution gained traction: A pressurized “sky lobby” — a transit point in a skyscraper, wherein an air lock repressurizes elevator passengers before they plunge into a rapid descent. But as abstract and at times illusory as time may seem, it grounds us mercilessly into the creaturely reality of our biology, which put an end to the sky lobby idea. Gleick writes:

One small problem resists solution. Evolution neglected to armor the human eardrum against the sudden change in air pressure that comes with a fall of hundreds of feet at high speed. Natural selection rarely had the opportunity to work with survivors of this experience, to fine-tune their eustachian tubes in preparain for vertical transport. So at mid-century, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high tower with 528 stories, helicopter landing pads, and quintuple-deck elevators running on atomic power, airline pilots instantly wrote to alert him to the impracticality. The age of high-altitude passenger aviation was just beginning, and the pilots knew that elevators descending thousands of feet within a minute or two would subject their passengers to severe inner-ear pain. Sure enough, decades later, the Sears Tower in Chicago had to slow its observation-deck elevators because at least one passenger had complained of a broken ear drum — an extreme manifestation of hurry sickness.

What remained was the low-tech solution of manipulating the psychology of human impatience, most palpably triggered by what engineers call “door dwell” — the amount of time it takes the elevator doors to automatically close after making a stop on a given floor, programmed to last anywhere between two and four seconds. There is, of course, a way to override the automatic door dwell and win back, as it were, some of those precious blinks: the “DOOR CLOSE” button — a Type A favorite and typically the most worn out one in elevators, for people press it compulsively and repeatedly despite the negligible time-saving benefits and the knowledge that pushing it three times in antsy succession is no more effective than pushing it once. Gleick considers the curious compulsion of poking this seductive yet temporally impotent button:

Although elevators leave the factory with all their functions ready to work, the manufacturers realize that building managers often choose to disable DOOR CLOSE. Buildings fear trapped limbs and lawsuits. Thus they turn their resident populations into subjects in a Pavlovian experiment in negative feedback. The subjects hunger for something even purer than food: speed.

[…]

How many times will you continue to press a button that does nothing? Do you press elevator call buttons that are already lighted — despite your suspicion that, once the button has been pressed, no amount of further attention will hasten the car’s arrival? Your suspicion is accurate. The computers could instruct elevators to give preference to floors with many calls. But elevator engineers know better than to provide any greater incentive than already exists for repeated pressing of the button. They remember Pavlov. They know what happens to those dogs.

Gleick’s Faster is immeasurably insightful in its entirety and often strikingly prophetic. Complement it with German psychologist Marc Wittmann on the psychology of time, physicist Paul Davies on why we experience it as linear, and T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to the nature of time, then revisit Gleick on the source of Richard Feynman’s genius and the story behind Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants” metaphor.


Published August 11, 2016

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/11/james-gleick-faster/

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