You needn’t spend long in a city where the honking of car horns is out of control – New York or Delhi, say – before you notice something: in practical terms, almost every honk is pointless. Every driver is stuck in the same traffic, with the same desire to make progress and the same inability to do so. Surely no honker believes their honk will make the critical difference and get things moving; honking simply provides drivers with brief cathartic relief from their fury that things aren’t moving faster. This is the modern epidemic of impatience in a pure form. You want reality to be one way, but it stubbornly insists on being the other way, so you make a loud noise to express your anger – thereby ensuring everyone in earshot is annoyed, so at least you don’t have to feel so alone.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Faster: The Acceleration Of Just About Everything, by the science writer James Gleick, which first introduced me to a truth that has grown truer in the decades since: the faster life moves, the worse impatience gets. Rationally, it shouldn’t be that way. In a world of dishwashers and jet engines, time ought to feel more expansive, thanks to all the hours freed up for more meaningful matters. But, of course, that’s not how it feels. Instead, we grow more agitated with even the smallest delay. As the speed with which we feel our desires ought to be gratified tends toward zero, every wait becomes an affront. If you knew a journey would take for ever – because you were a medieval cattle drover or a passenger on a 19th-century transatlantic steamship, maybe – you wouldn’t mind so much. It’s because cars can move so fast that it’s annoying when they don’t.
Rereading Gleick today is unsettling because he was writing before smartphones and broadband became ubiquitous, and the trends he identifies have since reached warp speed. Online, it’s easy to feel independent from the constraints of reality – as if you could be anyone, know everything and visit any location on the planet, all instantaneously. So every time you realise you aren’t, it feels worse. The problem isn’t limited to impatience. The rage that’s often unleashed on social media towards dissenting opinions betrays the same indignation: how dare anyone challenge my power to lay down the law? We live as if we are just on the verge of becoming gods, but never quite get there. No wonder we take it badly when reminded we never will.
All this helps explain the true appeal of what is misleadingly called the “slow movement” – typified by those “slow TV” programmes featuring the whole journey of the 830 Dalesman bus trundling across North Yorkshire, or the seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Why do we call these “slow”? The Dalesman doesn’t dawdle, and Norwegian trains move fast. We’re responding to something deeper than slowness: the idea of letting things take the time they take.
This is what I’m forgetting when I get antsy waiting for a toddler who is intently studying the hinges of a neighbour’s front gate: not that “slow is better”, but that reality has its own speed – sometimes slow, sometimes fast – and railing against the facts is a foolish and self-defeating way to use up your life.
In 1999’s Faster, James Gleick examines the near-universal illness of “hurry sickness”, and how our increasingly efficient society makes us prone to greater impatience and boredom.