James Gleick: The Chaos of Time

June 12th, 1999 | Category: Interviews

James Gleick is one of the best science writers alive today. His body of work includes the phenomenal Chaos: Making a New Science, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (both of which were Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists in the United States) and countless articles for New York Times Magazine.

He just finished his next book titled Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything which is due out in September.

Roy Christopher: Could you preface your new book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything? In light of this, Moore’s Law and other recent concepts of time — such as Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis’ Clock of the Long Now — where do you stand on the seeming elasticity of time and the general population’s perception thereof (where responsibility, coping and the eventual circumstances are concerned)?

James Gleick: I guess I’m going to have to learn how to compress my view of all this into a few words. Somehow it was easier to ramble on for the length of a book. We know life is speeding up; Moore’s Law just makes it official, in one small domain. We know we’re surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don’t quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened — our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember. That’s the (worthy) motivation for the Clock of the Long Now, I think.

Anyway, my book is an attempt to weave many different threads together into a kind of whole. I spent a lot of time doing old-fashioned reporting, hanging out at places like the U.S. military’s Directorate of Time, television postproduction studios, airline control centers, and so forth — places where the compression of time really matters. Without giving anything away, I guess I can say that I found myself recoiling at the notion that we’re somehow just victims. We make choices, I feel. We haven’t always been able to work through the consequences of every choice, but we’re not stupid, either.

RC: Having been online longer than most, do you find the ever-increasing corporate encroachment on the Web saddening, or does it bother you in the least?

JG: Well, both. Mostly I just enjoy the explosion of connectivity, the Web penetrating into every part of modern life. It’s depressing to see banner ads on every page and to endure all the scummy get-rich-quick junk mail, but there’s no reason to expect the Internet to be free of the vices that afflict the off-line world. Sure, I’m shocked, shocked, that there’s commercialism online, just as I’m shocked that there’s pederasty and racism online. I wish I could go to a ballgame without seeing any advertising, too.

RC: Do you follow the Open Source software movement, and if so, do you have any thoughts on its brewing battle with Goliath (Microsoft)?

JG: Sure, I think the Open Source movement is great, and more or less the world’s only hope. Software is just bits, after all, and the marginal cost seems to be pretty close to zero. So either you accept that, or you try to win as a monopoly. Unfortunately, books are just bits, too. I hope when the dust settles there will be a way for software developers and writers to make a living.

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