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FOR YOUR HEALTH: Hurry Sickness
by Joanna Coles

It's the disease that defines a decade

Do you rap your knuckles as you wait for the microwave to zap your instant coffee? Do you frantically stab the "door close" button in the elevator? Do you eat lunch on the go?

Do you answer the phone while reading your e-mail, and answer your e-mail while watching television?

Then you're probably suffering from "Hurry Sickness," according to James Gleick, the author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything.

Gleick describes "Hurry Sickness" as a disease that defines our decade. (:Those suffering from severe cases may even find themselves punching 88 seconds into the microwave clock instead of 90 because it's faster to tap the same digit twice.)

"Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers - they all run faster now than ever before," Gleick says. "And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel."

How can this be? How can we feel hassled in the kitchen when we have a dishwasher to take the strain? ("A dishwasher saves barely a minute in cleanup time because people needlessly scour the dishes before placing them in the machine. Or they take advantage of the convenience to use more dishes.") How can we feel impatient when we can e-mail information in less time than it takes to lick a stamp? ("Everybody who has e-mail complains about the amount they get.") Are we victims? Or are we perpetrators of the crime of haste? Are we living at high speed with athleticism and vigour, or are we stricken by Hurry Sickness? It is these contradictions that Gleick, a science writer for the New York Times and author of the best-selling Chaos, set out to explore.

"I'm a multi-tasker. I'm the guy standing in front of the microwave wondering what I can get accomplished in 90 seconds," he says guiltily. "Have you noticed that television is becoming a multi-tasking activity, like radio? We are no longer satisfied just watching TV; we've got to be watching with a remote control in our hand. It's on but we're also at the computer. Even TV isn't enough any more to keep our brains occupied."

Which leads us to the next question that Gleick has been busily worrying over. Technology has speeded up our lives, but are we equipped to cope with the pace? "One answer is no, obviously we are not equipped to deal with such an increase in pace," Gleick says. "There are all sorts of diseases we seem to have as a result of this rushing around. I talk about Hurry Sickness but you could say we are collectively manic. Or that as a culture, we have attention deficit disorder."

"There are a lot of ways in which we are clearly biologically constrained. Certain diseases, for example, you can't heal just because you're in a hurry. You have to wait."

"A lot of things have an inherent pace and there is no reason why our brains are any different."

"But there was a feeling, a bit of folk wisdom (that) started popping up earlier this century, that we only use 10 per cent of our brains. Well, at first that seems absurd. How would we manage to evolve? But it's clear that that feeling has to be coming from somewhere."

So what does it mean?

"It seems clear we are using more of our brains than our ancestors did. Our ancestors were bored a lot of the time. They had great moments of excitement, like war. But most of the time their brains were underutilized. Now we are using more than ever before."

And technology is helping us to keep on the hop. We pack our pockets with bleepers and cellphones and Palm

Pilots - the latest model can summon the Internet as you walk down the street.

Technological miracles have also left us feeling exhausted, harried and under pressure as the faxes and e-mails roll in, creating a bogus sense of urgency.

Gleick argues that everyone is feeling the pressure, ratcheted up by the ferocious speed of the Internet. Far from being liberated, we become even more impatient - another symptom of Hurry Sickness.

"This feeling of impatience we get, grabbing at one piece of information after another - well, we're doing this faster than we would have dreamt possible even 10 years ago. But if we stopped to think about it, we would realize we feel irritable with how slow things are."

It doesn't help, either, that time has become a negative status symbol: The less time, the more prestige.

"When two people negotiate a lunch date, they must be careful not to concede a more open calendar," he mocks.

As a result, we have changed our expectations of what is possible, what is normal and what is fun.

"Look at One-Minute Bedtime Stories," he adds sadly. "What kind of confusion does that represent? Yet there is an entire series of these books and they sell."It's hard to think what the extra 10 minutes saved by not reading a longer bedtime story could be used for."

- The Times of London

Turf Line News February/March 2000

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