The speed of life

We live in a world obsessed with speed, where more than ever time is money. But is faster really bet

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three. That was how they used to bring the good news from Ghent to Aix. Now good news, as well as bad, travels rather faster. No more pounding hooves and big, swinging Dircks. Instead, we have electrons. It's what, in California, they call bitspit. Californians are so preoccupied by the movements of winged chariots that they even have an expression to describe those tortuous moments when a computer goes through its hesitant booting sequence and a little animated graphic narrates progress: greybar time. This is the frustrating moment when you are committed, but disenfranchised.

The modern world is obsessed with, even defined by, econ-omies of time. A waste of time is a scandal so you must save it and spend it wisely. Work ethic wonks from Samuel Smiles (Self-Help) to Elbert Hubbard (A Message to Garcia) have emphasised this. I doubt whether they knew that in Old English "spede" meant prosperity. "God speed" was not an invocation for a go-faster deity, but a wish for wealth.

You must save time. You save time by going faster: every technical, aesthetic, financial, economic and philosophical consideration of the industrial and post-industrial eras assumes that faster is better. Metaphors of time are mis-cegenated with metaphors of money and value. You don't believe me? Time is money. This is just one of many semantic associations. Karl Marx described the clock as the first automatic machine applied to practical purposes. In 1904 Bell Telephone was already advertising ways in which its phones would help business save time, which is another way of saying "make money".

I am making money writing this in the back of a cab and I have just seen a new Hewlett Packard advertisement on the side of another taxi. These computers, the copyline claims, "make money faster". Here's a richly resonant double entendre. We want to get rich more quickly, and one way of doing this is to send money rushing around the planet, attracting interest, percentages and other add-ons during its journey. In computer language speed is a synonym for power. Gordon Moore of Intel said chip density would double every 18 months. This brings with it a calculus of speed. Timex will now sell you a watch with more brain power than a first-generation PC. An ordinary BMW is more intelligent than Nasa's Apollo spacecraft.

Doing things faster helps us save time. Aldous Huxley said that speed is the only novel sensation of the 20th century. Even the experience of flight had been known in the 18th century, but the boggling first-order differential of going faster and faster is something only we know about. There are very few people around who have never travelled at 500mph or more. The Californian graphic designer Saul Bass, whose portfolio (ironically) includes the titles for Around the World in Eighty Days as well as Walk on the Wild Side and the corporate identities for Warner Communications, AT&T and United Airlines, used habitually to set his watch 15 minutes fast to give him that speed-related adrenaline rush about being late.

Metaphors of speed influence culture. The methamphet-amine drugs that turbo-charge your brain are also known as speed. The late photographer Terence Donovan had a signature catchphrase to indicate his assent to a proposition. "Speed o' light, darlin'," is what he used to say. In literature, Nathalie Sarraute invented these dots . . . . which she called points de suspension. Tom Wolfe used a similar device to express the urgency of his descriptions. It took a century to get from the dry-plate camera to television, but the journey from video to fax to e-mail and ISDN has taken less than 20 years. Polaroid's "instant" photography, already badly injured by high-street photo-processors who turn around films in an hour, was finished off by digital which is, as it were, even faster than instantaneous.

"Nothing is permanent except change" was Heraclitus's view of the world, or one of them. This condition of continuous change is what defines cultural activity. The very word "culture" suggests growth and evolution. In this constant progress there is also a sense of melancholy. But speed is exciting, too. In his 1905 essay on infant sexuality, Freud explained that children, especially boys, get particular excitation from sensations of movement: the mid-century childhood professional fantasy of wanting to be an engine driver may have its source in this relationship between Eros and velocity.

Certainly specialists in sports medicine understand the effects that velocity and, more important, rapid changes in velocity - or acceleration, a second-order differential - can have. Severe acceleration leads to a complete lack of vision (black-out) or restricted vision (grey-out). On the way to black or grey, heart-rate always increases under the effect of positive g loadings, and researchers have found that racing drivers' pulses are often in the 160-plus range. The normal rate is nearer 70. In acceleration, as blood pools in the legs, less is delivered to the heart and, what with one thing and another, you feel high.

Such is the fascination of speed that marketing men - and not just in the automobile industry - have made it their business to equate speed with success, thereby creating as a by-product one of the most enduring and least endearing myths of the century: the contribution of owning a fast car to personal aggregates of sexual activity. One interpretation of the sexual character of fast cars is that you are having intercourse with a machine. Karl Ludvigsen, in his book At Speed, observed: "For one who enjoys motor-racing there is no satisfaction that surpasses that of a perfect sweep through a difficult turn . . . the strain in the neck muscles against hard acceleration. These are joys that the racing driver shares with no one because he cannot. They can only be experienced." Speed has an erotic as well as technical character.

But other applications of speed have a crucial influence on the way we live. For about three decades after 1945 the Japanese devoted most of their considerable ingenuity and organisational energy to process efficiency, rather than innovation. With the help of American efficiency experts, who owed their craft to Frederick Winslow Taylor's time-and-motion studies, the Japanese perfected just-in-time inventory control. This endowed them with an investment of factories so bewilderingly efficient that creativity actually comes out of the shopfloor. It is like calculus: the Japanese have some brilliant designs not simply because they have brilliant designers, but because they can manufacture anything imaginable in their factories. In Europe even the most advanced manufacturing companies have product life cycles of about eight years. The Japanese motor industry is approaching 24 months and electronic products are, in some cases, down to a matter of weeks. The new industrial divinity is not manufacturing, but speed. Eventually, when the awareness of this reshuffle seeps into culture, the divinity will have idols made in its image. God used to be in the details, but now he's in the fast lane.

In industry, speed influences thought processes. Motorola, world leader in the mobile telephony that has made the world go faster, says that in the manufacturing process doing things fast means you have to get them absolutely right: there's no margin for error. Right now, the most admired company on earth is Dell Computer. Dell is, for instance, the benchmark for Ford, when, say, ten years ago Daimler-Benz might have been the exemplar. As a sign of the times, and an accurate indication of the current preoccupations of industry, Dell is not admired because of its humane social programmes, its design excellence or its technological leadership, but because it has the customer-factory loop speeded up to a blur.

Everywhere you sense speed. Measures of excellence tend to be laboratory-speak for high performance: artificial intelligence is calibrated by the number of instructions per second a machine can handle. Those modems which we'll soon all carry by bio-mechanical implant have performance ratings in baud, another measure of speed. An unanticipated effect of the clunky old video recorder was that it allowed the compression of time so life went faster. We have condensed books and we have opera highlights that save time on all that boring old recitative.

But hang on a minute. Fast food is worse than slow food. Not everything is going faster. Traffic is certainly not, but recent research in the United States has shown that the patterns of coagulation we experience on the roads are, in fact, beautiful diagrams of a more fundamental biological entropy. In low traffic volumes, cars are free; in medium to high traffic, cars become synchronised and then, as we all know, speed stops and we become congested.

Speed is not always what it appears. Sometimes speed is a fraud and a deception. Assuming only that it can escape congestion, a sedate Ford Fiesta will travel 10,000 miles and last about a year without any failures or maintenance. The rather higher performance American F-18 fighter aircraft has, on the other hand, an MTBF (mean time between failures) of a mere 2.2 hours. The same aeroplane requires 28.2 man hours of maintenance for every hour in flight.

The late modernist adventure with its labour-saving devices and its streamlining depended on philosophical notions that faster was better. Take the microwave oven, developed to save time in the kitchen. But the kitchen is one of the very best places to spend time rather than save it. Or take telephone speed-dialling. As James Gleick points out in Faster, you would have to make a heck of a lot of phone calls before you recouped the time saved in actually programming the speed-dialler in the first place.

Speed is about limits, and I don't mean 30 miles per hour in built-up areas. Quantum is a misunderstood word. A quantum leap is not a very large one, but the smallest defined and measurable step it is possible to make. Athletic and motor-sport performance are, some people believe, reaching their outer limits when improvements can be made only in quantums. The limits of the brain, however, are far from exploited, or even understood. While the fastest talkers can manage about 150 words per minute, we can understand mechanically quickened speech up to about four times that rate.

Do we really want to go faster and faster? I'm not so sure. American cars are full of cup-holders so you can save time and have a styrofoam vat of industrial cappuccino on the move: one particular US minivan has 14 of these devices. The new Alfa Romeo 166, in contrast, has none. Why, I wondered, is this? Well, no Italian in his right mind would want to save time in a caffe. He would like to spend as much time as possible there, slouched over his Gazzetta dello Sport. Italian cars are for driving. Italian bars are for sitting in.

And then there is the principle about the quality of communication being related to the onerousness of the medium. I don't care what they say, rapid e-mail may have a technologically forced style of its own, but it does not lend itself to the subtleties and nuances we aspire to in literature. To write with a fountain pen requires rather more premeditation. It was the time-absorbing clumsiness of his favoured Leica that required Henri Cartier-Bresson to compose his pictures so carefully. I don't say it's never going to happen, but e-mail has not yet found its poets nor digital its artists.

Towards the end of his life Marcel Duchamp was asked by an American journalist why, having revolutionised western art, he did not exploit his advantage more. Why, the journalist wanted to know, had Duchamp spent the last 40 years of his life doing nothing much but playing chess very slowly? Duchamp memorably replied, "My capital is time, not money." Again, that semantic association with wealth. Tell that to Hewlett Packard. Tell them this, too: slow down, you move too fast, you've got to make the morning last. Feeling groovy? I don't know about you, but Marcel Duchamp certainly is. I mean was.

Stephen Bayley's "Labour Camp - the failure of style over substance" is published by Pan at £6.99

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality