Slowness rage is not confined to the sidewalk, of course. Slow drivers, slow Internet, slow grocery lines—they all drive us crazy. Even the opening of this article may be going on a little too long for you. So I’ll get to the point. Slow things drive us crazy because the fast pace of society has warped our sense of timing. Things that our great-great-grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend. Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the Twitter age.
Once upon a time, cognitive scientists tell us, patience and impatience had an evolutionary purpose. They constituted a yin and yang balance, a finely tuned internal timer that tells when we’ve waited too long for something and should move on. When that timer went buzz, it was time to stop foraging at an unproductive patch or abandon a failing hunt.
But that good thing is gone. The fast pace of society has thrown our internal timer out of balance. It creates expectations that can’t be rewarded fast enough—or rewarded at all. When things move more slowly than we expect, our internal timer even plays tricks on us, stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay.
Make no mistake: Society continues to pick up speed like a racer on Bonneville Speedway. In his book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, Hartmut Rosa informs us that the speed of human movement from pre-modern times to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications has skyrocketed by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century, and data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.
It shouldn't be any surprise that technology has amplified our impatience. Tech companies were among the first to measure and quantify the monetary value of time. Early on at Amazon, we did an A/B test and realized that every additional millisecond of load time in search meant some users would just abandon their shopping session and bounce. The same applied to web pages. I've read that Google learned the same when testing their search results.
I've been listening to more and more podcasts, and to try and finish more of them in my limited free time, I've been dialing up playback speed. At first I was at 1.25X, then 1.5X, and now I can almost listen at 2X and still understand what folks are saying (contrary to popular belief, all decent podcast apps can do this playback without altering the pitch; when I playback at 2X, Marc Maron doesn't sounds like a chipmunk). The unpleasant side effect, though, is that everyone in the real world seems to speak way......too......slowly. I sometimes find myself losing concentration mid-sentence.
I'm in Hawaii for a wedding, and the wifi on the United flight over was the slowest I've ever used on a plane, and I could feel my blood pressure rising as I hit refresh and reload buttons like a rat in a Skinner box. Yes, I've seen the Louis CK clip about this, and yes, this is a problem of entitlement of the highest order, but it isn't going away, it's worsening.
At its worst, impatience can lead to violence. Few sights make me as pessimistic about humanity as a driver exploding in near apoplectic road rage over a delay of a few seconds. I've seen grown adults slam on their brakes, get out of their cars, and engage in fistfights with another driver over the slightest of inconveniences. Forget the zombie apocalypse, simply failing to start moving immediately when the light turns green can reduce civilization to Lord of the Flies in an instant.
The article notes that our internal timers may be overclocked, leading to an acceleration of the vicious cycle of impatience --> rage --> impulsive behavior.
Recent research points to a possibility that could make this cycle worse. As my slow-walking friend and I strolled at a snail’s pace down the street, I started to fear that we would be so late for our reservation that we would miss it. But when we got to the restaurant, we were no more than a couple minutes behind. My sense of time had warped.
Why? Rage may sabotage our internal timer. Our experience of time is subjective—it can fly by in a flash, or it can drag out seemingly forever. And strong emotions affect our sense of time most of all, explains Claudia Hammond in her 2012 book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. “Just as Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that there is no such thing as absolute time, neither is there an absolute mechanism for measuring time in the brain,” she writes.
Time stretches when we are frightened or anxious, Hammond explains. An arachnophobe overestimates the time spent in a room with a spider; a fearful novice skydiver, the time spent hurtling to Earth. People in car accidents report watching events unfold in slow motion. But it’s not because our brains speed up in those situations. Time warps because our experiences are so intense. Every moment when we are under threat seems new and vivid. That physiological survival mechanism amplifies our awareness and packs more memories than usual into a short time interval. Our brains are tricked into thinking more time has passed.
On top of that, our brains—in particular, the insular cortex, linked to motor skills and perception—may measure the passing of time in part by integrating many different signals from our bodies, like our heartbeats, the tickle of a breeze on our skin, and the burning heat of rage. In this model, the brain judges time by counting the number of signals it is getting from the body. So if the signals come faster, over a given interval the brain will count more signals, and so it will seem that the interval has taken longer than it actually has.
[As an aside, I do love the metaphor for how our bodies measure time, using natural cues like heartbeats, breaths, and other natural cues of cadence.]
With devices like mobile phones and tablets and ubiquitous network connectivity filling every empty moment in our lives, however brief, like water into cracks in the ground, we may be past the point of no return on our ability to live in the moment. Often today I find myself magnetized by people who can sit and chat with me without glancing at their phone every few minutes; they are an increasingly rare species.
This next generation of kids will grow up with such devices from the moment they can handle one; will any of them escape addiction to the screens around them, or will they regard long face-to-face conversation as an antiquated tradition? Perhaps those who can eschew their phone for long stretches and give their companions their full attention will be seen as superhuman. I've read so many times that Bill Clinton's most amazing gift is his ability to make anyone, no matter how humble, feel like the absolute center of his attention.
Still, I'm not optimistic. What happens to our impulse control when technologies like virtual reality tempt us every moment with the possibility of going anywhere, experiencing anything, instantaneously? Technology is just beginning to expose the shadow prices of living in the real world, and the profit motive and Moore's Law are working in favor of just one side.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go meditate. Using an app on my iPhone, of course.