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Faster Lives and Fewer Free Moments

Veena Thomas

Faster, faster, faster.

According to James Gleick, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, life is speeding up. Gleick is the author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, a book on the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of people no longer having free time.

There’s always something that needs to be done, something which could be done, or something which should have been done two weeks ago but which hasn’t been fit into the schedule yet.

Where is this free time going? The Lassie and Leave it To Beaver households of the 1950s seem to have ample amounts of time to spend with each other, visit friends, and read the newspaper. The mothers cooked food every night for the whole family, and everyone ate a relaxed dinner together. Granted, these were TV shows, but it captures a feeling of the era. Popular programs today run more along the lines of Dawson’s Creek, with not a single happy family with both parents living together, and therefore no picture-perfect family dinners. Instead, everyone runs around with their own activities, grabs a bite to eat at their own convenience, and struggles to balance teenage life with schoolwork and everything else.

If the 1950s were indeed a simpler time than the 1990s, how is this possible? We currently have access to more labor-saving devices than ever before. Machines bake bread for those who have no time to knead their own and let it rise. Microwave ovens make cooking and reheating food easier and faster than ever. Tired working mothers hire housekeepers to clean their houses for them. With such innovations, one would think that everyone would have an abundance of free time to be spent doing absolutely nothing.

But reality doesn’t work that way. Our free time is frittered away, bit by bit, with hardly a second thought. Is it any surprise that the current time pressures placed on society coincide with the Information Age and the advent of the Internet? Each person encounters more information each minute than ever before. Data surrounds us. Each second, we are forced to make decisions incorporating all available information. The proliferation of e-mail changed the way we communicate and imposed obligations on our time. We now refer to postal mail as “snail mail” because of the near-instantaneous transmission of electronic mail. People write far fewer letters now. E-mail is much quicker and doesn’t require a 33-cent stamp and a trip to the post office -- simple demands, but too much to ask for in this day. Before, it might take two weeks or more to receive a response to a letter, due to travel time and waiting for a person to respond. Now, if someone waits over two weeks to respond to an e-mail, almost certainly they will receive one of those “Are you alive?” e-mails. We can no longer hide from others; with e-mail, we lose our right to respond at our leisure.

What about the Internet? The “Information Superhighway” has become such a clichÉ now, yet considered, it rings true. Information rushes toward us at unprecedented speeds. We need faster computers and faster connections in order to keep up. The Internet can be an amazing resource of information. Almost any piece of information can be found instantly, day or night, without a trip to the library or other old ways of researching.

But as useful as the Internet is, it also contributes to our information overload. Some webpages are notoriously bad. Any schmuck with an internet connection can put up his very own homepage and rant and rave about anything he likes, perpetrate misinformation, and slander others. People link to their friends, who in turn link back to them, who link to dozens of other webpages. Some people post their diaries on the web, giving anyone access to their inner thoughts and telling others more than they ever wanted to know about very personal details.

Others simply post useless webpages, contributing to the glut. I recently stumbled upon a webpage called “Where’s George?” <>

This site answers the question which has been burning on your mind since you last spent a dollar bill: where does it go? Who had the dollar bill after you? How far has it traveled? Has it been hurt or damaged in any way since it left your hands? If you care about any of these questions, then “Where’s George?” is for you.

The site allows you to enter in the serial numbers of any bills which come your way, along with information about where you obtained it, its condition, and any other information that you want to let others know. Users are supposed to write the website address on the bills they enter into the tracking system, and then to wait for a “hit,” when someone else visits the website and logs in the same bill. According to the website, there is about a 3.5 percent hit rate on bills entered, though it also reports that “we’ve had people who have entered more than 1,000 bills before getting a hit.” Over 90,000 people have registered at this website so far, and more than a million bills have been entered.

And we wonder why we have no free time.