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Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 1999 /28 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Why is patience no
longer a virtue? --
I WAS WALKING past a hard-surfaced playing field the other day, where two teams of boys 10 years old or younger were engaged in a hockey-like game; the boys were wearing those boots with rollers on the bottoms.

The goalie for one of the teams made a nice save on one of his opponents' shots -- and before the child could even pause to savor his moment of achievement, a coach called to him: "Great stop! And I think your dad got it on video!"

The father -- standing by the side with a hand-held video camera -- gave his son the high sign. Yep. Got your good play right here, inside the camera. Instant memories -- no waiting.

When they got home, they undoubtedly would slip the videocassette into the playback machine, and there it would be -- today's triumph, already memorialized. Which is the way things must be now: quick, on-demand, no delays allowed. How much have we speeded up our lives? So much so that any pause at all feels not like a rest, but like an intrusion.

Social theoretician David Shenk, in his forthcoming book "The End of Patience," sums all of this up quite cogently. "What if I told you that there's no such thing as a fast (computer) modem, and there never will be?" Shenk writes. "That's because quickness has disappeared from our culture. We now only experience degrees of slowness. With conveniences like the fax machine, e-mail, FedEx, beepers and so on, we've managed to compress time to such an extent that we're now painfully aware of every second that we wait for anything."

Which might do a lot in explaining so-called "road rage." We now find ourselves in a culture where we are told we can go anywhere instantaneously, with a tap on a keyboard. And it's true: Click the button, and you're there -- seeing visions from half a world away, picking up bits of information that scholars in previous generations might have spent months trying to hunt down.

We have become accustomed to this in an astonishingly short span of time. And once you become used to having what you want in a second, then 20 seconds feels like an eternity: If the computer is slow, and those 20 seconds pass, you sense your blood pressure rising. So once you get away from your computer screen, and are back into what used to be referred to as the real world. . . .

Well, a traffic jam, a rush-hour bottleneck, can feel like a personal affront. And apparently it does, to some people -- they fly out of control, they commit acts of mayhem stunning and puzzling to people who read about them. Of all the factors this has been blamed on -- ready access to weapons, a desensitization to violence because of constant media images -- one societal factor seldom discussed is a desensitization not to sex or violence, but to the concept of time. Time -- which our culture keeps trying to save -- has, paradoxically, become a meaningless notion. We've saved so much of it that it has no true definition.

This may have started with the first McDonald's restaurant -- "fast food" was translated to "good idea," without much consideration of whether anything was really being gained by speeding up the meal process. It was all part of the oft-cited "instant gratification" of the first McDonald's era -- but instant now literally does mean instant, and a fast-food place never feels genuinely fast these days, and often maddeningly slow.

As David Shenk points out, the computer technology that allows a person to easily click from the page he's looking at to some related computer page somewhere else has altered the very meaning of discourse: "With hypertext, endings are irrelevant -- because no one ever gets to one. Reading gives way to surfing, a meandering, peripatetic journey through a maze of threads. . . .

"Did you ever ride in an elevator with someone so impatient, the person just kept smacking one of the floor buttons over and over? We're all becoming that person, a culture of restless button smackers."

Why has this happened? Why do we do it?

Because we can. As easy as it is to lament, say, the fading of traditional encyclopedias -- the big multivolume sets that filled entire shelves and invited leisurely study -- those who do the lamenting may be just as likely as anyone else to conduct their research on their computer screens, because it provides at least the illusion of requiring less effort. Those who most eloquently describe the disorienting quality of our give-it-to-me-right-now society are not immune from impatience when there is even a momentary holdup in the action.

And the hardest question here?

You can find it in the words of the old-time traffic cops, when they would stop someone for going 30 in a 25-mile-per-hour zone:

"What's your hurry?"

Well . . . does anyone have an answer for that one?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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