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The Pleasure and Pain of Speed

Are we willing to speed our lives up indefinitely?

How long is now? According to Google, not much less than 250 milliseconds. In 2008, the company presented a research report that examined ideal “latency” times for search results. It concluded “that a response time over 1 second may interrupt a user’s flow of thought.” The ideal latency for a search engine, said Google, was right at the quarter-second mark.

Which seems safe enough, because psychologists have long estimated that it takes us humans at least a quarter of a second to do much of anything. William James, wondering more than a century ago what is “the minimum amount of duration which we can distinctly feel,” had it pegged around 50 milliseconds. James cited the seminal work of Austrian physiologist Sigmund Exner, who observed that people shown sets of flashing sparks stopped being able to recognize them as distinct entities around 0.044 seconds. This “now” time increases as you go up the ladder of complexity. 

To do more than barely register an image as a stimulus, to actually see something for what it is, the neuroscientist Christof Koch notes in The Quest for Consciousness, requires an average of a quarter of a second (when we are told what to look for, recognition drops to 150 milliseconds). Google’s target response time is just on Koch’s cusp of perceivable consciousness. From there, went the implication of Google’s report, lay a sloping temporal despond: More slow, less happy. 

A quarter of a second, then, is a biological bright line limiting the speed at which we can experience life. And the life that we are creating for ourselves, with the help of technology, is rushing towards that line. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications (a revolution, Rosa points out, that came on the heels of transport) rose by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century. Data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now. But is our ever-quickening life an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?


Whatever protests we have made to the march of modernity, notes the historian Stephen Kern, “the world opted for speed again and again.” If Kern is right, and we do like it fast, then there is a natural place to look for evidence: film. It is consumed for pleasure, and therefore a direct indication of our tastes; and also readily quantified, recorded, compared, and reexamined.

Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin has suggested that film (among other things) does reveal a love of faster cognitive processing—in other words, that thinking faster is correlated with “positive affect.” When she and her colleagues showed clips of I Love Lucy—both at normal speed and slightly sped up—to subjects, they reported feeling happier while watching the faster version (in a delicious turn, the episode in question was the famous Modern Times homage in which Lucy gets a job in a candy factory whose conveyor belt begins to accelerate out of control).

Test participants preferred to watch sped-up versions of “I Love Lucy.”Getty Images


Our modern viewing habits are nothing if not consistent with Pronin’s conclusion. If we take the human “now” to be, metaphorically, an individual cut of a film—a temporal interlude representing some kind of aesthetic consciousness—life is getting vertiginously fast. In the 2007 thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, as the critic Michael Phillips has noted, the set piece in which Bourne must dispatch a rival sent to kill him lasts approximately 109 seconds. From the time he crashes through the window to when he finally subdues the assassin, there are roughly 122 cuts—less than a second per cut. Still well above the threshold of visual perception, but in filmic terms, it is the kind of pacing we once associated with, at its extreme, the visually and psychically jarring “montage” film-within-a-film in Alan Pakula’s 1974 conspiracy film The Parallax View. “The miracle,” writes Phillips of Bourne, “is that it’s not simply sickening to watch.”

As James Cutting, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, has noted, where average shot lengths during the “classical Hollywood age” timed in around the languorous 10-second mark, today’s films are lucky to hit the five-second mark. The average shot length for the entire running time of Quantum of Solace was 1.7 seconds. 

The hyperkinetic nature of Hollywood films has been taken as symptomatic of a larger crisis of attention. In the post-MTV age, the general argument goes, we have lost our ability to endure the long shot, the slow dissolve, the sustained monologue. “Intensified continuity” is film theorist David Bordwell’s phrase for this heightened experience, which includes not only shorter cuts but, among other things, more frequent close ups. “Techniques that 1940s directors reserved for moments of shock and suspense,” Bordwell observes, “are the stuff of normal scenes today.”

Google’s target response time is just on Koch’s cusp of perceivable consciousness.

There is just one thing that complicates this story: At the height of the silent film era, shot lengths were about as short as they are today. Long before MTV, or even television itself—a time when other indices of life were less rapid—audiences were being exposed to the same rapid-fire imagery they are today. Cutting suggests that modern films, rather than being exemplars of some winnowing of attention, may simply be returning towards some natural kind of pacing, featuring “shot patterns that mimic the attention patterns endogenous in our minds.” 

While there are pragmatic reasons Hollywood likes shorter cuts—they are easier to edit, for one—Cutting says they also seem perfectly engineered to capture human attention. “Every time there’s a cut in a film,” he says, “it forces you to reallocate your attention.” With each new scene, the eyes typically move toward the center of the screen: What have we here? It is a virtually involuntary process.

We handle these quick cuts well, at least for a time, perhaps because they mimic our own vision processes. Koch notes that there is a reason that when we walk through the world, it does not resemble the jittery scene it would if we were to film that walk through a video camera. We have, in effect, our own steady cam. “During the time your eye is in transition, vision is partially shut down,” he writes. “This eliminates blur and the feeling that the world out there is jerked around every fraction of a second.” In the “running movie” of our everyday life, says Koch, there is a kind of director’s cut that is “missing” some 60 to 90 minutes of footage every day, through vision lost to blinks or the eye movements called saccades. According to Cutting, director John Huston believed that “a cut is a surrogate for the real-world combination of saccade and blink.” But the brain fuses these quick cuts together into a seamless whole.

There appears to be something intrinsically appealing about a sped-up subjective experience, and it is certainly one we appear to have chosen when it comes to film. But there is a broader question to ask: Having had this experience, what kind of feeling are we left with?


Here is where what Rosa calls the “television paradox” comes into play. While we are actually watching it, television (or movies), “displays all the features of short experiential time,” writes Rosa—intense action, emotional engagement, all those quick cuts, and so on. Time flies by. But once the show is over, “the remembered time rapidly shrinks.” Rather than seeming long in retrospect, as the classic psychological model has it, much of it vanishes. “Decontextualized” and “de-sensualized,” (i.e., we don’t touch, smell, or taste it), Rosa argues, there is little to hang on to after the fact. You binge-watch an entire season in a heady, compressed two-day period, and then what? As Rosa notes, studies have shown that people “express higher satisfaction during the activity of watching TV than after.” 

Film and TV are not the only areas where this sort of thing is happening. A useful microcosm of the nature of acceleration is the slot machine, studied by MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll in her book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Schüll explains that there has been a gradual and consistent process over the past several decades to speed up play on the slot machine: The mechanical handle was dropped in favor of a button. Cumbersome cash payouts (which might disrupt a player’s “flow”) were scrapped for computerized credits. Putting in money was also done away with (no more fumbling for loose change). Mechanical reels, limited by physics, were replaced by “virtual reels,” which players could stop early if they wished. The ability to place a dizzying array of bets across several games at once was added. All of this temporal intensification, notes Schüll, had a curious (if desired) effect: Players actually stayed on the machines longer (“time on device,” rather than money, is how executives think about successful slots). As players play faster, so too are there more discrete episodes—“this constant beginning,” she writes, “that is discontinuous with all previous beginnings”—which themselves become less memorable, less chronological

The modern slot machine has been engineered to encourage quick play.Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock.com

The ultimate goal here, of course, is to stoke the desire of the player to win. Research into what is called “positive approach motivation” has found that when people are in an “appetitive state,” they perceive time to be shorter (in order to help them pursue goals like food or water longer). The effect, argue psychologists Philip Gable and Bryan Poole in Psychological Science, goes both ways: “A perceived shortening of time causes stimuli to be perceived as more appetitive.” Faster slot machines keep players engaged. Similarly, the constant anticipation of the newest—and increasingly frequent—releases of any number of consumer products keep us hungry, and make time feel as if it’s moving faster.

In fact, the accelerated slot machine is a metaphor for what Rosa sees happening in modern life. Even as time-saving technology arrives to pare tedious tasks, there seems to be ever more to do. “We don’t have any time,” he writes, “although we’ve gained far more than we needed before.” Consider email. If writing and sending an email only takes half the time of writing a letter, says Rosa, one should be gaining time. But what happened to the time surplus? It has simply gone into the writing and reading of more emails. 

Rosa says the “technical” acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a “social” acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a “compression of episodes of action”—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning. What is the temporal experience of reading several hundred Tweets versus one article, and what is remembered afterwards?

Referring to the theorist Walter Benjamin, Rosa argues that the greater the number of “lived events per unit of time,” the less likely it is these are to transform into “experiences.” Benjamin argued that we tried to capture these moments with physical souvenirs, including photographs, which could later be accessed in an attempt to reinvoke memories. Of course, this process has accelerated, and the physical souvenir is now as quaint as the physical photograph. In Instagram, we have even developed a kind of souvenir of the present: An endless photography of moments suggests that we do not trust that they will actually become moments, as if we were photographing not to know that the event happened, but that it is happening.


In his book Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson suggests that we have long desired to bring technology up to our speed of thought. Nineteenth-century libraries, he notes, were overwhelmed by increasing numbers of books and patrons. “The slow speed,” he writes, “was not just a physical nuisance, but a cognitive one.” And so Melvil Dewey’s ordering schema arrived to hasten the connection between reader and the object of their search. Today, Google’s engineers deploy their algorithmic powers and the processing power of computer clusters to bring us results at the thresholds of our perception. The technology is eminently useful, and exactly what we’ve wanted all along.

We’ve also long been increasing our “transcriptional fluency”—essentially how fast we can write. That’s because writing itself gets in the way of thinking. “For novice and developing writers,” notes The SAGE Handbook of Writing Development, “the demands of handwriting and spelling and writers’ relative linguistic inexperience use up valuable capacity in working memory, which hinders cognitive attention to more sophisticated aspects of text creation.” The more we write, the more handwriting and spelling become automatic, the faster and presumably more thoughtful we get. But what about when technology stands as a bottleneck? Thompson notes that the act of note-taking was not so easy in the age of a technology like the fountain pen. Even pencils were considered so laborious, he notes, some educators suggested having early-20th century students use manual typewriters in class. “The faster you can write, the more complete your notes,” he says, “and studies show students with more complete notes tend to do much, much better on tests.” You want to, in other words, be able to write fast enough to keep up with what you are thinking. 

Modern films, rather than being exemplars of some winnowing of attention, may simply be returning towards some natural kind of pacing.

As we have shifted from manual typewriters to electric to, finally, digital tools, he suggests that technological speed bump has been eroding. He cites the research of Stanford University literary scholar Andrea Lunsford, who has examined freshmen entrance essays from 1917 until the present. While grammatical error rates have stayed the same, the length and complexity of the essays have dramatically increased. “It’s not that the kids of 1917 were stupider,” says Thompson.1 “It’s just that their tools were getting in the way of their thought.”

Recent research suggests that there is plenty of acceleration left for us to squeeze out of life. There is evidence, for example, that we can process audio information far faster than we are routinely exposed to it. One study into “compressed speech” found that students’ ability to comprehend audio text did not begin to fall off until well above 300 words per minute—roughly double what they normally heard. The bottleneck is human speech: The most rapid-fire talkers begin to flame out around 200 words per minute. 

William James and his 50-millisecond mark for perceiving distinct events may, too, soon look antiquated. In a recent study by M.I.T.’s Mary Potter and colleagues, subjects were able to identify images that they had been exposed to for just 13 milliseconds, even when they had not been told in advance what images to expect. Whether we are actually getting faster, or our technology for measuring the brain is improving, these results point to new possibilities for speed. And when our brains’ own speedometers do saturate, there will be tools promising to speed the brain to keep up with technology. Some are emerging even today. The foc.us headset, for example, uses tDCS (Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation)—i.e., electricity—to, as it claims, “make your synapses fire faster.”

That we enjoy accelerated time, and pay a price for it, is clear. The ledger of benefits and costs may be impossible to balance, or even to compute. As the sociologist John Tomlinson writes in his book The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, speed “offers both pleasures and pains, exhilarations and stresses, emancipation and domination.” These are often “so intertwined that it seems impossible, as individuals, to say whether an increasing pace of life is, in essence, a good or a bad thing.” But it may be that the most salient feature of accelerating time is not pleasure or pain, but that it is useful, and that we are willing to go a long way for a little bit of extra utility.


Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects. His most recent book is The New York Times bestseller, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

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