Even the most egregious cases of true overschedulers don’t really seem to need the Alcoholics Anonymous–style treatment Brown prescribes. She tells the tale of one Henri who hit rock bottom on the day he simultaneously scheduled his company’s initial public offering, a meeting of the board of directors, a meeting with his architect, the closing on a home loan, and his daughter’s graduation from high school. The agony here is that both the IPO and the graduation are unskippable, once-in-a-lifetime events. But that’s also the good news. Whether or not Henri accepts a higher power, his daughter’s not going to graduate from high school again.
At her best, Brown correctly observes that becoming excessively harried can be counterproductive. Chronic undersleeping or overstress will actually make you work less efficiently, and your problems will multiply. But this calls for a certain amount of practical advice to both workers and managers, not addiction therapy. Among other things, the whole idea of “quitting” being busy—the way you might quit smoking or drinking or heroin—makes no sense.
As a nonstop smartphone fiddler and Twitter addict, I found myself genuinely shocked by how little of myself I saw in Brown’s portrait of speed addicts. It’s not just that I don’t suffer from the serious problems she describes—drug abuse, chronic overscheduling, inability to form meaningful relationships with family—it’s that her patients don’t suffer from the real problems to which I would confess. The same habits of mind that make me good at quickly reading a not-very-good piece of nonfiction writing, for example, have made it very difficult for me to appreciate a proper novel. I find myself scanning the page and seeking to assimilate the information contained within, as if the purpose of sitting down with War and Peace were to determine who wins the war (spoiler: Russia). Slate’s copy editors will tell you that I commit lots of typos and other errors when I write, and my wife will tell you that it can be annoying to cohabit with someone who doesn’t sleep very much. In theory it’s possible to watch great films in the comfort of your own home, but in practice I find that unless I go to the theater where I’m forced to turn off my phone that I can’t focus on anything more sustained than an episode of The Mindy Project.
All of this is to say that the wired, fast-paced lifestyle really is a mixed bag with some downsides. We keep inventing amazing new things to do with your time, but a day is only so long, so something gets lost. It’s worth appreciating that there is a downside to this bounty of opportunity. But it’s just not the social crisis Brown believes it to be.
Meanwhile, when Brown does manage to touch on genuine problems, she ends up managing to avoid the need for real solutions. Consider Anita, a high-flying Silicon Valley executive who “took a few weeks off and hired a full-time nanny” after the birth of her first child. Despite the available financial resources, “she still had to figure out how to pump her milk and shorten her work hours,” and in the end she “was certain her colleagues and bosses now considered her a part-timer and would no longer relate to her as a high-level peer.” This isn’t speed addiction on Anita’s part; it’s a genuine dilemma facing parents (and especially mothers) in a country that hasn’t adopted meaningful family-friendly public policies.
Similarly, when Brown notes that despite the technology boom “the cost of living was also on fire” in Silicon Valley, “rising so high that many workers and service providers were priced out of the housing market,” she’s hit on a real issue. But telling people left behind in the Bay Area housing cost explosion that they’re speed addicts is hugely misleading. They’re victims of misguided snob zoning policies that are preventing the area from adding housing units at an appropriate pace. The city of San Francisco has less than half the population density of Brooklyn, and neither San Mateo nor Santa Clara counties has obtained even a third the population density of Nassau County on Long Island. People stressed by a “two-hour commute each day for the privilege of working in such a wild and promising environment” need better housing and transportation policies, not lectures about the virtue of unplugging.
Meanwhile, as we await relief from public policies that under-support parents while leaving us with unduly scarce housing and labor market opportunities, Americans could perhaps use a break from hucksters trying to sell them cures to new problems. Broadly speaking, the kind of college educated two-parent households with whom Brown concerns herself are doing staggeringly well in today’s America. If they nonetheless feel stressed out, that’s perhaps because of constant media bombardment informing of them the latest pathologies to avoid. The last thing a person pressed for time needs is to waste even a few hours on this book.
Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down by Stephanie Brown. Berkley.