Are Americans working too hard, too fast, and too chaotically for our own good? Slate books editor Dan Kois was eager to find out when a review copy of Stephanie Brown’s Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down landed on his desk. So he proposed a challenge. Could I read the entire book, write a review, send it to him for an edit, and complete the revisions within a four-hour window? And in a sense, Brown turned out to be right. In order to crash the project, it was necessary to completely unplug from email, Twitter, and other minutiae of the modern digital workplace. Even though I wasn’t offline for very long, I did feel certain pangs of loss. Was I missing important news? Would I fall behind on the latest memes? Nonetheless, Brown’s diagnosis of America’s speed addiction is wildly unpersuasive. Brown’s major tactic is to simultaneously pathologize banal aspects of human life and conflate very real substance abuse problems with her made-up speed addiction.
In her acknowledgments, Brown reassures us that “the conception, writing, and revision of this book have gone on and on for many years,” avoiding the speed-related problems she describes. I don’t have a great deal of experience with this kind of slow-poke text production; I’m, in fact, one of the fast and faster objects of Brown’s critique, having published 98 articles and blog posts in November. (That was a light month for me, since I was on vacation for the first week and Thanksgiving intruded on the last.) Nonetheless, it struck me that the book often appears to be sloppy, fact-challenged, and under-researched. To cite a trivial example, she at one point asserts that “the United States was a ‘third world country’ before the advances of the printing press and the building of the railroads,” when printing press technology predates the United States by more than 200 years.
Reaching for a shopworn cliché, she explains that in today’s frenzied world “many kids haven’t experienced slow time at the dinner table with everybody present,” when Gallup finds that more than 80 percent of American families with children eat together at least four times a week. She offers a portrait of a generation of teenagers “holed up in dark, locked bedrooms, hooked to the computer, smoking dope and taking uppers and downers to regulate their attention and mood,” when actual trends in teenage behavior are overwhelmingly positive. Today’s teenagers are less likely to smoke cigarettes, less likely to drink to excess, less likely to use cocaine, and less likely to get pregnant than previous cohorts. High school students of all races are doing better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and research indicates that connecting on social media makes kids feel closer to their parents. Thanks to Google and the wonders of the Internet, these kinds of statistics are easily within reach of nonexperts, and it’s a shame she didn’t uncover them in her years of writing.
Kids aside, Brown’s portrait of a country driven mad by technology-induced excessive working is hard to square with the reality that people work about 8 percent fewer hours per year than they did 35 years ago. The main problem in the American labor market today is that the share of people who can find any job at all has plummeted since 2007.
That a plague of involuntary idleness and unemployment is devastating millions of families across the country appears to have escaped Brown’s attention—perhaps because she’s a longtime addiction therapist living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley. The small stretch of the United States reaching from San Jose to San Francisco happens to be the epicenter of a massive digital technology economic boom. It’s the wealthiest area of the country, and perhaps the one that’s least representative of broad social and economic trends. The problems of a fellow who “owns a Corvette and a sailboat, but doesn’t waste valuable business time enjoying them” are less central to the fate of the nation than Brown believes. And yet she insists that she’s dealing not just with the idiosyncratic pathologies of an ultraelite, but also with broad trends that require us to “challenge core American beliefs” and remake society at large.
At times, Brown seems to simply reverse the direction of causation. She writes that “it is common that people become addicted to alcohol or drugs as they try to control the symptoms of their addictions to speed,” and then adduces many examples of genuinely pathological behavior by people with substance abuse problems. But of course drug addiction and alcoholism long predate smartphones, and in the real world, booze addiction won’t help you get ahead at work. On the contrary, many of the hardest-working and most successful people most of us know are among the most abstemious—every hour you spend drunk or hung over, after all, is an hour you’re not spending racing ahead. Simply asserting that this exists on a continuum with a person who says “I keep my iPhone on and in my pocket or my hand at all times” is absurd.