It’s a cliché of ageing. Everything seems to speed up, they say. We say. Our childhood seemed to go on for ever; our teens took a glorious age to spin out. Then the decades get faster – your thirties and forties go past in a blur, and thus it continues.
Rather annoyingly, this phenomenon has now been found to have some factual truth to it, at least since the digital age began. Life in the 21st century has actually got quicker. In part, this is obviously about the technology which has transformed so much of our work and life. I look back at my cuttings files (don’t believe any journalist who says they never keep cuttings; we all do), and in File Number One I find a yellowing piece dated July 1991 about a crazy performance-art festival in the Lakes. I remember pitching the article on an analogue phone, driving to the festival, writing the piece (with a lot of Tipp-Ex) by typewriter, then faxing the final copy to the paper. Or maybe I painstakingly dictated it to a copytaker.
Anyway, between event and published report, the whole cycle took four days. Last Wednesday, however, I attended the premiere of Jackie the Musical, and read an enthusiastic review online within an hour of the cheesecloth-draped cast dancing off the stage in their wedge shoes.
It’s more profound than merely digital magic, says Robert Colvile, in his forthcoming book The Great Acceleration; we operate swifter nowadays across the board. We eat faster and we walk faster, running to catch the bus which we pay for by simply tapping in. No more faffing around to look for cash in our pockets or collecting tickets. That’s all yesterday’s behaviour.
In our yearning for convenience, the market itself has quickened. We digest stuff quicker. Fashion arrives and is replaced by a new look when that delivery sells out. Films open on a Friday and can close a week later. Our computers used to take minutes to crank up; they now take milliseconds and are connected online 24/7.
Predictive text guesses what you want to say before you have thought of it for yourself. Meanwhile, the majority of humanity chooses to live in cities – where speed is of the essence – rather than the countryside where life can be still frustratingly tied to the pace of the seasons.
Colvile thinks this is all rather good stuff which will make us lots of money. And when I figure that I can achieve a weekly food shop for a family of six in 12 minutes, so do I. As I send an email or a WhatsApp message, I sometimes imagine living in Georgian Britain, when everyone, from boss to lover, was obliged to communicate by snail mail. Did that make the sentiments any more profound? Probably not. (Anyway, Georgians and Victorians, in London at least, enjoyed about six mail deliveries a day.)
Yet, if we are not going to be mown down or left out by inexorable acceleration, we must acquire new skills. The first is self-control. This means the ability to pause – whether by reading a novel, looking at a Botticelli painting, or the simple pleasure of an Easter egg hunt with your children.
The second is flexibility. If the world is changing, we have to go with it. That article on performance art published 25 years ago was the first I ever wrote for The Independent; this one will be the last, in print at least. A quarter century feels like it has passed by in a flash. Now, at least, I know it probably has.
Journalists are at the sharp end of this velocity, but everyone is affected profoundly by the need for speed, convenience and the achievement of immediacy, from doctors to train drivers and teachers. We should marvel at the fact that news and communication can cross the world at the touch of a button, relish the accessibility of, well, everything, and delight in the fact that children living in remote parts of the world can now learn maths online via solar-powered tablets. And not resent the fact that time, in some things, is immutable.
It took me less than a minute yesterday to order the official violin grade seven syllabus for my daughter. “Oh God!” she said dramatically when the book and its attendant joys by Bach, Handel and Stravinsky turned up this morning. “This will take me a year to master.”
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