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Addicted to High-Tech Speed 

E-mail, cell phones and other technological inventions accelerate the pace of our lives, but at what cost?

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Speed is the form of ecstasy that the technological revolution has bestowed on man" wrote Milan Kundera in his 1996 novel Slowness. With these words, Kundera succeeded in making yet another equivocal judgement on the fruits of our modern labors (much like Aldous Huxley, who some 50 years before remarked, "Speed is the only novel sensation of the twentieth century"). And as usual, Kundera was on to something.

For by 1996 it had become apparent that our favorite technological inventions -- the cell phone, e-mail, the remote control -- are running man just as much as man is running them. Indeed, just around 1996 the verb multitasking, coined in 1966 to describe the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer, became better known as a skill set of a human.

No one can argue that today's silicon alleys and valleys are hotbeds of philosophy, but there are signs nonetheless that at least the surface of Kundera's observation is flickering through people's minds. Inhabitants complain of road rage, hurriedness, a general feeling of angst. Drug use is up, as are car accidents, divorce rates and visits to the shrink, which is why a group of psychology professors and therapists recently gathered at Silicon Valley's Santa Clara University to deconstruct our lust for speed.

Speed.com: The Search for Meaning in the New Millennium, as the Santa Clara conference was called, was a kind of Silicon Valley gripe session, backed up by psychological insights. Therapists, increasingly frightened by the behavior of their patients, bemoaned the loss of spiritual reflection, insisting it was more prevalent in slower times, and made presentations with titles like "Slaying the Speed Demon: Soul-lag and the Pace of Life," "Addiction as Human Process: Finding Limits in the Culture of Speed" and my personal favorite: "If We Go Any Faster We May Never Get There: On Ethics and Technology."

Unsettling observations abounded. The self-help industry, for example, is having success with books like More Time for Sex: The Organizing Guide for Busy Couples. In Japan there is a restaurant that charges customers by the minute. But the most frightening revelation of all concerned the emergence of two new high-tech illnesses: "hurry sickness," the disease that befalls those who, forever armed with a Palm digital assistant and a cell phone, have lost the ability to relax; and "speed addiction," a condition epitomized by conference participant Fred Mouawad, who works 16 hours a day at his luxury goods dot-com and keeps an hourglass on his desk to remind himself that "time is our scarcest resource."

The new economy is now rife with workaholics like Mouawad, so much so that the characters described in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism seem to pale in comparison. Even Benjamin Franklin, the father of American workaholism who stood by the biblical proverb "Seest thou a man diligent in business? He shall stand before kings," might wonder what all these frenzied long hours are for.

That is exactly what the therapists and professors who gathered at Santa Clara asked themselves. And the answer they came up with is that the quest for prosperity -- urged on by all manner of beeping, buzzing, flashing devices -- is qualifying many an American for a new form of capitalist hell.


The franticness is widespread

Stephanie Brown, a psychologist and director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., has had patients who want help not with their emotional life but with management tips on how to answer their 1,000 daily e-mails. Dr. Ofer Zur, who works out of the blissfully quaint wine town of Sonoma, has been aghast to find that patients come to his sessions expecting to explore their unconscious while tapping on laptops and making deals on cell phones.

"We have a frantic technological middle class," says Zur, who organized the Speed.com conference to share with fellow psychologist his feelings of cultural dread. "The franticness is widespread."

According to Dr. Brown, Zur's evaluation of American culture is not overstated. "We have reached a saturation point, psychologically and emotionally," she says. "Based on what I see from my patients, the high-tech workplace is really out of control."

Brown believes the reason some of her patients are starting to bust at the seams is because they have taken on responsibilities that are, as she puts it, "beyond human capacity."

"If you work around the clock, travel constantly and try to have a relationship or a family," warns Brown, "something's got to give and no high-tech company I know of is going to provide much relief."

Although Brown tries to get patients to think about the excessive demands of corporate culture and Zur urges executives to breathe deeply on mountaintops, both contend that part of the problem with finding a speed cure is that people feel empowered when making money includes being rushed and sweaty.

"When you have speed, you have the illusion of being alive because it's also chemical in our brains," argues Zur. "It's not for nothing that amphetamines like cocaine are so popular."

Zur also argues that slowing down forces people to take a deeper look at their lives -- something that many do not like to do, since it invariably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. He calls the current addiction to speed "a 21st-century form of repression, our great distraction."


Say techies: Sacrifice equals freedom

Mark Pincus, chairman and founder of the Internet software company Support.com, thinks that such statements are the stuff of overly sensationalistic newspaper stories. "The truth is we've always been dysfunctional," says Pincus. "The I-generation has more freedom of choice than ever before. We may be making sacrifices in our personal lives, but we're not just checking in from nine to five; we're doing work on our own terms."

However upbeat Pincus may be about the opportunities bestowed on his generation by the New Economy, he may not be the best example of the overburdened high-tech worker. Pincus is not married. He has made millions of dollars off of his enterprises. (He sold his first company, Freeloader.com, for $40 million, and Support.com, which went public in July, is now worth $1 billion.) And so it is not so surprising that, at age 34, Pincus considers himself "an entrepreneur down to the core," someone "on a mission to impact the technology," who would not give up his live-to-work lifestyle for anything.

Yet even working Joes like Mark Emanuelson, who handles Internet marketing for Cisco and has a new baby daughter, is reluctant to say that the benefits of high pay and an exciting work environment outweigh the detriments of being rattled. "Certainly if there was a speed cure I'd take it," says Emanuelson. "I'm usually in meetings eight, 16 hours a day, home to put my daughter to bed and then back to the laptop in my living room after dinner. But I manage to keep afloat."

High-tech professionals like Emanuelson seem to prove a recent study by the trade magazine Industry Standard, which found that the more hours and weekends people work, the more satisfied they are with their jobs.

"I'm validated by working," Loki Der Quaeler, a researcher for the San Francisco startup Troba, told The Standard. "Even if I got to be a gagillionaire, I wouldn't be sitting on the beach. I'd be doing something."


What would Max say?

Oh, if only Weber could see us now. He would probably repeat Franklin's favorite proverb and, after spending a spell in a cubicle, write a stinging book about the Protestant ethic's relationship to the culture of hypercapitalism. But fortunately there are plenty of philosophers and social scientists remaining to continue where Weber left off.

One of them is Dale Larson, a professor of counseling and psychology at Santa Clara University, who argues that "the context of all this is greed." Larson believes that "self-interest and the desire to accrue wealth and status predominate in the whole country," to the point where people like himself, who make a profession of caring for others, are considered "stupid do-gooders."

"The survivors are the ones who win in this world," says Larson, making reference to the wildly popular reality TV show. "The guy who is most conniving gets the respect, the gold."

What upsets Boomer intellectuals like Larson is that the old values of industriousness and moral uprightness -- not to mention social justice and community harmony -- have largely been abandoned for a Gold Rush mentality.

Sam Keen, a philosopher who served as the Speed.com conference's keynote speaker, agrees that the predominating forces in America are working and consuming. To prove his point, he reminded conference participants of a woefully inaccurate prediction of the '60s and '70s that technology devices would save so much time leisure would be abundant.

"Even up until the '60s, we were shooting for an idealized life based on leisure," said Keen. "But since then, our increased desire for consumer goods means we need more money, so we have to spend more time to get it."

It's too bad that Freud isn't around today, to join Weber for an afternoon at Circuit City prefaced by a couple of lines of cocaine. What would they say about the brave new world of Generation I? That its values are bankrupt? That today's workers are cogs of a consumeristic culture in which technological gadgets are the chief opiate? We'll never know.

But the fact that a conversation has begun on the I-generation's frenzied habits may mean the speed culture is letting up. There is, after all, a low-profile but countrywide "simplicity movement" dedicated to slowing down everything from work schedules to family meals. And many a dot-commer has taken a "sabbatical" in Nepal and Tibet to hike without gadgets and get in touch with the meaning of life.

According to James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, these trends are a positive sign, evidence that "at least we're starting to notice the pieces of our rushed lifestyles." Still, it is hard to imagine that the heroes of the 21st century will be half-time workers who have given up their new Audis for used Toyotas. If the tech economy continues to boom, chances are speed will continue to be our most prominent addiction -- and our most sought-after pleasure.

-- Tamara Straus writes for Alternet.

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