Selling Speed Addiction

The last thing stressed American families need is fake new problems to solve.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts

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.

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.

Author Stephanie Brown
Author Stephanie Brown

Courtesy of Layla Mandella

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.

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