When “Faster” Isn’t

I just returned from visiting family over Christmas, and, as a result of twelve hours spent in transit (and that was with NO delays), I got to thinking about “speed” in our modern society. We’re always told that technology is better and faster, but I have my doubts about such speed in the real world. It doesn’t matter how potentially or theoretically “fast” something is.  What matters is how fast it does what it does in the real world.

Because airports are ever more crowded, and over scheduled, and because commercial aircraft don’t fly any faster than they did thirty years ago, flight times are longer than they were thirty years ago – and that doesn’t count all the extra minutes, and occasionally hours, spent in security lines and screening.  Train travel isn’t any better, either. The Acela is supposedly capable of traveling between Boston and New York at 150 mph.  It doesn’t even approach 60% of its capabilities, of course, because the tracks it travels won’t handle that speed… and because it doesn’t have a dedicated rail system, but must share the rails with much slower freight trains.  All that may be one reason why, except in bumper-to-bumper rush hours in cities, most drivers exceed the speed limits on freeways and interstates whenever physically possible.  But because freeways everywhere are getting more and more crowded, they aren’t getting to their destinations any faster.

Even spacecraft aren’t flying any faster than they did in the 1960s, not markedly, anyway, and we certainly haven’t been able to get human beings any farther from Earth than we did a generation ago.

But aren’t we in the age of electronic superspeed?  Not from what I can tell.  Because of all the bells and whistles, firewalls, and electronic security, even my brand-new laptop loaded with one of the fastest processors, and more memory of more types than I’ll ever come close to using, takes longer to boot up and load than my ancient 1996 laptop.  Email doesn’t get there any faster, and the whole process effectively takes longer because, even with all those electronic devices and systems, I still have more and more spam that results in my having to take more time than I used to… and any way you look at it, that means slower.

My wife reminded me that not only is the mail slower, but deliveries are fewer than when we were children.  It also costs almost 1500% more per ounce than then.  This is progress?

As far as I can figure, about the only thing that, in practice, goes faster than it did a generation ago is the money, because, regardless of the “official” statistics, everything that most people need costs more every year.  Now… if we could just get everything else moving that fast…

5 Responses to “When “Faster” Isn’t”

  1. Richard Hamilton says:

    Some things are faster. Some years ago, I downloaded a major software
    update over dial-up that was the equivalent of about 4 CDs of data.
    It took an entire week at 8 hours a day. Over a cable modem, I could
    have that in a few hours, or if it were available on a fast P2P service,
    in less than an hour.

    For the simple case of editing a document with a level of formatting
    no better than what a typewriter could provide, it’s not much faster now
    than 30 years ago. But editing a book, with graphs, illustrations,
    mathematical typesetting, and other complications is now something
    most people can afford the system and software to do. Commerce
    simply hasn’t quite caught up in terms of providing access to markets
    to replace brick-and-mortar stores.

    Vehicles could be built that carried people faster. But the cost
    (and the controversies about environmental impact) make that difficult.
    The Concorde stopped flying because it wasn’t economically viable.

    Find a way to make the economics work, and the rest will follow. Which
    perhaps ties in to the observation on inflation, which is caused ultimately
    by too much debt. Less debt would allow more investment (private,
    mostly – government spending is usually patronage, not sound
    investment), making possible practical technological improvements sooner.

    • You’re right about internet downloads, if compared to 15 years ago, but not to five or ten, and you’re definitely right about formatting and editing, as you are about the economic factor… but economics or not, slower is slower.

  2. Jamey says:

    And I got into an argument just a few days ago with someone who said we needed *more* inflation, that “except for the volatile food and fuel segments…” My reply was something along the lines of a blank stare! That’s what I spend most of my money on!

    1) Loans should not be sellable – when you borrow money from someone, you’re doing it because you trust *them* – and trust is *not* transitive. If you trust A, and A trusts B, that does not mean you automatically trust B.

    2) These complex money maneuvers make it harder and harder to get a realistic evaluation of the risk involved, and makes it easier and easier for the one pushing it to fudge the numbers.

    3) When the Republicans, the party lambasted by the other side as being pro-big business wants to regulate an industry – maybe it’s a good idea to listen to them?

  3. hob says:

    Greater centralized trade systems need greater access to their customers while simultaneously restricting that same access to potential rivals. The effect of all of this is that while the tech/knowledge might exist to speed up travel/goods–who would pay for such advancement? The initial investments/infrastructure we see today are redesigned systems for moving supplies/personal from world war 2 or advancements from the cold wars.

  4. Access to information is a lot faster. I came here to find out about this writer called L E Modesitt. When I was growing up that would have meant a trip to the school library. And what if he wasn’t in their 20 year old edition of Britannica?

    Oh, and it’s Sunday so the library would be closed.

    Now I get online on my mobile phone at home, while I’m travelling, almost anwhere and find information almost instantly. On Sunday, no less.

    Revolution.

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