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Time Compression: It's Gaining on Us

September 24, 1987|DON OLDENBURG | The Washington Post

When television motor mouth John Moschitta recorded "10 Classics in 10 Minutes" last year, his rapid-fire summaries of "Moby Dick," "Gone With the Wind," "Oliver Twist" and seven other famous novels sounded like an Evelyn Wood speed-reading session gone haywire.

The promo promised "the world's fastest-talking man reads the world's greatest books." It rationalized: "So many books, so little time."

The recording, of course, was a gag. But "time compression" in our culture isn't. It is at the heart of our changing relationship with the clock. And, warn some experts, its consequences could be dire.

Most people are introduced to time compression rather innocently. About this time every year, nature starts cramming daylight into fewer hours. Long before "The One-Minute Manager" made best-seller lists or McDonald's made fast food, time compression was a natural phenomenon known to occur in moments of emergency, in flights of fancy and during intense concentration.

"Time itself can't be compressed," says David S. Landes, chairman of Harvard University's history department. "It is . . . an artificial concept which we measure in uniform units. Time itself never speeds up or slows down. What speeds up or slows down is our perception of what is happening."

Landes, the author of the 1983 book "Revolution in Time," says most people don't pay much attention to the subject but they do experience it, often differently.

"Young people think time is passing more slowly than old people," he says. "Perhaps because old people have less time left, they have a different perception than a young person who thinks waiting eight minutes in a movie line seems like forever."

Other instances of naturally compressed and expanded time seem, appropriately, to occur under pressure. Edward T. Hall, author of the 1983 book "The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time," says tales of "my-whole-life-flashed-before-me" in the face of death and emergencies suggest that altered perception of time can serve as a survival mechanism.

He recalls the story of a Navy test pilot who realized after takeoff that his plane wasn't gaining power: "The eight-second scenario of how he dealt with the emergency and survived took 45 minutes to describe. If that capacity to expand time . . . had not been built into the human species, it is doubtful the human race would have survived."

Scientists, however, are uncertain how nature alters time sequences. Hall speculates that emergencies or critical situations can short-circuit the neurotransmitting circuitry of the brain to bypass extraneous information and deal directly and efficiently with the action at hand.

"We call it reflex," Hall says to simplify. "You knock a bottle off the table and your reactions and thinking speeds up to catch it. Only this is reflex of the whole organism."

Enter the artificial manipulation of time. If moments of concentration can cause a paranormal experience of time, does an artificial compression of time then cause improved concentration and greater efficiency? By tinkering with the clock, can we unleash greater mental power?

Hall is doubtful. Time compression, he says, is a "matter of getting into phase with the natural rhythms of the human being. If the machine is tailgating us, it doesn't succeed. One is threatening and the other is stimulating."

Effect of Television

No technology has affected Americans' time perception more in the last four decades than television. The first experiments with electronically compressing what is seen on the television screen began in 1980, on the heels of research showing that fast talkers are more persuasive and impressive.

"It doesn't matter whether the talk is naturally fast, or is made faster by electronic techniques," James MacLachlan, then a business professor at New York University, wrote in a 1979 Psychology Today article. "Fast talk scores better on all measures."

MacLachlan's own interest in compressed communications arose when he heard about electronic equipment for the blind, called Varispeech, that could play back recordings faster and yet remain undistorted in pitch by shaving about 201,000ths of a second off each sound. He wondered if the machine could be applied to other communications.

With a pilot model, he experimented with putting the squeeze on TV time. He had already demonstrated that speakers in radio commercials speeded up by 25% were rated more intelligent, knowledgeable and sincere than when played at normal speed. And he had documented that listeners found radio commercials "more interesting" and averaged a 66% greater recall when played 30% faster.

A Small Sacrifice

Other researchers had discovered that when lectures were played at twice their original "talking speed" (282 instead of 141 words per minute), audience comprehension dropped only 10%--considered a small sacrifice for increased efficiency.

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