Fast Tomatoes, Fast Beethoven: Time is Accelerating

By Mike Madison | September 01, 2013
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A customer who had a baby a few years back came by my stall at the farmers market. I said, "Your son must be about ready to start kindergarten by now." She raised her eyebrows. "He's in the fifth grade," she said. Yikes! How could a decade have slipped away so quickly?

As we age, our sense of the passage of time speeds up. When I was a thirteen year old suffering through Latin class in boarding school it seemed that there were far more minutes to an hour, and days to a month, than there are now. But in addition to this subjective sense of time accelerating, there are objective data to show that the world is indeed speeding up.

Make a graph of the occurrence of significant technological innovations. In the seventeenth century, a bright idea came along every couple of decades. By the end of the 19th century there was a significant innovation every year or two, and now they occur almost weekly. The graph is a classic curve of exponential acceleration.

Another example of time speeding up is found in the last eighty years of recorded music. Measure the duration of the performances of a standard classic piece – a Beethoven symphony, for example – and you will find that they are accelerating about one percent per decade, so that the symphony recorded today is eight percent faster than it was in 1930. We have come to accept the faster pace as the correct one, and now it seems an eccentricity to play as slowly as seemed right a century ago.

In the garden, we know the length of time it takes for a tomato to go from transplanting the seedling to harvesting a ripe fruit. Tomatoes from a century ago were slow growers: Arkansas Traveler, 90 days; Mortgage Lifter, 86 days; Brandywine, 91 days. The modern tomatoes have lopped a few weeks off that: Sungold, 56 days, Early Girl, 57 days. Early Girl is fast and early, and it's an adequate tomato, though not a great tomato; Fats Waller's lyric comes to mind: "It'll have to do, until the real thing comes along."

Walnut harvest used to involve two dozen men spending a few weeks in the orchard, knocking down the nuts with bamboo poles, and banging the tree trunks with an enormous rubber mallet. The nuts were raked up with bamboo rakes, accompanied by jokes, and story telling, and singing. Now, three men can accomplish the same harvest in a day and a half with noisy machines, and dust, and clouds of diesel smoke. Jokes and singing are not part of the picture.

It appears that speed has come to be considered a virtue in all parts of life. We have speed reading, speed dating, fast tomatoes, instant oatmeal, high frequency stock trading, quick-curing concrete, microwave cooking, and instant messaging. And yet (with the exception of a foot race) a fast performance is almost always inferior to a slower one.

On my farm, I aim for my work to be efficient, but unhurried, and sometimes I deliberately choose the slow way of doing things. Recently I had to dig a 200-foot trench in order to run irrigation to a spot where I intended to plant chestnut trees. I could have rented a trenching machine and been done in an hour, but instead I took a sharp spade and a shovel and dug the trench by hand. Digging is rhythmic, pleasant, satisfying work (provided you don't have to do it every day). Scrub jays and robins flew in to watch, in hopes that the shovel would turn up something good to eat. Rabbits and quail studied me from the middle distance, and concluding that I was non-threatening, went about their business. By mid-afternoon I had dug the trench, laid the pipe, and filled the trench back in – a slow job that in almost every way was superior to the faster alternative. Part of the satisfaction was from a job well done – the pipe at the proper depth, the risers plumb and neatly trimmed. And part of the satisfaction came from the job being a minor act of subversion and resistance against the dominant culture and its obsession with speed.

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