Tiny Inhuman Pauses

by Thomas Beller


475 6th Ave, NY, NY 10011

Neighborhood: West Village

She was an old lady and for a moment I wanted to kill her. We were at the grocer, and she was taking an inordinate amount of time paying. After a long time spent peering into her purse she handed over a few dollars, and a couple of quarters, and a dime and a nickel, and was now very carefully counting out the pennies while I stood there with my orange juice, tapping my foot. It was a Saturday night. At around the moment when my agitation was getting serious, that grinding of the internal gears that probably shortens your life span much more than all the steak, eggs, drink, and cigarette’s one could consume, I noticed what she was wearing.

In addition to a nice old coat that looked like it had been in her possession for thirty ears, she was wearing a rather extravagant hat. It had a little feather in it. And it struck me that this old lady had probably gotten all dressed up on a Saturday night to go out to the corner deli to buy some cigarettes and a paper. This was the big event of her evening. I found this touching, and I calmed down, and everything was diffused.

I assure you that I am not the sort of brute who is regularly–or ever–nasty to old ladies. I do not, generally, function on such a short fuse. But I’ve noticed the frustration quotient has been going up lately. I’ve become more and more impatient, and I can see the same thing happening to others around me becoming more agitated when there are little unexpected delays in the normal course of things.

This is somewhat ironic, as we are constantly being told that everything is getting easier and more simple and quicker. Convenience surrounds us, and frankly it’s driving me crazy. The cash machine, call waiting, voice mail, e-mail. And that weird red radar at the supermarket that knows how much a can of tuna costs and beeps its knowledge at you.

All that is great, except it does not, for some reason, make you feel that you have gained anything. Instead, these things make you feel like time has been stolen from you, in a series of small never-ending burglaries.

Voice mail, for example. I’ve become really distressed with voice mail recently, and not because I yearn to speak with some bored secretary instead of a computer. It’s that voice mail is like a slow moving assembly line, and once you are on it, you no longer control your own time. Nothing–no intonation, or abrupt request or cleared throat–will speed it up. It is full of redundancies and irrelevancies. How often, while on hold for some service, am I treated to some special promotional advertisement? One’s mind instinctively fastens on this new bit of information, and there go three seconds of your life so that a company can make a small advertisement for itself. And what is three seconds? Nothing, of course. But if it comes against a backdrop of the promise of speed and efficiency, than one can’t help feeling cheated.

If there is anything worse than having to sit through a interminably long set of instructions (“If you want to scream, press 1, if you want to cry, press 2, if you want to punch somebody for no apparent reason, press 3. If you don’t know what you want to do, please hold, and an operator will assist you”) it is the knowledge that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Any attempt at complaint would undoubtedly by met by yet more mellifluous-sounding voice mail.

But the biggest scam in the efficiency sweepstakes is, without a doubt, computers. Yes, computers are very efficient and allow us to do all kinds of wonderful things. But as anyone who uses a computer knows, they stutter and stammer and take breaks. They sort of sigh. By this I mean your computer will be about to execute some incredible act, some great time saving gesture (fax or e-mail, or a spell check, or a page-layout or a balance sheet) and it will pause for a second to spin its wheels and groan and do whatever computers do in these moments. We are always hearing about the attempts to make computers behave like humans and expect that some tremendous technological breakthrough will eventually achieve this, but the fact is that they already perform that most human act: they sigh. And of course you are sitting there staring at it while it takes these breaks. And even if they are only one tiny little puny second, they are corrosive and maddening. It’s all a matter of budget–if you have to walk ten blocks you think, all right, fifteen minutes. If you are going to fax, you think, Done. So this extra second or ten is a penalty. A tiny inhuman pause.

Our brave new world is filled with these tiny inhuman pauses. They are enforced breaks from our own sense of time and continuity. It’s theft. It taking time away from you. And there is no little old lady wearing a feathered hat to calm you down and remind you that the world is full of human beings just like you!

August, 1996

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