January 25, 2019

In 1943, Helen Ringwald works with pneumatic tubes. Credit: Esther Bubley, Library of Congress.

If you’ve ever been in line at the DMV, had your flight delayed, desperately needed an email reply to come NOW, or had a YouTube video buffer for more than a couple seconds, you know that waiting is awful. But what can we learn from it? According to Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, the answer is quite a lot. And it touches on everything from aboriginal message sticks, to pneumatic tubes, to loading icons.

Three Takeaways:

  • With the advent of email, smartphones, and the internet, you’d think the pace of life has accelerated. That’s what Jason Farman thought, before he started his research. “You see people throughout history talking about the acceleration of life and culture,” Farman says. In fact, with its huge bureaucracy and piles of documents, “you can trace this [complaint] back all the way to to the Roman Empire.”
  • You might not be aware of it, but the late 19th century had its own version of instant messaging. Well, sort of. In major cities throughout Europe and America, pneumatic tubes would run underground, enabling letters and packages to be pushed around extremely quickly, using compressed air. You could send a message across New York City and expect someone to receive it within an hour. According to Farman, people felt like they were living in the future and that instant communication was finally here.
  • Farman believes that we should think differently about waiting. He says that people throughout history have been impatient, but he believes that if we try and occupy every spare second of our lives, (after all, it’s more fun to watch a YouTube video of a llama and a dog becoming friends than to stare blankly into space), we might be sacrificing some creative capacity.

More Reading:

Buffering, Jason Farman, Waiting, Sci and Tech

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