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Technology has made us more intolerant of delays as we seek instant gratificationiStock

Do you ever get the sense that your life is moving faster? That things are racing out of control, that there's never enough time in the day? It might not surprise you to learn that you're right. But it probably will surprise you that, by and large, it's a good thing.

Let's start with the most basic point of all. While we think of ourselves as individuals, we're actually social creatures. You can see this every time you walk down the street. If you take a look at people's feet, you'll soon notice that whatever their age, or height, or size, whatever music they're listening to on their headphones, everyone will be marching to a single shared beat.

And that beat is getting ever faster. In the early 1990s, scientists from California State University mapped the pace of life in roughly 30 cities around the globe. When the British Council repeated the experiment a decade and a half later, the pace had increased. It's not the only indicator, we're speaking more quickly, embracing social trends more quickly, growing ever less tolerant of dither and delay.

Much of this is down, as you'd expect, to the effects of technology. Our mobile phones bombard us with information. Every time we read a new email, or even become aware of its existence, a little starburst of excitement goes off in our brains.

If the internet, as Nicholas Carr suggested in his book, The Shallows, is the perfect attention-entrapment mechanism, then the cellphone is its perfect delivery system. It is a conduit to social and neural validation - so much so that in one experiment back in 2003, only three out of 220 students who were asked to go without them for 72 hours could manage it. More recently, when researchers left people alone in a room with their thoughts for just 15 minutes, a majority claimed to find it an unpleasant experience. So unpleasant, that in a follow-up experiment, many chose to undergo a painful electric shock in order to relieve the tedium.

Our mobile phones bombard us with information: every time we read a new email, or even become aware of its existence, a little starburst of excitement goes off in our brains.

This dependence on your phone is, I'm sure, something you've noticed in your own lives. In those family meals or nights out where everyone kept sneaking a glance at their messages, in the way that you feel like you've never truly left the office because there's always the chance that there might be something in your inbox that needs your attention.

Indeed, this is one of the main side-effects of acceleration. Among the professional classes, statistics and anecdotes both describe people who put pressure on themselves to be the perfect employees and the perfect parents, who burn the candle at both ends and then are surprised when it scorches them.

More and more people suffer from stress. Among young people, depression and mental illness are on the rise and we are getting fewer hours of proper sleep, and therefore losing out on its remarkable recuperative and restorative powers.

So how can I say that a faster life is a good thing? The truth is that the reason these forces of acceleration are so powerful is because they're what we've actually chosen - we love to learn new things, get new information, to be stimulated and diverted. Indeed, a faster life is correlated with all manner of positive side-effects - better health, greater innovation, communities that become more energised and more prosperous.

The fact is that history is full of people complaining about the effects of acceleration. There were complaints that the telegraph was being used to spread frivolous gossip, rather than vital commercial or military information; that the railway would be used by criminals to move from town to town; that the bicycle would promote immorality by encouraging unmarried couples to take amorous trips to the countryside. (There was also the threat of "bicycle face" - the fact that women who cycled too much would develop bulging eyes and harsh wrinkles.) Even the magazine was criticised for the way it disrupted the traditional family evening ritual - rather than sitting around the fire talking about great affairs, each person would retreat into their own private publication. Sounds familiar?

The only thing as consistent as our worrying about new technology, in fact, is our embracing of it. All of the inventions above were seized on by the masses, because they made their lives better - it was a case of moral panic but material progress.

It is the same with today's technology. The answer to speed is not to slow our lives down to a crawl, but to learn to harness acceleration to our own ends: to teach ourselves when to go slow and when to speed up.

We're speaking more quickly, embracing social trends more quickly, growing ever less tolerant of dither and delay.

And the good news is that there is more and more evidence emerging of how to do that. We know that the devices we carry or the screens we watch can induce a fragmentary, scattershot mentality - but we also know that even small amounts of mindfulness or meditation training can more than repair the damage.

Putting screens down before bed (or using filters to make sure that the wavelengths of light they emit are soothing rather than disorientating); making sure to get enough sleep; getting some exercise; doing yoga or massage; taking 15 minutes every day to focus and breathe deeply; avoiding multi-tasking in favour of losing yourself in one particular task - none of these things is rocket science, yet all will materially help our lives.

Yes, a faster life imposes strains and stresses. But we have more knowledge than ever about how to cope with these strains: the kind of working practices, social habits and technology-consumption rules that enable us to be productive and content at the same time. Even just banning iPhones at the kitchen table, or accepting that the impossibility of multi-tasking and taking life one task at a time, can make us more social, more productive and more able to cope with a faster world.

It's not just our working lives, of course - the great acceleration I'm describing encroaches into every aspect of our lives, from the media we consume to the financial markets we depend on, from how we date to how we vote. But in all these fields, what seems to be happening - or at least, what may be achievable - is not just mindless acceleration, but a polarisation between fast and slow: between the hectic and considered, the intense and the laid-back, in a way which allows us to get the benefits of both.

The great acceleration is both a huge opportunity and an immense challenge. But if we get the balance right, it won't be a case of rushing to keep up, but of racing through life with a spring in our step.


Robert Colvile is a writer, commentator on politics and technology. He is the author of 'The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster' (Bloomsbury)