Book Review: ‘Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient to the Instant World’ by Jason Farman

Review by Ashley Hales

I have been known to voice-text at stop lights, add reminders and calendar items during a 10-minute commute, and fill up silence with podcasts or at least an intentional discussion time with my children. Like so many others, I’m resourceful about turning wait times into productive times. It’s the American way.

Nowadays, it’s becoming something of a cliché to suggest that our society is in the throes of a technological addiction. Google, we say, is changing how we think; social media makes us lonely; there are support groups for iPhone addicts. We fumble in our pockets for our phones while we stand waiting in line at the grocery store. We catch up on news or send messages in the carpool pick-up lane. It’s become a reflex, a compulsive habit that’s rewiring not only our impulses but also our very desires. We don’t abide silence well. We may be losing the ability to wait.

But for media expert Jason Farman, this sort of chronic fidgetiness signals something other than a problem to be solved through technological improvements. His book, Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, argues that waiting has always been an important part of human connection. What can feel like a pointless hassle is actually something of precious value.

The Value of Waiting

To create and sustain human community, we’ve always had to travel a certain distance. That distance can be geographical, of course, but it can also be cultural, ideological, or emotional. Farman argues that throughout history, our varying communications tools—from the simplest to the most advanced—have shaped the relationship between sender and receiver in different ways. In other words, the time spent waiting for a message can be just as pregnant with meaning as the message itself. “Though the mythologies of the digital age continue to argue that we are eliminating waiting from daily life,” Farman writes, “we are actually putting it right at the center of how we connect with one another.”

The question, then and now, is: What will waiting produce in a culture? Is waiting a hurdle to overcome, in the service of maximizing our “productive” time, or does it have a value all its own?

Even something as small as our texting habits can offer an important window into our culture. We assign meaning to the space between sending and receiving messages. Waiting on a text can bring to the surface our social anxieties and desires for intimacy. It can reveal the tenuous fabric of digital connection. Waiting, then, isn’t simply blank space to do away with; it forms us in a deeper way than we tend to realize.

How so? To answer this question, Farman travels the globe, studying a variety of communications technologies, past and present—everything from Japanese youth text culture to intercepted Civil War letters, Elizabethan seals on letters, space signals, Aboriginal message sticks, and the pneumatic tubes that delivered mail under the streets of Paris and New York City. What all these modes of communicating have in common is that, in their heyday, they were cutting-edge technologies that created a new relationship to time—and specifically to waiting. They made it seem as though the world had gotten faster, which conditioned us to think of speed as an essential element of the good life.

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Source: Christianity Today