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The Cultures and Politics that Unite and Divide Africans and African-Americans.

Writer Philippe Wamba ("Phil-EEP WAM-bah"). He is the son of an African father and a African-American mother. His new book looks at the affinity between African-Americans and Africans, the things that divide them, and they myths they each hold about the other. It's called "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America" (Dutton). Wamba has lived in both countries. His father, Prof. Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, is currently leader of the rebel faction in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Other segments from the episode on September 14, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 1999: Interview with Philippe Wamba; Interview with James Gleick.


Date: SEPTEMBER 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091401np.217
Head: Kinship: Author Philippe Wamba on Africa and African-Americans
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with writer Philippe Wamba about the affinity between African-Americans and Africans, as well as the differences that divide them. Wamba is the son of an African-American mother and an African father who now leads a Congolese rebel group. Wamba has lived in both Africa and the United States. His new book is called "Kinship."

Also, trying to keep up as new technology accelerates the pace of just about everything. We talk with James Gleick, author of "Faster."

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As the son of an African father from the Congo and an African-American mother, Philippe Wamba is well aware of the myths that Africans and African-Americans hold about each other. His new book, "Kinship," explores those myths and the culture and politics that unite and divide the two groups.

Wamba was born in 1971 and spent the first eight years of his life in the U.S., mostly in suburban Boston, while his father completed his advanced studies and taught. The family moved to Tanzania when Philippe was 8. He returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard and Columbia.

Throughout his life, his father, Ernest Wamba Diawamba (ph), has been an opponent of the corrupt governments in his native country, Congo, formerly Zaire. But a year ago he crossed the line from intellectual dissident to rebel leader of a group trying to overthrow President Kabila. Two weeks ago he signed a peace agreement. If it holds, it will end the fighting in Congo that started last year.

Philippe's parents met in 1965, when they were both students at Western Michigan University. Their decision to get married was met with some concern on his mother's side. For example, her parents worried that their daughter's African fiance could be a polygamist.


PHILIPPE WAMBA, AUTHOR: This is one of the very, very common ideas about Africans that persist among African-Americans. And of course, it has its basis in reality, where -- you know, in that polygamy is indeed practiced among a number of African ethnic groups. So one of the early questions that parts of my mom's family had was, "Well, are you going to be the third or fourth wife? Are you going to be his only wife?" And then there was another stereotype about African men being wife-beaters, and would he be battering her.

So there were these concerns about how she was going to be treated. There were concerns about would she be moving away from the United States, moving to Africa, where they didn't know very much about the continent or what to expect. And how would she cope over there? Do they have modern technology, modern amenities? So there was a lot of consternation on those -- on all of those levels.

But I think that, ultimately, you know, having met my father and spent some time with him and been impressed with him as an individual, impressed with his intelligence, with his commitment -- he was very academically inclined and very -- spoke often about how he wanted to return to his homeland and make some kind of a contribution in independent Congo. So I think that because of the personal example of -- that he brought, as far as when they met him, they were impressed enough to allay some of their fears about what my mother would encounter when she went to Africa.

GROSS: You describe your mother as someone who had been a black nationalist and who was very interested in Africa, even before she met your father. When you were growing up in the United States, growing up in a suburb of Boston, what impressions did you have of Africa from hearing your father talk about it and your mother, who had lived there briefly in the Congo before you were born?

WAMBA: My father would tell us these stories, my brothers and I, stories about his upbringing in the rural village in western Congo where he grew up. And these were very nostalgic, fond, affectionate stories in which he talked about the stories that his mother would tell them around the communal fire in the evening, about tending the farms that his family -- where they raised the crops that they subsisted on.

So these, you can imagine, sounded completely removed and distant from my suburban experience in West Newton, Massachusetts. So using these ingredients, i, you know, sort of cobbled together my own conception of what Africa was all about and had this very strong sense of identification, a sense of pride, a sense of wanting to visit and wanting very much to move there, and had the opportunity when I was 8 years old and my family moved to Tanzania.

GROSS: And they moved to Tanzania. Your father had accepted a teaching position at a university in Dar es Salaam.


GROSS: Your father's a scholar of history. So you moved there when you were 8, and suddenly all the fantasies that you had were supplanted by the reality of being in Tanzania. How did the reality of your new neighborhood and your new kind of family life compare with the fantasies you had in your mind?

WAMBA: Well, the fantasies that I had were basically that, fantasies. They were the stories that were, you know, passed down to me, very -- to me, you know, just sparked my imagination and sent it in all sorts of new directions. And then arriving in Tanzania, there wasn't that much that was familiar, even from the stories that had been told.

But still, I found this place that just tantalized me in all sorts of ways on a -- you know, in terms of my imagination and in terms of new experiences. I guess, you know, it's important to remember that I was 8 years old at the time and that it was just an experience of experimentation and just learning, learning the language, learning new foods, learning the new landscape, new games, learning -- and making new friends.

So it was an amazing experience of discovery. And I guess I had been prepared to have such a positive experience of it by the positive expectation that had been created by my parents, who had passed on such affectionate, fond and proud images of their experience of Africa. So it was a true homecoming.

GROSS: Now, you had spent the first eight years of your life mostly in a suburb of Boston, a predominantly white suburb of Boston. What was that like in terms of, like, your identity, to go from being, you know, a black person in a predominantly white suburb of Boston to moving to, you know, Dar es Salaam, where, you know, it's an African -- a black African population? Did you have a different sense of what it meant to be black?

WAMBA: Well, yes. I mean, I can remember arriving in Dar es Salaam at the airport and being impressed, very strongly impressed by the fact that everywhere I looked were black people. Dar es Salaam also has a large Asian community, Asian as in from India, and has a large sort of Afro-Arab community. So all of these, you know, various shades of brown, basically, were what impressed me when I first set foot on Tanzanian soil.

But what sort of I came to understand was that -- the complexity of ethnicity in Africa, which has a more multi-faceted aspect to it than in the United States, where things are often in binary black and white or various shades in between, but much more stratified than in Tanzania because I found that where -- while I had been a minority in a suburb of Boston as a black person, I was still a minority in Dar es Salaam in that I was a foreigner. I was black, yes, but I was not a Tanzanian. I was not a member of any of the tribes that my playmates belonged to. So all of these things -- it gave me a sort of much more complex appreciation of what identity meant in different contexts.

GROSS: Well, when you were a boy, the government of Zaire -- Zaire, which is now Congo -- was pressuring your father to return to the country because they thought that he was trying to overthrow President Mobutu, and they wanted to be able to keep an eye on him. He didn't want to go, so he instead was living in Tanzania with the family, where he was teaching. But his father was dying in 1980, and he wanted to see him, so he made a brief trip back to Zaire. And then the following year, in 1981, he went back and the rest of the family -- you, your brother, your mother -- was supposed to meet him later at the airport. You showed up at the airport. You were still under 10 years old. And what happened?

WAMBA: Well, it was an especially traumatic experience in that it was supposed to be my family's first homecoming to the country of my father. It was my first time stepping on Congolese -- then Zairean -- soil. And we were met at the airport by soldiers who informed us that my father had been detained for the possession of so-called "subversive documents" which were critical of the regime then in power in Zaire. So it was quite a challenging encounter. My mother, then with three very young children -- myself, I was 10 years old, and my younger brothers were -- were 7 and 3 respectively, I believe. And this was our first time visiting Kinshasa. We had -- you know, my father's family has a number of family members in the city, but we were -- when we were met at the airport by these soldiers, we had no way of contacting them. We spent some days in the city trying to get in touch with my father's family, trying to get -- to see him in the prison where he was being held. It was a rather nightmarish experience and I think had a big impact on myself and the rest of my family.

GROSS: How did your mother explain to you that your father was considered a subversive by the government of the country he grew up in? I mean, how do you explain that to a 10-year-old?

WAMBA: Well, it wasn't as though I had never heard of Mobutu Sese Seko, who was then the president for life of Zaire.

GROSS: Your father had already told you he was a bad guy.

WAMBA: He had already -- yes, basically. So I was aware that there was this regime in power and that my father was hostile to it for his own principled political reasons, and that it, I guess, vice -- you know, that it was also averse to him, and that -- but it was still something of a shock that he had been detained. He was an academic, a professor. It was difficult for me as a child to understand that just for writing an essay which pointed out that he disagreed with certain government policies that his life would be jeopardized for that act.

GROSS: It took about a year of pressure, you know, not only from your family, but international pressure before your father was released by Mobutu's regime. When your father was released after being in prison and being tortured on and off for a year, was he a changed man? Did you sense any difference in him?

WAMBA: If anything, he was probably more committed to his goals and political beliefs. I think he had, as I said, been a patriot, had been deeply disturbed by the course that the country had taken under Mobutu. And I think that after his experience in detention, he redoubled his efforts to try and work for change in Congo, again, however, through the same channels that he had before, which was as an academic, as a concerned intellectual writing essays which were critical, attending conferences, he would -- had, you know, contact with other dissidents who were critical of the government.

And over the years, he basically generated quite an impressive collection of work that relates to the political history of the Congo and the nature of oppression in Congo and proposed some solutions, which is basically the work that led to his current activities. He's referring to quite an impressive collection of references.

GROSS: When your father was in jail for the better part of a year, where were you and your family?

WAMBA: In Dar es Salaam. Well, mainly in Dar es Salaam, but partly -- my mother made a couple of trips to the United States, trying to continue their campaign to gain his release. She made a couple of trips to Kinshasa to visit him while he was in detention and also continue the campaign. But my brothers and I were for the most part in Dar es Salaam.

GROSS: My guest is Philippe Wamba, author of the new book "Kinship." We'll talk more after a break.


This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest, Philippe Wamba, is the author of "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America." His mother's African-American. His father is from Congo. Philippe grew up in the U.S. and Africa.


Well, your father is now the head of a rebel faction that is trying to overthrow the government of Mobutu's successor, the government of Laurent Kabila. Your father's the head of the Rally for Democracy in the Congo, the RCD. He's been calling for a negotiated settlement, and a peace agreement was signed about a week ago. Hopefully, it will hold.

You say you found out about this from a news report. You didn't know that your father was leading this rebel group. What was it like to -- tell me about that experience.

WAMBA: It was a little bit of a shock, but...

GROSS: This was about a year ago?

WAMBA: It was August of 1998, when the rebellion started. The rebellion started on August 2nd, and I read about it I think a couple of weeks after, maybe, I think, the movement was formally announced on August 12th or so. It was a bit of a shock, but it wasn't that surprising, if you understand what I mean.

And what I mean by that is that over the years, my father's always been engaged, has remained very deeply involved in political movements for change in Congo. And he had already expressed great reservations to me about the regime that had taken over in Congo in 1997, when Mobutu was overthrown.

There had been a great deal of optimism among Congolese and among Africans all over the world when Mobutu -- this is, like, one of the last cold war dictators who had ruled for 32 years, oppressive rule, kleptocratic rule, had, you know, pillaged the country of more than $5 billion -- was finally overthrown in April of 1997. And there was this great optimism that this would actually mean that there was finally going to be some substantive change for the Congolese people.

When less than a year after Kabila took power, this hoped-for change did not really come to pass, many, including my father, were very disappointed. And when the Kabila government sort of started taking steps that were even more alarming -- initially, it was, you know, the same sort of corruption, the same sort of rule of one single ethnic group, the same sort of patronage and clientalism. And then when this sort of started leaning towards basically another genocide to follow the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994, for many, including my father, that was the most alarming step, and that was when this rebellion broke out in August, 1998.

GROSS: You have always known your father as a scholar, a university professor. Now he's a rebel leader. I mean, instead of just having the pen, he has the sword, so to speak. He probably had to learn how to shoot a gun?

WAMBA: Yes, he -- over the past year, he's learned a number of things, that being one of them. But the thing is -- and something that was sort of -- has been argued back and forth when he first became involved -- there's been this ongoing question. I'm sure it's been a question for many others, not just my father, historically. An academic or an intellectual who sees himself as involved in a tradition of activism, there's this -- presents itself this question of what is the limits of that commitment? Does one just theorize about politics and political change, or does one actually at some point take the step towards actually getting involved?

There was an academic from Guyana named Walter Rodney (ph), who taught at the University of Dar es Salaam shortly before my family moved there. And he had this famous phrase saying that it's not enough to merely study history. Ultimately, an academic has to get his feet wet. The point being that the ultimate and sort of logical conclusion to a tradition of scholarship and activism geared towards fundamental change was that ultimately, you would be led into the struggle in a very active way. And that, I guess, is the path that my father has taken.

GROSS: You're a historian yourself. I mean, that -- well, history was your major. There's a lot of history in your new book. And I'm wondering if -- if this is a bit of a call to arms for you, as well, if it's making you rethink what your role should be, as somebody who's steeped in history.

WAMBA: It has forced me to -- to -- to question -- to figure out exactly what my role will be. And I can't really say, I guess, in concrete terms at this particular moment, but I have this same sense of optimism that my father has. And I do feel like we are poised on the cusp of some significant change in Congo. And it's something I would definitely like to be a part of.

I don't know if I would really call it patriotism that I feel for Congo, since I have only spent in total maybe a month in the country, for political reasons, for reasons of circumstance, for reasons of where I grew up and where it was necessary for my family to live throughout the years of my childhood.

I do feel at home in Tanzania. I have been to Congo on a number of occasions and have very close family ties there. I do see myself living in Africa at some point in the near future, and I do see myself weighing in in whatever way I can on -- basically, on the side of African freedom, on the side of African democracy.

I don't necessarily see myself taking an active role in politics, but I would like to make whatever contribution that I can, whether it's in terms of writing books like the one I just did and which I hope will help to build some bridges as far as pan-Africanism and as far as relations between Africans and African-Americans go, and as far as providing some of the historical knowledge that I feel is underemphasized.

I was trying in my book to unearth some of the things that fascinated me that I thought were little known to black people and to whoever else is -- these ideas resonate among. And hopefully, I'm beginning -- I've achieved that. But hopefully, I'll be able to do more of that in the future, but...

GROSS: Sounds like you're still a little shy...

WAMBA: Yeah.

GROSS: ... about being in the role of -- of being a public speaker.

WAMBA: Yeah. Yeah, I think so.

GROSS: And I think the book is going to thrust you more in that position. And it's interesting that as you're being put in more that position, you're watching your father be put in a very public position.

WAMBA: Well, I mean, I feel like I still have time, if he's in his mid-50s...

GROSS: Yes. (laughs)

WAMBA: ... and now in that position, and I'm 28, and just wrote my first book and still, I think, finding myself professionally and otherwise, so all in good time.

GROSS: Absolutely.

WAMBA: But I do feel like -- as far as the book writing, I feel like I've learned a lot and learned the skills and tools that I can apply to another such project in the future or could go in any number of directions.


GROSS: Philippe Wamba is the author of "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America." We'll talk some more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Philippe Wamba. His new book, "Kinship," is about the culture and politics that unite and divide Africans and African-Americans. Wamba is the son of an African father and an African-American mother. He spent the first eight years of his life in the U.S., then lived in Tanzania until returning to the U.S. to attend college.

When you went to college at Harvard, it was during a period when there was a lot of Afrocentrism in a lot of college campuses. Tell me a little bit what -- about what it was like to be exposed to Afrocentrism in America after coming from Africa.

PHILIPPE WAMBA, "KINSHIP: A FAMILY'S JOURNEY IN AFRICA AND AMERICA": Well, the main thing that I sort of realized about Afrocentrism when I encountered it in America was that the Africa that was being celebrated by African-American Afrocentrists bore very little resemblance to the Africa that I had grown up in.

GROSS: What were some of the differences between the Afrocentrism -- the kind of Africanism Afrocentrism celebrated and what you grew up with?

WAMBA: Well, one of the hallmarks of Afrocentrism is this emphasis on ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. To my knowledge, or from growing up in Tanzania and East Africa, we didn't really have much sense of -- I mean, those were things that were around in ancient history and did not really have many sort of contemporary manifestations.

However, among African-Americans, some African-American Afrocentrists would greet each other with greetings that were supposed to be ancient Egyptian, would dress in ways that were supposed to be inspired by ancient Egyptians. However, it seemed (INAUDIBLE) to be to be more of a celebration of that ancient past, but the outcome of that was that it -- not prevented but allowed them to avoid confronting the contemporary reality of Africa, which to me was something that I found frustrating.

Because sometimes I would meet people who would express an interest in Africa, but after a few exchanges did not seem to know very much about contemporary politics, about contemporary languages, culture, but did seem to have this very in-depth knowledge of some ancient traditions.

So that was something that I found difficult to come to terms with at some point.

GROSS: You say in the book that although a lot of the students that you met had this kind of romantic notion about what Africa was and what it represented, that sometimes when faced with somebody who actually came from Africa, they would be perceived -- the African would be perceived as, quote, "too white." And I'm wondering what accounts for that, what accounted for that?

WAMBA: I think there's a number of different things. But one of it is a sense of unfamiliarity, and that in America, things are often -- race relations and social groups are often reduced to this sort of binary divide between black and white. And from some African-Americans that I had encountered, my sense was that if you didn't conform to a certain set of African-American standards, some stereotypes, perhaps, about what was expected of you as an African-American, then you could be dismissed as "too white."

In America, race and the divide between black and white is sometimes all-consuming, especially for black students. In Africa, where that's less so, where some of the divisions might be more religious in nature, more tribal in nature, more ethnic in nature, geographical, class, if those are sort of the cleavages that people are more aware of or have more of a role in shaping people's viewpoint in terms of situating themselves in the world. When they come to the United States without that sense of racial divide, it means that they relate to the world and to each other and to other black people in a different way, and that sometimes, I think, is part of the source of this alienation, discomfort, unfamiliarity.

GROSS: Another set of differences that you found, in terms of the way Africans see African-Americans and how African-Americans see Africans, in Africa you found that a lot of people there felt like, Why aren't African-Americans more interested in Africa? Why aren't they doing more to support African causes? Why aren't they better read about African issues?

And in America, you found a lot of African-Americans felt, Why don't Africans care more about what happened to African descendants after they were captured and taken into slavery and shipped off to the United States? Do you think that those are still kind of rifts between the two cultures?

WAMBA: Yes, I think they are. And the big issue there in both of those cases, both of those perspectives are informed by a strong sense of expectation, and the expectation is based on this appreciation of kinship. On the African side, you have, you know, Africans who have these myths of African-American richness, wealth, and wonder why, if African-Americans are all wealthy, why they wouldn't come to Africa and help to uplift their African cousins?

GROSS: And these images of wealth are because they see so many celebrities. They see, you know, celebrity hip-hoppers and celebrity actors and used to watch the "Bill Cosby Show," and that's what gives that sense of wealth.

WAMBA: Yes, and then on the other side, you have African-Americans who (laughs) -- there was a comedian, Eddie Griffin (ph), who I think has a television show, but on one of his standup routines he had this -- he was talking about why it was that Africans hadn't attempted to rescue African-Americans from slavery. And there is this popular perception that slavery was somehow a product of Africans selling off their undesired kin. And that's the source of some quite deep resentment, I've noted, regardless of how historically accurate that idea might be.

Again, there's this expectation that if we are indeed kin, then why is it that we ended up in America? Why is it that you Africans don't seem to care about what has happened to us, or aren't really involved with confronting some of the issues that we, you know, have to confront as black people in America?

And it carries over into the dynamic of the relationship between Africans who live in the United States and African-Americans. African communities in this country, immigrant communities, have been growing for a number of years. But for the most part, these communities remain fairly insular, and often have -- often slightly antagonistic relationships with African-American communities.

GROSS: Do you hope to play a part in helping to translate African and African-American life to people living in the United States and in Africa?

WAMBA: Well, yes, it's something throughout my life, growing up first in the United States and then moving to Africa, especially when I was living in Africa, I would often -- my brothers and I would form this role as cultural mediators between African-Americans and Africans. Sometimes that was just a simple issue of translating from Swahili to English for an African-American traveler who was visiting Africa. And then even on this side of the ocean, Afro-Tanzanians who have come over here, sometimes people I've known, sometimes people I haven't, just acting as a sort of cultural guide in terms of getting them oriented.

And so I have somehow felt myself sort of uniquely situated to be able to mediate across the divide, and then hopefully to build bridges across that divide, and that's something I would definitely hope to be involved in in the future.

GROSS: Well, Philippe Wamba, I want to thank you very much. Thank you for talking with us.

WAMBA: Thank you, thank you very much.

GROSS: Philippe Wamba is the author of "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America." He's currently living in Cambridge and working for a Web site of African news.

Coming up, how new technology is making us go faster and faster.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Philippe Wamba
High: Writer Philippe Wamba is the son of an African father and a African-American mother. His new book, "Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America," looks at the affinity between African-Americans and Africans, the things that divide them, and they myths they each hold about the other.
Spec: Families; Race Relations; Africa

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Kinship: Author Philippe Wamba on Africa and African-Americans

Date: SEPTEMBER 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091402NP.217
Head: Author James Gleick on the Speed of Life
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Our new technology is helping us get things done quicker. We're e-mailing and speed dialing, downloading things to read from the Web, flipping through dozens of TV channels with our remote controls, and, of course, multitasking every step of the way.

And it's making many of us a little tense. My guest, James Gleick, puts his finger on our culture's quickening pulse in his new book, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." He's the former "New York Times" science correspondent and author of previous books about chaos theory and physicist Richard Feynman.

In his new book, "Faster," Gleick considers what we're gaining and losing as new technology speeds us up and offers a dizzying array of choices. For example, with the help of the Internet and CD-ROM, it's easier to get access to magazines, newspapers, and books than ever before. But there are consequences.

JAMES GLEICK, "FASTER: THE ACCELERATION OF JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING": Just saw that the entire corpus of "Mad" magazine is being released on CD-ROM, you know, all the 700 or whatever it is issues from the 1950s onward, you can just call them up on your computer screen.

Well, I remember when I was a kid, "Mad" magazine was a sort of mysterious treasure. I would see it at friends' houses, and I never knew exactly how you got that. And when I had one, I just would sit with it for hours and hours, and really study the thing, not necessarily claiming that that made me a better person, but I gave it my all.

If you can just press a button and get any one of 785 issues, it is just not possible that you're going to devote a full hour to any one issue. It's just not going to happen. And you have to ask whether something isn't being lost there.

GROSS: Well, since time is what everybody's trying to save, you have some very interesting stuff about time in your new book. In fact, you visited the Directorate of Time -- at least, that's what it used to be called. What's it called now?

GLEICK: Yes, now they've -- they're calling it the Time Service Bureau, I think. It's not quite as romantic a name. But...

GROSS: What is the bureau?

GLEICK: ... either way, it's the agency of the military that's responsible for telling us what time it is. They've got the atomic clocks, and they've got a bunch of atomic clocks all scattered around a hillside and all linked fiberoptically, and all measuring time to the nine-billionth -- the one-nine-billionth of a second, and cooperating with counterparts overseas. It's -- this is not a purely American exercise either.

And what time they say it is, that's what time it is. They determine the time. They don't just watch it go by. And everybody needs to know, television stations and radio stations have atomic clocks. They've got to -- they have to be exactly accurate or there are problems with their signal. And of course the military uses precise timing to guide munitions these days, because thanks to the global positioning system, time is equivalent to location, and one nanosecond, a billionth of a second, is equivalent to one foot, because that's how far light travels in that time.

GROSS: Why is it part of the Defense Department?

GLEICK: Well, there is that military application. And I guess there's a historical reason too, which is that time a century and a half ago was most important to all -- of all the people on earth who cared about the time, the kind of person who cared most was a sailor, and for the same reason, that time equaled position. You couldn't know where you were at sea if you didn't know exactly what time it was.

So the naval observatories set a standard time. This was in the era before railroads. And the Directorate of Time is in the old U.S. Naval Observatory building to this day in Washington.

GROSS: Now, you visited, as part of the research for your book, an airline control center. And you write that the paradox of efficiency means that as the web tightens, it grows more vulnerable to small disturbances. Explain what you mean by that.

GLEICK: Yes, airlines run more efficiently now than ever before. That's an undeniable fact. They use computers to schedule the flights and the movements of pilots and flight attendants and the -- and the timing of aircraft maintenance. And there are a thousand variables that they have to juggle, you know, union rules and fuel and winds, and it's a really complicated math problem, working out an efficient schedule that doesn't waste aircraft and doesn't waste crews staying overnight someplace when they don't need to.

And if you track any particular plane from one place to the next, you discover that the computer has them going on weird routes. They don't just fly back and forth between New York and Chicago. They fly from New York to Chicago to Dallas to Phoenix to Toronto, and it's a long time before that route ever repeats, if it does.

The problem is, because it's so efficient, there aren't extra planes sitting around with nothing to do or extra flight crews when something goes wrong. So if there's an equipment failure or a thunderstorm that delays a plane or a pilot oversleeps someplace, the effects of that can cascade through the system and be felt for days.

I can -- they showed me -- we looked in real time at the computer displays that showed them what flights were late and why, and there were flights that were late because of something that happened two or three days before. It's an interesting paradox, I think, that this tightening net of efficiency makes us in a way more vulnerable to disruptions. Inefficiency gave us a margin of error, and you don't have to look very far into your own life and your own schedule to see that that's true for you too.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Gleick. He's former science correspondent for "The New York Times," author of the new book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Back with James Gleick. We're talking about his new book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." His earlier books include "Chaos."

One of the devices now that saves us a few seconds and saves us some impatience is touch-tone dialing, which, of course, isn't so new any more. As you point out, it kind of premiered for the public at the 1964 World's Fair in the AT&T Pavilion. What was the promise of touch-tone dialing when it was such an exciting new development in telephones?

GLEICK: Well, touch tone dialing was explicitly a time-saving device. That was the idea. It's -- I guess it's a sad fact that there are people alive today who might not remember that you used to have to move your finger around in a little circle to dial the telephone, and then you had to wait for the dial to click back.

And I was a kid at the World's Fair in 1962 or '3, whichever it was, and I remember very well the display they had, where first you were supposed to dial your own phone number, and do it first on the old dial and then do it in touch tone. And a little electronic read-out would tell you how many 10ths of a second you had just saved.

Well, that's kind of a crazy idea, isn't it, saving 10ths of a second? But the phone company, of all institutions, was and is intensely aware of how much we want to save time.

GROSS: Of course, one of the paradoxes of touch-tone dialing is that although in many ways it saves us a lot of time, it's been adding a lot of frustrating time, like when you're trying to call, you know, a corporation or an insurance company or, you know, any company, usually, and you get trapped in their automated voice mail system. And boy, it can take forever to get through that.

GLEICK: That is true, and there are a couple of things going on there. One is that a lot of those systems are just really badly designed, and the telephone is not a good instrument of information retrieval for a lot of things. In the long run, we're going to be getting our train schedules and making our airline reservations across the Internet and not using the telephone for that. It's just not the right device.

But the other thing that's happening -- this is something I try to explore in the book -- is that the economy is changing because of our changing relationship with time. Companies know how important time is to the consumer, and they cater to our need for speed. I mean, there are whole segments of the economy that have popped into existence because suddenly we're in a hurry. I mean, you know, we're fast food, overnight mail, Fedex.

On the other hand, companies also have come up with some clever ways to shift time from you to them, from -- take it away from your budget and put it on their budget. It saves the company a lot of money to lay off the human beings who used to answer your question in detail and instead have an automated system where you punch a lot of buttons and wait on hold. And there's a time saving there, but it's not time saving for you.

GROSS: Right, so you're losing time, but they're gaining it...

GLEICK: Right.

GROSS: ... and it's apparently financially worth it to them, at least for now. (laughs)

GLEICK: Yes, and of course, it's like so many things, it's most true of institutions that have some sort of monopoly. So the telephone company tends to be worse than your Internet service provider, and city and federal agencies tend to be the worst of all.

GROSS: My guest is James Gleick, and he's former science correspondent for "The New York Times," author of the book "Chaos," and author of the new book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything."

You've been writing about speed during a period of your life that you've been forced to slow down. In 1997 you were flying your private plane and it crashed, and your son was killed in the crash, and you were, I think, drawn out of the plane, put on the critical list in the hospital.

You survived, but you lost a leg, lost some of the use of your remaining leg. You were in the hospital for months, then went through a long period of physical therapy and rehabilitation. I mean, obviously a lot of one's values change during a period of grief and trauma.

I want to just focus on time and speed, since that's what your book is about. Did your whole sense of time and the meaning of time change, for instance, during those months in the hospital?

GLEICK: Well, that's sort of hard. I don't think the book changed in any real way. The book was mostly finished, and the things that I believed before the accident are the things that I still believe. And -- but those months are -- were certainly a strange period, and a period out of -- outside of reality, almost. It's hard even to remember them, and I tried to work in the hospital after the first month or two. But certainly there was no -- there was nothing like a regular daily rout -- there was a daily routine, but it was like the daily routine of a prisoner.

And -- well, there's no way to say -- there's no way to describe the grief that was the main feature of my existence. I mean, there's just no -- there's certainly no way to relate it to the book. But I guess you could say, if you wanted to explore this sort of issue, that there are times in our lives when the meaning of time changes for us and our perception of time changes, and it does make you realize that the perception of the passing of time depends on the flow of events in your life.

It's not an absolute thing, time, for us, it's a very subjective thing. I do say in the book that a peculiar exception to all of these trends of acceleration and understanding of time is prison. is a place in society where people do time, right, and they kill time. And the relationship of a prisoner with time is very different from the relationship of somebody who's rushing to work with a briefcase and grabbing a cup of coffee at Starbuck's, that the seconds and minutes and hours and days pass differently, depending on your circumstance.

GROSS: And when you're in the hospital, what -- you can't really rush, what you need is patience, and patience is just the opposite of what we've been talking about, with multitasking and hurrying and all of that.

GLEICK: Yes. I'm not sure patience is even the right word. I mean, I wasn't there voluntarily, you know.

GROSS: Right.

GLEICK: I had to -- I was there because I had to be there, and I was healing at a certain rate. It is true that an important theme of my book is about the unchangeable rates of speed that are part of all of our lives. And a lot of those unchangeable things, kinds of timing, are biological things. I wasn't going to heal -- there was nothing that was going to make me heal faster or grieve for a shorter time.

In less profound ways, we have a lot of biological rhythms in our lives. I mean, you got to sleep for a certain amount of time, and we all cheat on our sleep. You can't hurry love, as the song goes. Actually the title of my chapter on this subject is "Decomposition Takes Time," because I came across -- actually my wife came across a really funny thing on the Internet by an expert in compost who was answering question from a reader to wanted to know how to make -- get the compost to go faster.

And he was saying, Well, you can't, you know, it's a biological process. Decomposition takes time.

GROSS: Well, James Gleick, very good to talk with you. Thank you very much for being with us.

GLEICK: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: James Gleick is the author of "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything."


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Purdick. Dorothy Farabee (ph) is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: James Gleick
High: Science writer James Gleick's new book, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything," is about the accelerating pace of modern life. He discusses how technology has created the feeling that life moves too fast, but that we have become addicted to the pace and might as well learn to enjoy it.
Spec: Science; Lifestyles; Technology

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Author James Gleick on the Speed of Life
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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