I hate waiting in line. I hate the inevitable delay in my productivity that I know is coming when the spinning Apple wheel starts to rev up. I hate crafting emails that offer the recipient a socially acceptable reason for why they haven’t responded to my earlier email. I hate the smug self-satisfaction of a petty bureaucrat who knows that they have scored a point in making me wait for something from them. There isn’t anything about waiting that I don’t hate and, if the irritation and disgust that palpably exudes from long queues are any indication, I suspect that I am not alone in my loathing.
Waiting — especially the idea that a person might have to wait — flies in the face of 21st-century expectations of communicating with each other at a frenetic, break-neck pace. When communication is measured by the picosecond, how we wait and why have become complicated and are inescapably tied to questions of social power and privilege. The app Placer, for example, allows people to hire others to wait in long lines for them, as does the website TaskRabbit. TSA’s PreCheck allows travelers to move through a security line with less waiting. But all of the various ways we wait are not without historical precedent.
Waiting can be a funny thing. Learning a foreign language, for example, with rote, set phrases can mimic proper conversation — but because those conversations are so stilted and awkward, waiting is simply an opportunity to prepare your next phrase. I don’t think that I’m capable, for example, of ordering a bottle of water in Spanish without being transported into the canned call-and-responses I practiced in ninth-grade Spanish class. (“¡Psst, camarero! Yo deseo una botella de agua mineral.” “¿Con limón?” “Sí. Con limón.”) Pauses are part of any spoken conversation, of course, but in those parroted conversations, I remember, waiting was terrifying, filled with the fear of going off-script, forgetting how to conjugate a verb, or trying to ask for the bill. Because those conversations were fundamentally unsettled, any pause gave me, well, pause.
It turns out that all conversations — written, verbal, scripted, and anything in between — are, in fact, built around the act of waiting. There’s an ebb and flow in how we communicate, and waiting is inescapable, whether it takes the form of an immediate reply or a long delay.
Jason Farman’s Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World is a timely and insightful reminder that waiting is a natural, integral part of how communication unfolds and has been unfolding for millennia. Whether it’s in sending and receiving written missives, the regulation of how information flows, or building infrastructure to alleviate uncertainty around waiting, the act of waiting leaves traces in the records of history and material culture, as technology is — inevitably — invented and reinvented to mark and mitigate how people wait.
By exploring seven different historical instance of waiting — from sending messages via the pneumatic tubes in New York City in the early 20th century, to the royal seals of Elizabethan England, to the New Horizons mission exploring space — Farman unpacks how waiting is recorded in various social and material cultures. “[T]he promise of communication technologies is that they will connect people at an ever-accelerating pace until the distance between us is completely bridged,” Farman argues in the book’s introduction. “Contrary to the feelings of anxiety people have while waiting for messages, most of the contemporary rhetoric around the digital age seems to argue that digital media users have arrived at the promised era of instant connection.” Delayed Response walks readers through the culture of waiting and how it changes depending on what is being waited for and why.
It’s the historical anecdotes that really let the complex themes of technology, infrastructure, networks, and ever-evolving expectations of communication in Delayed Response shine through. Take the story of New York City’s pneumatic tubes, for example.
In the late 19th century, tens of miles of tubing were installed beneath the streets of New York, which were used to deliver mail at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour, moving something like 20,000 letters a minute, between the city’s post offices. Pneumatic tubes were first used in London in 1853 to help speed up the delivery of mail, and citywide “ganglia” of tubes were quickly installed in other major European centers like Berlin and Vienna.
Once the social value was established — eliminating wait times between sending and receiving letters — systems of tubes were put into several major US cities. (Farman points out that the first experiments with introducing pneumatic technology in New York City was a “human-sized subway car that was propelled down the length of a city block.”) The use of the pneumatic tubes meant that delivering a message from Manhattan to Brooklyn no longer relied on a person physically transporting a message — the message could actually travel faster than any other sort of delivery system in a crowded city. This innovation changed, Farman argues, not only the pace of conversation, but the expectations for waiting as well.
“When a technology speeds up our ability to connect with one another, as the pneumatic tube was able to do, the words being sent through the letters in the tubes aren’t the only content […] the content is also time,” Farman writes. “It is not simply that someone received a love letter; it’s also that someone got a love letter sent through the pneumatic tubes. This is the mark of an accelerated culture.”
But creating faster-than-human-carried messages shows striking similarities with our contemporary expectations of ever-more-instant communication. The three-dots-ellipses that indicate that a response to a text message is being typed, Farman suggests, show a striking historic parallel with the motivations in the early 20th century to build networks of pneumatic tubes, geared toward speeding up the arrival time of written communiques. This sort of shared, social goal is to reduce wait times, whether that is expressly articulated or not.
Farman’s chapter “Spinning in Place” walks readers through the history of different buffering icons — from the Windows 95 hourglass and the Macintosh wristwatch to the “spinning beach ball of death.” One of the most interesting sets of stories draws a parallel between the post–World War II boom in multi-story apartment buildings that required elevators (that tenants inevitably complained about having to wait for) and the progress bar we watch while waiting for computers to execute some task.
According to historical lore, the elevator-wait problem was solved when a psychologist suggested putting mirrors in the areas where people were waiting, thus giving them something to look at. This made waiting interesting and, more to the point, seems to have alleviated irritation at waiting for the elevator. Similarly, the status bar gives users something to look at and occupy their time while they wait. But telling users how much longer they have to wait is only an effective trick when the waiting is … interesting. That is to say, only when the status bar moves steadily and predictably toward completion; otherwise the wait experience feels unfair.
Perhaps the most poignant example of waiting in Delayed Response is the correspondence between one Joseph Coryell and his wife, Sarah, just before the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War. In Joseph’s letters, he writes about sending money home and how much he misses his wife; Sarah writes of the hardships of managing the family while Joseph is gone. Joseph’s final letter to Sarah was dated April 29, 1863. Joseph died “on the shores of the Rappahannock, next to the supplies for the pontoon bridge.” Farman frames this personal story of waiting for letters from loved ones within the larger narrative of General Burnside’s ever-waiting for pontoon bridge supplies to arrive. Broadly, the issues of delay in military missives wreaked serious havoc in the Union’s military strategies.
Coryell’s final letter, and several others that he wrote to Sarah, were posted after his death, along with a letter the regiment’s chaplain wrote to Sarah; the final letter Sarah wrote to Joseph arrives too late for him to read and is returned to her. (We learn that the mail typically took 10 to 12 days to be received from when it was posted.) By tracing life during the Civil War through stories of waiting for letters and responses in historical archives, Farman shows that delay in messages has very real and heartbreaking consequences.
The strength of Delayed Response is in the curious, quirky, and unexpected stories of waiting — it’s also in Farman’s own stories of how he discovered the stories he’s telling. The weakness, such that it is, lies in Farman’s zealous use of quotes and citations from media theorists, philosophers, and cultural critics to legitimize points he has made himself through his stories. In the grand scheme of Delayed Response, however, the reader is really only left wanting more examples of how the act of waiting enters the historical record.
The irony of waiting in hours-long lines to get through airport customs in Heathrow and to vote early in south Austin for the midterms while I was reading Delayed Response wasn’t lost. But in every instance of waiting that I could think of or that I experienced, I found there was a historic counterpart described in Delayed Response and written in a material text that I had not considered. “We must confront the effect of our disdain toward waiting,” Farman counsels in the conclusion. The book is a powerful reminder that how and why we wait is hardly a new story, but is, nevertheless, a unique combination of culture, context, and technology.
For those who want to understand the rich history and material culture of pauses and less-than-prompt rejoinders, Delayed Response is the book we’ve been waiting for.
Lydia Pyne is a writer, historian, and author of Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Fossil Humans and Bookshelf.