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Hurry Up and Wait

May 1, 2010

Clive Thompson in WSJ Books:

Like most white-collar workers, I often feel as if I write email nonstop. Every minute at my desk brings another message to deal with: an editor wondering about a deadline, a friend asking about lunch, weird quasi-spam from Facebook or Twitter.

But the truth is that email doesn’t actually dominate my life. When I look closely at my outbox, I can see that I write in sudden spurts—big blasts of messages followed by silence for hours and sometimes days. Yesterday, for example, I had a busy morning, cranking out 15 messages at around 10 and another 20 an hour later. But then all was quiet until late afternoon, when I suddenly cranked out an additional 16.

It turns out that this pattern—explosions of activity, followed by quiet—are not just a personal quirk of mine. Odds are, you deal with your email in much the same way. According to Albert-László Barabási’s “Bursts,” this “bursty” pattern governs almost everything we do and even much of what happens in the natural world.

By now the promise of unveiling a “hidden side” behind everyday life—economics, career development, child-rearing, cooking, you name it—is a numbingly familiar trope. (What mystic subcurrent in contemporary American intellectual culture is so routinely thrilled with the concept that everything we do— everything!—conceals a secret, hidden side?) Nonetheless, Mr. Barabási, a pioneering scientist in the field of network theory, comes by the trope honestly. His research has genuinely exposed invisible trendlines that shape our world. [More]

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