The century is only a few weeks old, and already everyone I know is out of breath. One problem is the media's insistence on hyperventilation. For weeks we were told the world would shut down on New Year's Day. The week after we were told never mind. One day we hear that the stock market is poised to soar; the next it's poised to plummet. One day a media merger will trigger a new era; the next it won't make any difference at all.

Now comes word that the media are actually beginning to take their own breath away. A new digital technology gaining currency around the country eliminates the silent gaps between words on broadcast programs, and even snips the length of some vowels, in order to squeeze out more airtime for commercials. According to a front-page article in The New York Times, the technology, called Cash, for its profit generating prowess, has the ability to add as much as six minutes of commercials to every radio hour.

Some stations carrying Rush Limbaugh used the technique (without telling the host), and irate listeners flooded the station with thousands of e-mail messages. Even the Inspirational Network, of Charlotte, North Carolina, has used it to speed up sermons and religious programming, the Times reports.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry in response to this technology. Any radio programmer who thinks the way to get the public's attention is by squeezing more commercials into an ad-heavy world deserves the tune-out this technology will surely engender. The faster that ads get shoved down our throats, the more quickly we forget them, and the less effective they become.
A new digital technology eliminates the silent gaps between words on broadcast programs in order to squeeze out more airtime for commercials.

What's most alarming about this drive to compress everything into less space is that it eliminates one of the most precious, and important, commodities in modern life: time to consider what's going on around us. Time--and space--to think.

Poets and actors have known this for a long time; the caesura is a dramatic pause in a line for effect. My mother knows it, too. When she would go into her "I'm counting to three!" routine when I was a child, she would always pause between two and three to give me one last moment to reconsider my behavior.

The bottom line is clear:

It's essential.

In many instances, the meaning of words actually changes if the spaces are eliminated. Try reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without the pauses:
"...oneNationunderGodindivisiblewithlibertyandjusticeforall..." Is God indivisible? Or the Nation? Are we indivisible with liberty and justice? If so, what does that mean? Compare: "One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Surely Limbaugh's station managers, not just his fans, can appreciate that turn of phrase.

Eliminating the spaces between words is actually part of a larger plague: the use of technology to alter the natural rhythms of life. Many pop music stations, for example, routinely speed up their songs to squeeze in more commercials. Worse, most pop music is recorded on digital tape, which means, as a practical matter, that performers sing songs as many as 40 times in the studio and editors splice together the best cut of each word with no regard to whether a real person could actually sing the final song. The days when Frank Sinatra's breathing was analyzed to determined how he inhaled are long gone.

These days if a lyric simply reads "I love you," it's not only possible but also likely that the singer will sing "I" on one day and "love" on the next, and then go on vacation to Mexico, have throat surgery, get married, get divorced, fall in love again, lose a parent, have a child, and in the process completely change his conception of what love means, before returning to the studio to sing the final "you." Technology creating a more perfect world, but one with less meaning.

We see this problem of time compression in other aspects of our lives. In the last decade, the radio audience actually shrank by 12 percent. One reason, no doubt, is the increase in use of cellular phones while people drive, prime time for radio. While cell phones can be great for delivering information ("I'm late," or "I've been in an accident"), in many ways they serve to cheapen the value of conversation. As someone without a cell phone, I've grown to dislike the chatty calls from friends or family as they sit in traffic or shop for groceries. I've become like talk radio: just filling their time. I can be pouring out my soul, when suddenly: "Hold on! I just dropped an avocado on I-95 and almost got run over by a cement truck."

Seconds later they're back: "Now, what were you saying?"
In Genesis, after God creates light, vegetation, the sun and moon, and humans, he pauses to consider his action, noticing that what he's done is "good."

A friend of mine recently yelled at a man who called to ask her out on a date while on his way home from the cleaners: "If you don't respect me enough to call me when you're not walking down the street with your shirts, I don't want to go out with you!" He never called back.

What's troubling about this trend is that the spaces between the fixed events in our lives are like the spaces between words: they're important, they have meaning, they provide a haven of reflection in an otherwise cluttered day. I've come to think of the silent time in my life as being like those Styrofoam giblets that come in packages. They cushion me from the outside world.

The Bible, for one, understands the need for reflection. In Genesis, after God creates light, vegetation, the sun and moon, and humans, he pauses to consider his action, noticing that what he's done is "good." Then he moves on. After six days, he takes an entire day for rest and contemplation. This day, the Sabbath, has become a time to reexamine our recent behavior against an unchanging code of right and wrong.

The faster life becomes, the more we need such time. As the author David Shenk writes in "The End of Patience," the more we adapt ourselves to the speedy onslaught of information, the more we forget how to slow down. "We have fewer opportunities--and less patience--to lose ourselves in an essay, or a conversation, or a complex thought." We don't even realize what we're missing. Recently I was on vacation in Los Angeles and announced my intention to drive to Palm Springs for the day. "What are you going to do in the car for five hours?" my friend asked.

"Um, think," I said. "Talk to myself. Listen to myself."

Occupy the spaces between my words.

Until the 16th century, Bibles in Latin had no spaces between the words. Monks were expected to know Scripture by heart; lay people were forbidden to read it. Spaces were added after the Reformation--along with other devices like chapters and verses--in order to make the text more accessible.

Not until the digital revolution--400 years later--have we threatened to forget that lesson. The words, the events, and the deeds of our lives have little meaning by themselves. Only when we pause to reflect on them--only when we have space to see them--does their full meaning become apparent.

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