Hurry Up and Wait

Seeing life as a pattern of furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity.

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.

In his first book, “Linked,” Mr. Barabási offered a lucid theory of how the shape of networks can produce unexpected results, such as the “rich get richer” cascades of popularity we see on the Web. If a Web site becomes moderately popular, visitors will post a lot of links pointing toward it, which brings in new visitors who post their own links to the site, and so on . . . until eventually the shape of the network guarantees a big, entrenched daily audience. By contrast, a site that never attracts much attention in the first place is likely to stay that way. These self-reinforcing dynamics help explain why popularity on the Web often follows a “power law”: There are a tiny number of sites with massive traffic and a vast majority that have few visitors at all. The power law governs the shape of the Web and many other networked structures.

Now it turns out that power laws might govern the timing of our real-world activities, too. In “Bursts,” Mr. Barabási argues that bursty patterns are wired into human behavior, because we’re task-rich but time-poor. When we’re faced with having too much to do and not enough time—a category under which you could safely file “all modern white-collar work”—we prioritize. We pick the most urgent things, focus on them and forget the rest. Once forgotten, a task often stays forgotten, ignored for hours, days, months or even years. The act of prioritizing inherently produces power laws that dictate what we do on a minute-by-minute basis.

As Mr. Barabási’s research finds, the prioritizing reflex is why we send email in furious blasts surrounded by oceans of inactivity. We make phone calls and check out books from libraries in a similar pattern, and burstiness shapes our patterns of travel: We take many short hops, interspersed with the occasional superlong hop (which helps explain how diseases spread). We even attend to our health in bursty patterns, ignoring symptoms when other things are more important until—bam—a health problem suddenly becomes unignorable, producing a flurry of medical visits in a short time.

“Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource, and if we want to treat it with respect, we need to set priorities,” Mr. Barabási writes. “Once we do that, power laws and burstiness become unavoidable.” Normally, I’d have thought that our penchant for bursts of activity would make life more erratic, as one person’s burst collides with another’s stasis. (If you’ve ever drummed your fingers for minutes that feel like hours while waiting for a reply to your “urgent” email, you’ll know what I mean.) But Mr. Barabási argues that the effect is precisely the opposite: If we know that burstiness is common, predicting human behavior becomes easier.

For example, Japanese doctors discovered that they could predict the impending onset of depression in at-risk patients by monitoring their physical movements with motion-sensitive watches. Even our daily physical movements, it turns out, are bursty—we spend a lot of time at rest, punctuated by spasms of activity. When the Japanese doctors detected a change in their patients’ normally bursty physical activity, it signaled the onset of a depressive incident. (Depressed people often report feeling physically sluggish.) Yet this predictive power can also be used for ill. Mr. Barabási worries that burstiness makes us trackable online by corporations and government, particularly as digital tools like mobile phones produce records of our goings and doings.

This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and when he focuses on the science, Mr. Barabási is a superbly clear writer. But science constitutes a surprisingly small fraction of “Bursts.” Mr. Barabási spends much of the book delivering real-life stories that are supposed to illustrate his principles. Some, like an account of Albert Einstein’s correspondence in 1919 with a little-known scientist, neatly illustrate how bursts govern our lives. But other stories aren’t so successful— particularly Mr. Barabási’s elaborate account of how a Crusade in 16th-century Hungary turned into a gore-splattered civil war. On its own, the Hungarian conflict makes a riveting story, but Mr. Barabási devotes more than a quarter of the book to its telling—yet never convincingly connects the tale to his theme. It became, for me, a maddening distraction. In the end, Mr. Barabási has written a thought-provoking book. But the most rewarding passages appear only, as it were, in bursts.

Mr. Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired.


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