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In hock to the clock: a call for `slow is beautiful'

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AMERICANS may not be so good at saving money. But they are world beaters when it comes to trying to save time. From microwave ovens to stay-pressed pants, you'd think we'd have more time than we knew what to do with. Yet the more we try to save time, the less we seem to have.

``Those who have the most time- and labor-saving technologies feel they have the least time of anybody,'' author Jeremy Rifkin observed in an interview earlier this summer.

Where does it all go? Is it possible that, trying so resolutely to save time, Americans simply bring the ``future'' upon themselves more rapidly, like those video games in which the road rushes in upon the driver at ever-increasing speeds?

Mr. Rifkin thinks so. In his new book, ``Time Wars,'' he predicts that the resulting unease will soon find expression in the political arena. Until now, people have experienced loss of time as a vague personal discontent, for which they have blamed their own inability to cope. A large industry has arisen, offering everything from executive time-management seminars to Valium. ``Stress'' is rivaling fat as the pet affliction of the supermarket tabloids.

But Rifkin says he thinks the computer is going to force the issue out into the open, and that the result will be a new politics of time. In the 1960s and '70s, he observes, politics revolved largely around issues of spatial scale. The right called for less central government, the left for less corporate economic power. ``Small Is Beautiful,'' the book by British economist E.F. Schumacher, captured the imagination of the times.

The 1990s, Rifkin says, will have a new banner: ``Slow Is Humane,'' as Ivan Illich, the social critic, put it.

Jeremy Rifkin is best known as the man who has almost single-handedly slowed the pace of genetic engineering and kindred forms of biological manipulation in the United States. Working out of his tiny Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, he brought the lawsuit that has stalled the Army's new biological testing facility in Dugway, Utah. Recently, he organized the coalition behind proposed legislation that would impose a two-year moratorium on the patenting of life forms such as commercial stock animals.

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