When TV's motor mouth John Moschitta recorded "10 Classics in 10 Minutes" last year, his rapid-fire summaries of Moby Dick, Gone With the Wind, Oliver Twist and seven other famous novels sounded like an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading session gone haywire.

The promo promised "the world's fastest-talking man reads the world's greatest books." True to the temporal urgency of the '80s, it rationalized "so many books, so little time."

The recording, of course, was a gag. But so-called "time compression" in our culture isn't a gag. It is at the heart of our changing relationship with the clock. And, warn some experts, its consequences could be dire.

Yet most people are introduced to time compression rather innocently. About this time every year, nature starts cramming daylight into fewer hours. Long before The One-Minute Manager made best seller lists or McDonald's made fast food, time compression was a natural phenomenon known to occur in moments of emergency, in flights of fancy and during intense concentration.

"Time itself can't be compressed," clarifies David S. Landes, chairman of Harvard University's history department and a professor of economics. "It is ... an artificial concept which we measure in uniform units. Time itself never speeds up or slows down. What speeds up or slows down is our perception of what is happening."

Landes, the author of the 1983 book Revolution in Time, calls the subject "so ubiquitous and banal" that people don't pay much attention to it. But they do experience it, often differently. "Young people think time is passing more slowly than old people," he says. "Perhaps because old people have less time left, they have a different perception than a young person who thinks waiting eight minutes in a movie line seems like forever."

Other instances of naturally compressed and expanded time seem -- appropriately -- to occur under pressure. Edward T. Hall, author of the 1983 book The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, says tales of "my-whole-life-flashed-before-me" in the face of death and emergencies in which time seems to stand still suggest altered perception of time can serve as a survival mechanism. He recalls the story of a Navy test pilot who after takeoff from an aircraft carrier realized his plane wasn't gaining power. "The 8-second scenario of how he dealt with the emergency and survived took 45 minutes to describe," reports Hall. "If that capacity to expand time -- in this instance to about 300 {times} normal time -- had not been built into the human species, it is doubtful that the human race would have survived."

Scientists, however, are uncertain how nature alters time sequences. Hall speculates that emergencies or critical situations can short-circuit the neurotransmitting circuitry of the brain to bypass extraneous information and deal directly and efficiently with the action at hand. "We call it reflex," says Hall to simplify the concept. "You knock a bottle off the table and your reactions and thinking speeds up to catch it. Only this is reflex of the whole organism."

Enter the artificial manipulation of time. If moments of concentration, for whatever reasons, can cause a paranormal experience of time, does an artificial compression of time then cause improved concentration? Greater efficiency? In other words, by tinkering with the clock, can we unleash greater mental power?

Hall calls artificial time compression "a black-box phenomenon" that when successful is a "matter of getting into phase with the natural rhythms of the human being. If the machine is tailgating us," he adds, using the traffic metaphor to mean clashing time frames, "it doesn't succeed. One is threatening and the other is stimulating."

No technology has affected Americans' time perception more in the past four decades than television. The first experiments with electronically compressing what is seen on the television screen began in 1980, on the heels of research psychology that had shown fast talkers in one-way communications to be more persuasive and more impressive.

"It doesn't matter whether the talk is naturally fast, or is made faster by electronic techniques," wrote James MacLachlan, then a business professor at New York University, in a 1979 Psychology Today article. "Fast talk scores better on all measures."

MacLachlan's own interest in compressed communications first surfaced when he heard about electronic equipment for the blind, called Varispeech, that could play back recordings faster and yet remain undistorted in pitch (no Mickey Mouse voice) by shaving off about 20/1,000ths of a second off each sound. He wondered if the machine had a practical application for other communications.

With a pilot model on loan from Lexicon, the Waltham, Mass., manufacturer of the first commercial "time compressor-expander," as it is called in the industry, MacLachlan experimented with putting the squeeze on TV time. He had already demonstrated that speakers in radio commercials speeded up by 25 percent -- compressing a 30-second ad into 25 seconds -- were rated more intelligent, knowledgeable and sincere than when played at normal speed. And he had documented that listeners found radio commercials "more interesting" and averaged a 66 percent greater recall when played 30 percent faster.

Other researchers had discovered that when lectures were played at twice their original "talking speed" (282 instead of 141 words per minute), audience comprehension dropped only 10 percent -- considered a small sacrifice for increased efficiency.

Already convinced that "time flies when you're having fun," researchers also confirmed the opposite: Allowed to adjust voice variable controls of recordings themselves, most experiment subjects found listening more pleasurable at 25 percent faster than normal.

MacLachlan's earliest attempts to shoehorn TV footage into a smaller fit seemed equally promising. Students watching videotaped commercials that had been compressed by about 20 percent remembered brand names that had been advertised 36 percent more often than those watching the unaltered ads -- without noticing the speed-up.

But of several benefits promised by TV time-compressing (increased attention, retention) only one has materialized with the shift from lab experiment to the flickering screen in millions of homes: Efficiency. Almost 20 percent of the ads on network television today are compressed, says MacLachlan, now a professor of business management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The purpose of ad compression: to save time and money in an industry where multimillion-dollar ad campaigns equate time and money.

"They use it to get more TV commercials in," says MacLachlan, explaining that the technique is commonly used for packing nonprime-time commercials and for recovering a few seconds for adding local tag lines at the end of national ads. The compression, he adds, is undetectable to viewers. "Nobody would know by looking at it except it does add vitality."

Tom Robbins, vice president/director of communications at J. Walter Thompson, a major ad agency headquartered in New York, says compressed ads are only one of several time-warping techniques used in television and radio. Voice overlapping, for instance, has invaded New York radio commercials "giving you the impression the whole thing is shorter because so much is crammed into it," he says.

In addition, if TV viewers have the impression some commercials are just plain shorter, says Robbins, they're right. A year ago, the number of 15-second ads sneaking into network air time more than doubled those of the year before -- from nine to 20 percent. It's a shift, says Robbins, that is "as significant as when ads went from 60 to 30 seconds in the mid-'60s." A report released by the J. Walter Thompson agency last year predicted that by 1990, half of all network commercials will be 15 seconds long.

Advertisers who champion the 15-second ads generally cite budget reasons: They're cheaper than 30-second ads even though they now cost a premium price. But they also argue that Americans' increasing impatience means you can no longer sell short the short sell. Clearly the Japanese haven't. The nation that has made an art of efficiency has already seen the emergence of the seven-second TV commercial.

Advertisers have also cranked up the action on many ads. "Rapid cuts, rapid editing, with dozens of scenes in a single commercial," says Robbins of a popular ad style, as seen in recent Burger King Burger Bundles commercials, that has been influenced by the music-video production. "They were all extremely fast and some are filmed in high speed," says Robbins. "We believe very strongly that consumers ... have become so adjusted to the essential barrage of images they are exposed to every day that they are actually able to absorb more information in a short period of time than, say, 20 years ago."

But Jeremy Rifkin believes technology can wind the human clock only so tightly before springs are sprung.

The author of Time Wars (Henry Holt, $18.95) claims America's timepiece is now set to a "faster is better" ethos. He laments tape recorder industry estimates that "about a million people now 'speed listen' and millions more will." Television's accelerated pace, he charges, is like a time bomb amid natural rhythms -- the ones that enable a child to lose track of time while reading a story or a shortstop's mind to slow the action of a line-drive and make the play. He emphatically states that our artificially altered sense of time has affected quality of life and ultimately threatens survival. "Throughout most of history the social time was compatible with the physical and ecological rhythms," says Rifkin, president of the D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends. "Speed was not much of an issue until about 100 years ago. You were always constrained to natural speed, the speed of animals and the speed the wind could give you."

Rifkin says that the computer -- the latest technology to squeeze time -- is changing all that. "Now our social time is so sped up and accelerated with computers and their nanosecond time frame and the electronic environment we've created that it bears only a faint resemblance to our natural time frame," says Rifkin.

Nanosecond time, says Rifkin, is "a revolutionary change." It is a billionth of a second. A snap of the fingers equals 500 million nanoseconds. "For the first time we are segmenting time below the realm of experience," he says. "There is literally no way to experience the billionth of a second."

The motivation behind the nanosecond culture? "The ascension of the efficiency value" in a civilization that had no clocks before the 13th century, no minute hands before about 200 years ago. "Our main time orientation today is hyperefficiency and speed," says Rifkin. "Nobody challenges efficiency and speed."

And yet efficiency and speed have their trade-offs, warns Rifkin. It's something like the magazine headlines that read: "Free Time -- Making the Most of It." But were we to make the most of it, we would have no free time.

"In the long run, you get alienation, a sense of detachment, lack of participation," Rifkin says. "The humanity is sapped out of the process because there is no room for experiencing, for savoring or for just being." He argues that our increased pace has already made us more impatient and intolerant people.

"We're moving close to temporal gridlock," he argues, claiming that "temporal stress" is already taxing our biology. He blames the fast-paced, hyperexperience of television and the computer with stealing the attention span of our children and undermining their ability to reflect and project. He blames ecological problems from acid rain to the greenhouse effect to extinction of species on our outpacing the pulse of the planet.

While Landes agrees that "a lot of our technology is operating on much shorter time tolerances" and "those time constraints can be quite stressful," he doesn't see a nanosecond revolution as threatening society. "The introduction of artificial timekeeping already took us away from nature and imposed a rhythm that isn't that of the sun and so forth," he says. "The introduction of temporal punctuation marks -- when you go to work, when not to, and with that the concern with productivity and efficiency -- has created stresses on everybody ... But I don't think the nanosecond thing is revolutionary in that regard."

The "saving tendency," Landes argues, is not to push precision to an extreme. He mentions that we are capable of measuring the winning time of a swimming competition far beyond the hundredth of a second -- but consensus says we don't.

"There is a small element of tolerance that is indispensable and will not disappear," he says. "We're dealing with human beings and not machines ... I can think of science fiction scenarios in which a society is driven to the thousandths of a second -- but I don't think it's going to happen."

Rifkin believes it will, but not without a struggle. "The next few years will become a temporal battleground," he says. "You know the old saying 'haste makes waste?' We're going to see a critical look at efficiency and speed. We're going to start to see a new heresy take hold. And it's going to say that slower is beautiful, slower is humane."