TT: Instant Gratification

JANE:  Last time I mentioned how there seems to have been a culture shift towards instant gratification.  The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this cultural shift goes beyond social activities such as eating out.

Hey!  What 'Cha Got?

Hey! What ‘Cha Got?

Search engines such as Google permit instant gratification regarding acquiring information.  Books, music, and movies can be downloaded at a whim.  I-phones and suchlike devices mean you don’t even need to be at home to acquire the new book or movie or whatever.  All you need is connectivity.

Overnight shipping is becoming routine, so there’s no more waiting for that special order.  If you’re willing to pay, you can have it the next day.

I’m not saying this is wholly bad or good – but, to me, it’s a definite indication of a cultural shift where planning, persistence, and patience are less valued than immediate satisfaction.

ALAN: To an extent that’s true, at least for simple things. Certainly I’ve been able to find books and music that I’d probably never have been able to obtain in the pre-internet days, and that’s been absolutely wonderful. But once you start to dig a bit deeper and try to achieve more complex goals, things become trickier (and often slower).

For example, I recently needed find out how old the writer Janet Kagan was when she died (and when it happened). That was trivially easy and it only took a few seconds. However, when you and I were writing Tangents about all the kings of England called Henry, the subject proved to be so complex that I found myself making notes and sketching relationships and cross-referencing between articles – in other words I was doing traditional academic research to try and fully understand something that quickly turned into a rat’s nest of complicated interconnections.

Sometimes I used the internet, sometimes I used traditional reference books and it took quite some time before I really felt I had a handle on the Henries. We started the discussion here and I’m rather proud of  what we did.

JANE: That’s an excellent point.  Instant availability of information does not mean instant comprehension.  Why did you feel the need to use printed references rather than just the web?

ALAN: Mainly because I was doing a lot of reading and I don’t like reading huge slabs of prose on a computer screen. Also I’m very fond of my 1966 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica and it was wonderful to have an excuse to use it as it was intended to be used!

JANE: That makes perfect sense. I don’t like reading on a screen either.

So you opted away from instant gratification in favor of some other benefit.  That’s just one way that this cultural metamorphosis is complex and many-sided.

Being able to order what one needs, not settle for what is in the store, is wonderful.  This is especially a positive development for medical or other specialized needs.  Recently, I was able to find the precise type of sandal I needed on-line.  Ironically, I wanted to patronize a brick and mortar store, because I wanted the store to be there next time I needed to actually try on shoes.  However, I was also unwilling to settle for less than what I needed so, in the end, I went on-line.

However, what does cultivating instant gratification mean for the things that can’t be sped up?  Rock stars are the classic model of the “overnight success,” yet, based on the numerous bios I’ve read, many of these “overnight” prodigies put in a lot of practice time.  The gratification – even for those who “broke in” in their teens or early twenties – was far from instantaneous.

Some things can’t be sped up.  Period.  Do people who are used to getting what they want now or at the very least the next day still have this patience?  Is our future changing?

ALAN: Well, let’s try and answer that question science fictionally, since changing futures is a large part of what SF is all about. SF has always assumed (sometimes implicitly rather than explicitly) that as the future arrives things will get faster and easier.

Recently Robin and I were watching an old episode of the TV series Lost in Space. The lady of the spaceship (Mrs Robinson – now there’s a name to conjure with) wandered on set with a basket of dirty clothes. She put them in the washing machine and pressed a button. Lights flashed for a few seconds. Then she opened the machine and took the clean clothes out. And not only were they clean, they had been pressed and folded and individually wrapped in cellophane!

Since I do the washing in our house, I want one of those washing machines. But even without one, I still spend considerably less time washing the clothes than my mother did. She did the washing by hand for years and even when she did finally get a washing machine it was quite primitive by modern standards and she still had a lot of manual labour to do.

So, in SF terms (and, by extension, in real life as well), the trend towards instant gratification is simply a function of future technology. Almost by definition, the one follows on from the other.

Until it doesn’t, as with my Janet Kagan/King Henry experience.

JANE: I wish I thought it was that simple.  There are good things, absolutely.  These days there’s no need to argue about some factual point.  You can Google it, then talk about substance without getting lost in a triviality like a date or time or some other purely factual element.

But does substance get discussed or have we merely become a community of trivia buffs?  I’m reminded of when pocket calculators became inexpensive enough that anyone could get one.  Before long, the argument was being made that students shouldn’t need to learn to add, subtract, multiply, or divide because the machine could do it for them.  Many people felt that allowing kids to use pocket calculators was a positive development, that now students could concentrate on higher mathematics rather than wasting time learning mere arithmetic.  Has this happened?

ALAN: When I was a schoolboy we were always encouraged to use slide rules (and log tables, though that’s much the same thing). Calculators are just a logical extension of that and they are much faster, of course. The time saved can be used to concentrate on more important mathematical principles rather than getting bogged down in arithmetical detail. I’m sure that happens.

However I have noticed that these days a lot of people can’t do simple arithmetic any more. If you want to bewilder a teenager, wait until you have a supermarket bill of $19.10. Give the cashier $20.10 and then sit back and enjoy the confusion that results…

JANE: Clearly I need to think about this further.  Perhaps we could continue this discussion next time.


7 Responses to “TT: Instant Gratification”

  1. Peter Says:

    To play Devil’s Advocate a bit, I’m not sure how much this is an actual cultural shift (we’re behaving differently) and how much this is a technological shift (we’re behaving exactly the same way, but the available technology is different).

    I’m not sure I see a real behavioural difference between today’s reader (of taste and refined sensibilities) clicking the “Pre-order” button on Amazon for the new Jane Lindskold novel and having it wirelessly delivered to their Kindle on the day it releases and the New Yorkers of the 1840s who mobbed the docks when the ship carrying the latest Charles Dickens arrived.

    I think humans have always wanted instant gratification (and wanted it right now!!) – it’s just easier to get these days.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I’d say there is a cultural shift. For instance, they no longer teach handwriting in school any more, and kids are expected to learn keyboarding at an early age. My mom ran into a neighbor’s kid who learned how to play with a touch-screen at an early age, rather than playing with chalk, crayons, blocks, mom’s hair, or whatever. As a result, he was totally incompetent with things like using a fork to feed himself, because the touch screen hadn’t led him to develop any coordination with his grasp.

    Computerization has led to some rather ugly follow-on effects. When I was in college, we could keep working with the power off (say at a store), simply by keeping a cash drawer open, writing out sales slips by hand, and taking cash only. Now, if the power’s off, business stops, because there is no handwritten backup, and most people want to use electronic payments. Indeed, even if the power’s on, if the network’s down, business stops. This is true for office work too. We no longer have manual typewriters, so when the system crashes, business ends until it comes back up, deadlines be damned.

    If you’re paranoid, you can see this as an acute vulnerability, where Web War I will cause as much destruction as did World War I, without the bombs, bullets, and gases. If you want a broader angle, I’d say that efficiency and resilience are often negatively correlated in technology. Resilient things (like manual typewriters or hand writing, or scribing clay tablets) are much less efficient than using the internet. However, they’re much easier to keep using in case of systemic failures. Like it or not, we’re all embedded in a global consumer culture. While it makes our lives easier, when it breaks, so do we.

  3. barbara joan Says:

    I totally agree with Heteromeles. Having gotten used to paying bills on line and many other ways of communicating with people and things, it has been a most difficult situation since due to a broken electrical connection, not caused by me, there are so many things that I cannot do, or messages I cannot respond to. To the point that I am seriously thinking of chucking my computer in the trash can and going back to doing things the old fashioned way.

  4. Jane Lindskold Says:

    I’m enjoying the comments on this — especially since I think everyone is right. Peter shows the IMPULSE has always been there.

    Heteromeles and barbara joan did a great job of pointing out some of the cascade effects.

    Like I said, I’m still thinking about this…

  5. Paul Dellinger Says:

    As a kid, I remember that Wonder Woman was immediately chosen as secretary of the Justice Society of America, as the sole female member. And she didn’t even have Mrs. Robinson’s technology.

  6. James M. Six Says:

    This reminds me of a Frank Zappa quote I read in a science fiction novel by Daniel Keys Moran (spoken by a computer hacker type):
    “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.”
    Just because you can get information from the internet instantly, that doesn’t mean you know what to do with it when you have it.

  7. henrietta abeyta Says:



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