The Instant Gratification Economy

More faster now is always better, right? Wrong. Here’s why.

Imagine for a moment that I told you I’d discovered a new planet exactly like Earth and on it society’s brightest minds were furiously and nobly devoting themselves to the greatest existential world-changing question their species had ever known. Every day, legions of scholars, entrepreneurs, thinkers awoke at the crack of dawn, furrowed their brows, gritted their teeth, and took on the burning issue of how to make instant microwavable noodles faster…faster.

You’d probably laugh. Yet, that’s pretty much what is happening on Planet Earth. The vogue du jour is what I’ll call in this short essay the Instant Gratification Economy.

Here’s what I mean by that. Millions of people-hours of effort, imagination, ideas, plans…a generation’s most talented engineers and managers, thinkers and visionaries, entrepreneurs and academics mopping their brows working furiously on the noble challenge of…curing cancer? fixing climate change? extending the human lifespan? mining asteroids? eradicating global poverty? Nope….same day delivery. Great companies speak of it as something like the holy grail, and legions of startups are devoting themselves to the same crusade. Here’s what it means IRL. Now, you can have that burrito you might have had to walk six whole blocks for delivered to you…in a matter of minutes…by tapping an app…which calls a delivery guy…who has your burrito tailor-made just the way you like it…drops it off fresh and hot…so you can get on with the hard work of…building yet another delivery app. Woohoo!! Instant gratification!! We’re changing the world, one burrito at a time!!

Not so fast, Edison.

Here’s the harsh truth. The exchange I’ve just outlined is a destructive one. It does not yield a net gain of human potential. Instead, it yields a net loss of human potential. After all, when you order that instant on-demand burrito…unless you’re curing cancer or writing a great book or solving warp-drive equations…instead of finishing that neurochemistry PhD he always dreamed of, there’s a poor sucker stuck delivering you a goddamned burrito…that you couldn’t walk six blocks to get…six blocks in which all the above might have occurred to you…and made you ask…what the hell am I doing wasting not just my life, but everyone else’s, too?

Therefore. Instant gratification is not a wise investment for societies to make. Every dollar, pound, or yen that society invests in instant gratification is one that it doesn’t invest in life-changing breakthroughs: cures for cancer, education for all, fixing climate change, and the like.

So how did we get here? Let me explain. The second biggest problem in the world today is inequality. Consider: Oxfam recently found that the 60 wealthiest people in the world are worth as much as the next…3.5 billion. That is a staggering level of inequality. And as always, sophomoric leftist protests that “but…it’s always been this way!!” aren’t refutations of it, but illogic, for the simple reason that when educated people think about the economy, they are not arguing from history, but from possibility. That is, things do not have to be this way.

Why is inequality a problem? Because the rich simply do not have many good places left to put their money. They’ve bought luxury real estate in every major city in the world. They’ve pushed art to sky-high prices. They’ve set up trusts for their descendants until kingdom come. What now? The simple truth is that too much in the hands of too few starves economies of investment, consumption, growth, and all the human things that those represent in real terms — education, innovation, growth, jobs, careers, opportunities, possibilities. Thus, an instant gratification economy. To oversimplify, the rich, growing every richer, have little to spend their money on…except stuff delivered faster — and in a hollowed out economy starved of opportunities, the middle, growing ever poorer, must meekly accept the human-potential-destroying worse-than-drudge-dead-end-no-real-benefit-work of being their always-on ever-ready less-than-minimum-wage delivery boys and girls.

That is why the instant gratification economy is rising. But let us not condemn it too quickly. There are some things we should want delivered instantly. The basics, perhaps. Consider food. Should we be able to deliver food faster, the costs of storage, what economists call “carrying costs”— and thus spoilage — naturally decrease. And so everyone wins, for there is less waste — and greater incentives for fresher, better food.

So is efficiency not then the goal we should desirable in all things? After all, that is certainly the way we have come to think of it — we want everything to be as efficient as possible. Not just food — nor just work. But everything From love, to friendship, to pleasure, to education, to knowledge, to dreams, to passion, to becoming our very selves. All this we believe should be made more efficient: faster, cleaner, safer. Thus, everywhere, the premise underlying our conditioned desires is this: should we have what we want faster, right now, we will we be better off — happier, more secure, more ourselves.

Will we? What about when it comes to the things that truly matter? There, the relationship between efficiency and happiness reverses itself. Let me explain with a simple example. Imagine that finding a date was so easy all you had to do was…keep swiping right. Would that lead you to love…or a string of meaningless encounters and failed relationships? Probably the latter. For the simple truth is that it should be hard to find someone to spend your time with and self on. When it is too easy, your incentives are backwards: you may be entertained, titillated, fascinated, amused — but you are not likely to fall in love, just to move on to the next pretty thing. When it is hard, when, after that initial magical spark, it requires that you see another person for who they truly are, when you are obligated to invest time and emotion in them, instead of merely throwing them away for the next pretty thing…then and only then are your incentives correct, and does the truest of love have a chance to arise.

I am sure you will dispute my logic. Many of you will say “But I have found a partner on Tinder! And I even love them!!”. Maybe, maybe not — but that is not the question at all. The question is whether you are experiencing the truest of love at the highest of heights that you possibly can. And there, for all of us, efficiency is surely the enemy of possibility. The same is true for all the things that matter in life, from friendship to education to dreams to passions to becoming ourselves. Should we make all these faster, cleaner, safer, the mantra of the age of efficiency, they would also dwindle in quality until they were deprived of meaning, purpose, grace, a point.

All of which points me to a truer truth. The Instant Gratification Economy is a symptom of our own broken mental models of fairness — what we believe that we deserve. For only coddled, stunted, entitled narcissists would believe they deserve all that what they want, right now, without having to invest more than a tuppence of they emotions, intelligence, thoughts, reason, passion, selves.

We are all little capitalists of the self: we want the maximum return for the minimum investment. We believe that we deserve the world without investing emotionally, socially, personally in the world. Is it any surprise then that so many of us find so much of our lives so meaningless? When we believe that we naturally merely “deserve” happiness, meaning, and purpose, but we are not willing to give an ounce of ourselves to the struggle for becoming people capable of them, how shall we ever have them?

Thus the truth of a life well lived is very much the opposite of all the above. Instant gratification is the opposite of meaning, the enemy of happiness, and the nemesis of purpose. For it is precisely the things which instantly delight, surprise, and amuse us which fail in the end to elevate, expand, and respect us. Think of a truly great book, or film, or artwork. It isn’t one which instantly gratifies. It is one which does the very opposite: it initially mystifies, baffles, infuriates, frustrates. And that is when things are enlarging us. That is when we are growing.

All the truly great experiences in life demand things from us. Our diligence, defiance, thought, imagination, dreams. That is how they enlarge the horizons of our possibilities. Because it is precisely by demanding that we dare, rebel, think, create, imagine, forgive, love, that they draw forth the best in us.

And yet. For every instant on-demand Hollywood blockbuster, bestseller, handbag, or gadget that we’re able to greedily have, store, keep, share, we are ever less likely to go find the great things that do change our lives. That is precisely the temptation of the instant. We don’t have to invest in it, give ourselves to it, be consumed by it. We may choose, instead, the path of least resistance, effort, labor. But we must ever remember: the instant is also the fleeting, transient, evanescent. That is it’s very definition. All the things which give us instant gratification also fail, by their very nature, to stay us with us, to truly change us, to impart life-long benefits to us. And that is why they fail us.

The real failure of the Instant Gratification Economy, then, isn’t merely that it is mirror of a broken global economy. It is that it diminishes us as people. Not merely because, as its producers, we are condemning ourselves to waste our talents and efforts on the trivial. But also that, as its consumers, we are diminishing the very idea of human possibility. Little capitalists of the self are no more likely to find true love, great friendship, meaning in their days, happiness in their moments, their very selves, than a desert is to grow a harvest.

Let us then strive not for absolutism, but moderation. Life is not lived in an instant. Life is lived in a series of instants. Yet should all those instants merely be lived in the pursuit of the instantaneous, they are unlikely to matter. When life is lived well, each of those of those instants counts, matters, resonates — and so endures, stretches, stops time — a little bit more than the last. That is all the immortality we have. And it is all the immortality that we need. For even if we were immortal, should we pursue the instantaneous over the enduring, our days would simply be a series of wasted moments. Every day, that choice, between the merely instantaneous and instants that matter, is ours. Let us make the better one.

January 2016