An Impulse To Change.
It’s no secret that we live in the Age of Instant Gratification.
In more ways than one, the world has become our oyster. Human beings in this day and age are consistently confronted with a consumer culture that’s almost too good at giving us exactly what we want. From smartphones and search engines to Spotify, Amazon, and Netflix, we now have immediate access to a plethora of digital and physical tools that can anticipate all of our preferences, that can tailor to all our wants, needs, and desires. Or as Paul Roberts recently put it in his excellently written essay in The American Scholar, “it is now entirely normal to demand a personally customized life […] With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.”
Roberts begins by telling the story of Brett Walker, a former digital junkie who saved himself from the continuous gratifications of the digital economy by kicking an obsession to online gaming that left him “physically weak, financially destitute, and so socially isolated he could barely hold a face-to-face conversation.” For four long years, even as his real life collapsed around him, Walker enjoyed a near-perfect online existence, becoming more and more susceptible to the complex charms of the online world. His became a life that was entirely controlled by impulses– and although his story may not seem at all relevant to those of us who don’t spend our time waging wars against the virtual world, it does shine light on the fact that we have in fact become an ‘Impulse Society.’ We’ve all turned back into that spoiled little child whose world revolves around getting exactly he or she wants. When we want it. And that’s putting it lightly.
Over the years, customization has become not just a consumer choice, but an approach to life, and within this postindustrial world, it’s become perfectly natural for humans to display a “reflexive reach for quick rewards.” More simply put, we’ve become a self-centered culture that’s created norms and expectations that make it increasingly harder to act in thoughtful, civic, and social ways. There’s now easy credit, fast food, instant access to entertainment and shopping. We are provided, in this digital age, immediate pleasure at all times, and consequentedly, we’ve become accustomed to focus only on the present moment– to maximize pleasure and minimize pain within that specific moment. “The notion of future consequences, so essential to our development as functional citizens, as adults,” writes Roberts, “is relegated to the background, inviting us to remain in a state of permanent childhood.”
Yet the human brain was not designed for a world of such easy gratification. Our ancestors had gained strength, knowledge, and perspective only by “enduring adversity, disappointment, and delayed gratification”– and as much as I hate to admit it, we (young Millenials and beyond) really do have it so much easier than our grandparents did.
Today’s culture does everything in its power to convince us that difficulty has no place in our everyday lives, and as a result, we’ve continued to experience the repercussions of declining economic, political, and educational systems. According to a recent report by U.S. News, nearly one-third of all high school graduates are deemed unprepared for college or a career– even after eighteen long years of schooling.
So what does this say about society today? I mean is it truly wrong to live in the moment, to seize the day, to bask in all the immediate pleasures offered so easily to us on a shiny silver platter? Life is meant to be enjoyed, right? Yes, but it is not meant to be wasted. And Roberts concludes his piece by urging us to change as a society, to recognize “the limits—social and personal as well as economic—of an ideology that prioritizes immediate gratification and efficient returns over all other values.”
Surprisingly, a revolt against the values imposed by the Impulse Society is already underway. In many circles, it’s common to find at least one person or group working to separate themselves from a system that puts efficacy ahead of everything else. People like Brett Walker have begun to set themselves free of a solely digital world, they’ve begun to recognize that by embracing self-indulgence, they are losing something “essential and irreplaceable” — they’ve come to realize that we, as a hopelessly childish society, have lost all appreciation for the gifts of life. It’s time for a change, and ironically, it seems like the indivuials who are instigating that change are the very ones creating the gadgets and gizmos that started this whole mess.
Nick Bilton, in a recent article for The New York Times, writes how dumbfounded he was to discover that tech executives and venture capitalists such as Chris Anderson (former editor of Wired), Evan Williams (founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium), and the late Steve Jobs all opt[ed] to unplug from the use of smartphones and social networks when in their homes. Instead, they’ve become known for strictly limiting their childrens’ screen time, “often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends” in order to reclaim more family time. As Anderson so bluntly puts it, he and his wife impose such rules because they’ve “seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.” He’s currently a drone maker, the chief executive of 3D Robotics. Pretty interesting.
These dangers, of course, include delayed cognitive development, social disengagement, and emotional fragility– not to mentioned harmful content, bullying, and a never-ending addiction to anything that contains a screen. It’s time to disrupt our self-driven downward spiral and to make a positive shift. It’s time to face our greatest challenge yet, to take on a complicated problem that will require collective discipline, deferred gratification, and long-term commitment. It’s time to live more consciously and more mindfully– because the benefits to be found are too numerous to name and the alternative is no longer an option. It’s time to grow up.
Think about it.