About Now: a study in contemporary norms

Ever since the industrial revolution, the ideal of our culture, has been the Now. Machines and mortals alike are ordered, and in many cases driven, to produce results instantly; a new machine, or variation upon an extant machine, is judged by faster operation than its immediate predecessor; workers and subordinates are praised for fulfilling orders without delay; industrialists demand greater and greater production at faster and faster rates; people in affluent nations spend immense amounts of money, time, and energy on the acquisition of instant food, fast-acting detergent, lightning cures, ten-step programs, quick-growing garden-vegetables, etc., while people in developing nations, aspire to the same lifestyle; dinners and breakfasts are prepared mere minutes before people are called to table; farmers breed for faster growth in crops and livestock; self-help books entreat their readers to ‘live in the moment’; and so, too, do personal trainers, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, incompetent schoolteachers, and self-help coaches of every sort. The ideal perspective, for physicists and mystics alike, is the unbounded Now of an Nth-dimensional, or ‘god’s-eye’ view; from which, the past, present, and future appear simultaneously, and the whole existence of an object appears as a continuous unit. The ideal weapon of our time is one of ‘instant death’, by which the victim is reduced within seconds to a cloud of smoke and a pile of dust, at minimal cost to its destroyer. Politicians routinely disparage necessary courses of action, on grounds ‘that it would take too long’; by which is meant, could not be achieved immediately. Any delay, or interruption of one’s own preferred activity, even on behalf of one’s nearest and dearest, is considered a ‘loss of time’; whereas anything less, on the part of others, than instant gratification of one’s own wishes, is deemed an insult. This pattern of behavior, this incessant demand for instant gratification, has only increased in the digital age; which seldom delivers such results, but keeps its entire population of users in breathless anticipation of faster speeds, faster service, faster telecommunications, and more rapid fulfillment of every order and request.

It is very tempting, to think of this ‘now-culture’ as a sort of extension of the spoilt child’s motto: ‘Don’t care how; I want it now!’; but this is ambiguous at best: an impatient manner is not always co-related with a history of spoiling in childhood, and may be found even in the most (ostensibly) deprived. Thus, the desire for instant gratification is not limited to the privileged classes, but may be classified among the universal human behaviors.

Subject, like all processes, to the conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics, the search for instant gratification demands as much effort in its achievement, as the tasks themselves might demand, if undertaken less than instantly. Every instant production, represents the work of thousands of manual laborers before mechanisation, and as many operators after; not to mention countless scientists, engineers, inventors, technicians, &c., to whom the machine itself may be credited. Instant production, in other words, does not so much reduce the work, as displace it: every quick task on the part of the final user, or of the captain of industry, is achieved by endless hours of exhausting toil on the part of innumerable workers.

Every labour-saving device, from the cotton gin to the World Wide Web, though purported to save labour, and increase productivity, has actually increased the amount of labour, proportionately to an increased manufacture, brought on by the newly greater ease of production; and in so doing, guaranteed pain and humiliation to an even larger number of men, women, and children: all for the sake of stream-lining an assembly-line, and thus, in some sense, in the service of the demand for instant gratification.

This direct proportion of increased efficiency and increased labour, has only grown since the American Civil War, which abolished a true slavery, but established instead a mechanized industry, which, though it places no individual in lifelong servitude, imposes almost as much upon the working class, as slavery did formerly; and, by reason of the adaptability celebrated by its advocates, from Adam Smith onward, has expanded further and far more rapidly than slavery, with proportionately greater effects, both creative and destructive of liberty and justice, and all other resources.

This victory of industry, over all other organizations in the world, is indeed both the source and the offspring of ‘now-culture’, insofar as it is founded upon the principle, inconsistently applied, of ever greater return for lesser investment. This leads, seemingly invariably, to the desire for swift, simple, final solutions to every question: in other words, to the demand for instant gratification. In the search for swift, simple final solutions, the desired result is self-perpetuating, insofar as any such solution is expected to yield results in the form of an increased leisure and minimum of effort, with the sole purpose of still greater leisure and lesser effort.

As above: mechanisation and streamlining, though they seem to diminish the effort required by any given task, do no more than transfer it into the hands of others, present or not. This is not innately to be praised or condemned, but represents a speculative extension of the law of conservation of energy into the science of sociology. As a part of the same universal system as all other phenomena, the human race, it stands to reason, should be subject to natural laws; and because the distribution of labour and integration of functions supplies an easy demonstration of this particular law, it may be hypothesized as the exemplum of this rule.