The"Instant Society" Presumptions

The other day, my wife had a local singing engagement for a community event, one of those things she and other members of the university community do gratis. Before she started teaching for the day, she checked her email and saw nothing urgent. Because she teaches straight through for eight hours on Tuesdays, as she does on most days, she did not have a chance to check her email again until after five o’clock. At that point, she discovered that the community event organizer had now asked her to sing an additional song — one not even mentioned previously — that was printed in the program… and she was singing that evening. Fortunately, my wife knew the song, but she never had a chance even to rehearse the song with her accompanist. Needless to say, she wasn’t pleased about the situation, because it’s hard to perform as well as one can without some advance preparation, and refusing to sing doesn’t set well with the audience or the local organizers. She said nothing, sang well, and everyone seemed pleased… but it still bothered her… and me.

The day before, she had a senior student email her a request for a faculty recommendation for a graduate school application — less than a day before the application and recommendation deadline. Routinely, incoming freshmen think nothing of putting off doing assignments until hours, if not minutes, before they are due — and many keep doing this for weeks and months. While this has historically always been an academic problem for some students, it’s now endemic with the vast, vast majority of incoming college students. Some never learn, and usually flunk out, despite test scores and grades that indicate that they have the intellectual ability to do the work. Every year, students applying for jobs or graduate schools wait longer and longer before they contact faculty, clearly never thinking that, first, the faculty member may have other commitments, even other recommendations to write, or, second, that it does take time to write a decent recommendation.

More than infrequently — and with distressingly increasing frequency over the past year — I’ve had people request information, wanting it “now,” for deadlines, etc., even when they’ve known of the need for weeks or months. I’ve checked with offspring who are in various positions in business, and they report the same phenomenon. Almost no one seems able to: (1) plan ahead and (2) realize that accurate information and/or work products can’t be reliably produced “instantly.”

Yet with “instant” communications, from email to Twitter to cellphones, more and more people are equating instant access to instant results. There seems to be a subconscious process whereby people think, “If I can get to you instantly, why can’t you get back to me instantly, and with what I want/need?” The additional problem with all the instant access is that if you don’t reply, you get more emails and messages wanting to know why you haven’t replied to the point that less and less real work tends to get done, or people have to work longer to get the same amount of work done, because they have to keep responding. Now… it’s easy for someone like me to say, “Just ignore them until you have time to get to them.” The problem is that too many of the instant communications come from superiors, and ignoring insistent superiors is a quick way to end up where you don’t have to respond because you no longer have a job. Even if you can quickly delete the non-important messages, that takes additional time. In my wife’s case, despite a spam filter, she routinely receives two hundred plus emails daily. Most are junk, but she still has to wade through them and delete them, or her system starts rejecting all email because her inbox is too full, and then she misses the important ones.

More telling is that this instant access mindset ignores the fact that most requests or orders or requirements that are conveyed can’t be addressed instantly — and especially not accurately. This pressure for providing things now is already leading to inaccuracies in everything from news reports to the information on which business and political decisions are being made. It also ends up delaying production and creating unnecessary stress from education to the work-place.

Then, to top it all off, electronic media are perfect for exhibiting passive-aggressive tendencies. When you really need information, especially from someone who doesn’t report to you, the failure to reply, even after days, or weeks, can be incredibly irritating… and non-productive.

Now… tell me again why instant communications are so wonderful.

2 Responses to “The"Instant Society" Presumptions”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    Instant communications are just a tool. A hammer can be used to build a house or kill a man, but the hammer can be neither praised nor blamed for either. The problem, as usual, comes down to people.

  2. Nate says:

    The problem is that certain tools have a tendency to create certain habits in people. And some tools (like swords or guns)are only good for one thing.

    The problem with instant communications is that everyone starts expecting it. I once requested a recommendation from a teacher two months before the deadline. I checked back with him a few days before the deadline and found out that he had completely forgotten about it. If a problem or task isn't immediately necessary, it gets forgotten.