The Dangers of the Instant

Several days ago, a former student of my wife called, frantically trying to locate an original copy of music he needed – by the next day.  Last week, her department chair informed her that a special grant was available for her opera program, if she could submit the paperwork by Monday.  Now… he had been informed that she was leaving for a singing appearance the next day and would not be returning until Monday evening… and he’d had the information about the grant for almost a month.  And more than once I’ve had editors of periodicals [not my regular editor; he knows better] request corrections to proofs in a day or two.

What gives with people these days?  Now that we have instant messaging and email and networks, etc., it’s as though half the population, if not more, believes that everything can be done instantly… and that everyone is instantly available all the time.  Yet often these demands and requests involve material objects that can’t be produced or located instantly.  Electronic instantaneousness doesn’t translate automatically to instant physical production, especially of objects involving more than text, a fact that is increasingly lost on many superiors.  Nor is everyone always physically located where they can comply with such requests and demands.  Yet the creation of near-instant communications has created the illusion for many that everything is instant.

Even when someone is present and ready, these last-minute requests and demands create the danger of fast and shoddy work, often with little or no oversight and review. For the most part, speed is dangerous.  This fact is certainly recognized in areas such as aviation and various racing sports, where great attention to detail is the hallmark of those who are successful. There’s all too much truth to the truism that “speed kills.” But the dangers of speed appear far less well-recognized in business or education, or finance, despite such mishaps as the flash crash of the stock market several years ago, or the more recent mishaps dealing with a portfolio of stocks handled by a large market-maker, caused, incidentally, by the adoption of new trading software designed in part to speed trades.  And the use of fast electronic processing by shoddy mortgage firms has doomed many homeowners to unnecessary financial ruin.

There’s a huge difference between planned and careful use of speed and laziness, incompetence, and procrastination enabled by rapid communications… and it’s well past time that individuals, not to mention organizations and their leaders, recognized that difference.

14 thoughts on “The Dangers of the Instant”

  1. JakeB says:

    This strikes particularly painfully close to home to me, as I am anticipating my boss sending me a paper for editing and review in the next couple of weeks. I’m sure he’ll want it back within a day, even though my group has been working on this paper for a year and a half, and it will probably take a tremendous amount of work to beat into shape.

  2. JakeB says:

    Pardon me for the previous message, but I couldn’t resist a chance to indulge in some self-pity!

    More seriously, I think you’re right — the speed of some sub-tasks, e.g. sending an email, leads to the expectation that the entire task should progress at such a speed. I suspect the problem is exacerbated by the fact that an earlier part of the process — making the communication — is so swift, so that any slowdown is disappointing (whereas if a process speeds up in its latter stages, it is a pleasing surprise).

  3. Tim says:

    In the past few years the corporate email culture has evolved to a point where a president will send an email on Friday and expect a response on Monday morning. The problem is that so many people have responded to this behaviour that it is now the norm.

    If someone does not respond, then the implicit threat is that someone else will. So everyone logs in at the weekend to ensure their job is safe and generates minimal responses (as holding positions) rather than proper considered answers, which is the point of LEM’s last para.

  4. Mayhem says:

    To be fair, I could see the former student in a different light – all set, has everything they need, and at the last minute, their music sheet gets corrupted or mislaid.
    In a sane world, they would just print out a new copy from their master and away they go, but given the restrictions on music reproduction you quoted earlier, they are reduced to working down the list of people who could supply spare originals on very short notice, and former teachers would be fairly high on that list especially if they are familiar with the piece and in close physical proximity.
    As opposed to the normal route of contacting a music supplier if you had extra time in hand which would be the priority over trading on friendships.

    The grant on the other hand is simply incompetence on the manager’s part, especially with a month worth of notice.
    Things like that can be submitted at the last minute, but should be addressed much earlier while there is time in hand.

  5. Max says:


    That actually hit a nerve. What you often see, is the “instant knowledge” promotes the style of work, which lets not hold out, can be called “bullshitting”.

    When boss demands instant answer, an employee who says “We don’t know. Will take a day or two to find out, which priority this should be comparing to other already scheduled tasks”, is seen as stupid, uninformed, not a team player, and underperforming.

    But an employee who instantly without shame bullshits an buzzword-filled answer, is thought of as a fast thinker. Since usually such bullshit answers have no grounding in reality, such a person is useless in engeneering/productive fields, and is usually promoted into the supervisory/management position really fast, where producing realistically sounding bullshit is of great value.

    This culture of bullshitting, is what caused the financial crisis.. People on top demanding instant answers, and getting the expert sounding, but wrong answers, from the blackberry addicted bullshitters they themself promoted.

  6. MingoV says:

    Absurd demands for near-instant responses predate instant communications. I worked part-time as a math and science tutor during college in the 1970s. Multiple times a student (usually failing Business Math 101) would call in the late afternoon to request a tutoring appointment that evening. If I told them I was busy, the usual reply was that it HAD to be this evening because the exam was the next day. Apparently, expecting instant service is a prerequisite for majoring in business.

    I agree that demands for instant responses have increased in frequency, but I don’t know whether that’s due to e-mail and text messaging or to an increase in the number of idiots in positions of authority.

  7. Tim says:

    In my experience, very senior managers do not use text, except to their intimates. However they do use email to their less-intimate subordinates.

    Today, MingoV’s example would I suspect get a null result as the student is considered to be an inferior unless the professor or senior lecturer decided to be merciful. So the student would reap the benefits of not thinking ahead, and rightly so.

    Going back 20 years, when email was rare and the domain of the IT people alone, senior management would only be able to contact their direct reports via their home telephone. In the absence of answering machines, if the person was out then no blame was attached.

    Later in the 80s and (more) the 90s, corporates decided to provide to answering machines, faxes, home PCs for email and mobiles. This was not altruistic, it was to enable the instant culture.

    Initially this provision was to senior management. Nowadays no one escapes.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    Short fuse work often lead to a real conflict of priorities: it is no different in my current job.

    Once I made CDR, I was senior enough to be able to make comments and phrase them as questions. My favorite one was this: “Very well, the work will be done. Which of my current projects due (at/before/around that time) would you prefer me to be late on? This particular project is would be my recommendation for such-and-such a reason.”

    I never said I couldn’t do it. I did say that my time (and my staff’s time) for the unit was valuable and that we were very busy and adding more to my load would decrease our efficiency.

    My other thing: e-mail was/is a necessary evil that wastes more time than almost anything else in a business environment. My group had a standing policy: emails get answered during a single hour during the day – usually the last hour. Any work that needed to be done because of an email is addressed first thing the next morning if it could not be dealt with directly at the time. Our working hours were clear to everyone: my team was not going to be burning midnight oil while others were skating along.

    If it was truly important, it required a phone call or a face-to-face talk because email was and remains notoriously imprecise – texting even worse.

    Yes, I caught flack for these attitudes, but my group also had the best ratings and did outstanding work because I was willing to run interference for them so they could get the work done. And we still completed more projects on time than most any other precisely because I didn’t let my team get distracted by other people’s problems.

    Unfortunately, USN stuff doesn’t always translate to civilian corporate America…. but then again, in civilian life if you don’t like the corporate culture of a particular work place, you can remove yourself from it – something that was not possible in the service.

  9. Tim says:

    USN has the advantage of a big budget which is why this ethos does not translate easily to Civilian corporate. I knew someone senior who also protected his team in a similar way, and they were rapidly sidelined even though their productivity was excellent. It does depend on the (even more) senior support you have though.

    Good idea if you can get away with it.

  10. Joe says:

    I see parallels between instant and magic.

    We live in an age of magical thinking where simply believing something supposedly makes it true (as evidenced by “The secret”). Fantasy where uttering “magical formulas” solve problems rule the day, and science fiction is in decline.

    Every time we fall prey to our illusions we pay dearly, yet we never seem to learn. There is no magic and no instant solutions. If we let it run amok high frequency trading will cause more chaos. If we keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere extreme weather events will increase. These problems require sustained work, but we seem to have lost he discipline for that.

  11. Brian says:

    The difference between a professional and amateur performance in any field of endeavour is preparation. In the instant world of this and that, the preparation required to be competent is being ignored.

  12. Brian says:

    In today’s world of instant this or that, three or four days seems like an eternity. It isn’t. Not when the subject matter of some of your blogs and the responses of others gets me to think about issues I haven’t considered before or to think about familiar issues in new ways. I may post my first impressions with my usual lack of brevity, but my thought processes don’t always stop considering the problem. Days, if not weeks, later something may occur to me that would have made a more appropriate post. Since we may be several blogs down the road, I sometimes I don’t bother to post it because I doubt it will be read. Like this one.

    I didn’t realize that the July 31st Blog about the ‘Visual’ and the issues it raised meant that I would consciously and subconsciously reexamine my concert going days of my youth and what they meant with the benefit of hindsight. But I have. Although I still stand by my initial, more personal, impressions that I posted, I realized this morning that there may actually be something else underlying it all. But the instant has passed. Will anyone read it? I posted it anyway. Should I leave a teaser? Sure. It is democracy’s fault.

    1. Joe says:

      Democracy, or that which passes for it nowadays?

  13. Wine Guy says:

    USN and big budget don’t always go together… and effective people are frequently sidelined in any large endeavor by those who wish to retain power and look the best.

    “You can accomplish anything in life as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit.” ~Harry S. Truman

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