Too Much Instantness?

Who’s the leading GOP presidential candidate this moment?  Romney? Perry? Cain? Is Christie in or out? What about Palin? The stock market’s up three hundred points – oops, down four hundred, up one hundred, down two hundred…  The latest on Amanda Knox, or whatever celebrity’s hot, bestseller numbers on Amazon reported hourly… commodity reports tracked by the millisecond, commodities and stocks traded by the nanosecond….

Forget about telephone calls.  Keep up with Twitter, 128 character quick bits, or friend messages, quick test messages on your iPhone.  Forget about so-called instant messages; they’re too slow, and emails… obsolete!

Have we as a society lost our minds?

There’s an old, old saying – Act in haste; repent at leisure – and I have the feeling that almost no one has heard it or remembered it. We’re inundated with instant information, pressured to act and decide instantly.  The worst of it is that because there’s so much instant communication and information, people are often taking longer and longer to get around to working on projects and doing actual work because they have to deal with the instant information, and that means more and more decisions and actions are taken with less and less forethought because there’s less and less time to actually consider them, and almost everything becomes an instant decision.

For example, when the liquidators took over Borders, they didn’t have “enough time” to consider selling blocks of leases to other bookstores and chains, or to sell book stock in lots.  In the end, I suspect, they raised far less cash than if they’d taken a bit more time to plan things out.

My son and I tried to buy a bathing suit for his daughter, because she’d inadvertently left hers behind.  This was the first weekend in August – still summer, one might think.  We had to try four stores before we could find any bathing suits at all – in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where the temperature stays above eighty degrees until October.  Why?  Because instant automated decisions insist that the summer buying season is over in mid-July.

Programmed computer trades, made in nanoseconds, have transformed the stock market from a marketplace where fundamentals and logic had a role into a largely “technical” market based on using algorithms to make quick profits, but the result is an extremely volatile market, and one in which the risks of catastrophic losses and meltdowns become more and more probable, even when the underlying fundamentals of many securities are sound.  What’s happening is that the instant information drags the entire market up or down almost in lockstep, regardless of the differentials in values of various stocks.  So “hot” stocks with little behind them behave in much the same way as issues with solid fundamentals. That has turned the market into even more of a casino than it was. We’ve already had one “flash crash” in the market, and I’d be astonished if we don’t have another.

The instant emphasis pervades everything, it seems, even when there’s a question as to whether it makes sense, but, after all, “instant” is so much better.


3 thoughts on “Too Much Instantness?”

  1. Daze says:

    “There was never time to do anything properly, but always time to do it again.” This was the slogan of my colleagues in the early ’80s, when we had a boss who thought that the job of a CEO was to make the big decisions, and that a decisive CEO would make them quickly. Since there weren’t that many big decisions to take, we cycled round them over and over, with never more than a week to prepare the analysis behind it. Now I guess he’d be characterised as a slow mover.

    I have also heard numbers of people who work in the UK’s National Health Service say that any one of the many radical reorganisations it has had in the last 15 years might have worked, if each had not in turn been re-reorganised before the old new system had settled in and people worked out how to make it work.

    Institutional memory (and individual experience built up by doing something long enough to really understand it) don’t appear to be valued at all in the “instant” world.

    Also, algorithmic instant decisions, even with inordinately complex driving equations, can never unpack or unpick a world like ours where linear causation is rare and circular and cumulative causation is endemic.

    We’re all doomed, I tell ye.

  2. Lee, very good observations in this particular post. In the last 3 years I’ve noticed that all of my work tends to be made more difficult by the ‘instant’ tools that surround me. Military job, civilian job, even the writing, I am forever bombarded with text messages on my cell phone, instant messaging on my computer screen, and of course e-mail. I very often find that dealing with these ‘instant’ tools consumes hours per day that I’d much rather spend in quiet, focused, concentrated time getting real work done. Our digital age, it’s a double-edged sword. To be sure.

  3. Brad says:

    Some days I just have to put the phone away and avoid opening a browser in order to get some real work done. Unfortunately there’s only so far I can go since my job depends on the internet a lot. I’m old enough to remember life before the internet and all this instant-ness, but I can’t imagine going back to it now. I feel that we must have been bored back then, but I don’t remember it being like that.

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