Instant gratification – but at what cost?

We’re getting what we want much faster than ever. Sounds great. But is that really such a good thing?

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Let’s run a quick – and it has to be quick, for reasons that will become clear soon – thought experiment.

It’s 1995 and you want to buy a book on the history of innovation. What do you do? You wait, of course. Wait until you have time to go to the local bookshop at the weekend.

But the history of innovation is a pretty obscure subject, so the local bookshop doesn’t have anything. You wait while they order something in.

Then you wait again until it arrives, when the bookshop leaves a message on your landline (when you’re at work) to tell you.

Now run the same experiment in 2013. The thought strikes you to buy a book on the history of innovation. You jump on to Amazon, scroll through a series of relevant tomes and download the best to your tablet. Instant gratification.

We could run the same thought experiment using a vast array of other products, services and experiences, and the result would be the same: a journey from a culture of waiting, to one that’s about satisfaction right here, right now.

It’s a shift that analysts are calling the “Right Now Economy”, and it was the main topic during a recent discussion at the Top Ten Tech Trends dinner, hosted by the Silicon Valley technology and business forum The Churchill Club.

The digital revolution, ran the argument, is allowing us previously undreamt of instant access and, in the process, transforming our lives and the way we think.

Want a car? Don’t wait to buy one; just book an instant ride through car access services such as BMW DriveNow, which allows users to locate the electric BMW that is a part of the DriveNow scheme, and jump in.

Want news? Social media sites such as Twitter will often bring you the latest events in real-time, before mainstream media have arrived.

A date? A decade ago, dating was a game that required some patience. Now, mobile apps such as Skout promise to connect the like-minded others nearby, meaning you can start mingling in an instant. The journey we've taken with online culture has always been, in part, about getting what we want faster. But now, the culture of instant everything is reaching a tipping point that is at last seeing it fulfil its latent potential. The age of instant has finally arrived.

That’s really because of the widespread access to the network via mobile devices, which is creating ever more liquid, real-time, peer-to-peer markets for cars, dates, news, or whatever else.

Five years ago, you might very well have logged on to a service such as Skout to scan for potential dates tonight; chances are, no one else would have been around. Today – with hundreds of millions more people online, and the mainstreaming of peer-to-peer services – it’s likely you’ll find plenty of options. It turns out that the networked society is an instant society.

So, we’re getting what we want much faster than ever. Sounds great. But is that really such a good thing? After all, often what you want right now won’t do you much good. Indeed, on reflection, what you want right now often isn’t what you really want at all.

But these questions, unfortunately, are among a dwindling variety with no immediate answers.

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