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Are Americans more driven toward short-term self-gratification than they were a few generations ago? Author Paul Roberts argues that during the past century, American values have shifted – to the point that our society now favors the immediate advancement of the individual over the long to term health of the greater good. Roberts joins Kojo to explore what’s contributed to the growth “impulse society” in American culture.
- Paul Roberts Author, "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification" (Bloomsbury 2014)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We now live in a world where so much of what we think we want is right at our fingertips every second of the day. If we want to listen to music, we can cue up an app on our smart phones that stream songs that are custom selected just for us. If we want to feel love, we can post photos to our favorite social networks and soak in the enjoyment with each new like or retweet.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut Paul Roberts argues there are seriously negative consequences that come with living in a society that's more geared than ever toward getting what we want when we want it. That this mindset is polluting our approaches to politics and business to the point where many of our modern American values revolve around the individual. And that everything, from our politics to our economy, is driven by a self-centered orgy of short-term gratification rather than by a commitment to the greater good that made so many of the greatest American achievements possible.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what created this so-called impulse society and what he thinks can be reclaimed by fighting back against it is Paul Roberts. He's a journalist and author. His most recent book is called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." Paul Roberts joins us in studio. Welcome.
MR. PAUL ROBERTSOh, thank you. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments for Paul Roberts, even before the conversation begins, you can start calling now. 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Your book begins inside an Apple store in Seattle. One of those classes where people can learn how to use Siri, that voice activated personal assistant app that's now a standard feature in iPhones.
NNAMDIThere was something about how using Siri, even for all its occasional clunkiness, that you found oddly satisfying, even thrilling. How is it that you found this is actually a feeling that informs a lot of the values behind who we are now as Americans?
ROBERTSWell, I, you know, I think that when, like, Siri for example, when that first works for you, you know, you say something and she, quote, end quote, figures it out and does what you ask her to do. No matter how cynical or skeptical you are, it's thrilling. And I think it reaches inside us to something that probably is the same set of, you know, neuromechanics that helped us figure out how to survive, you know, in pre-historic times. And that's really what Apple and the rest of these companies have figured out.
ROBERTSIs, you know, how to let us feel as though we are sort of out there, hunting and gathering still, but using bright new tools. And instead of tracking down a gazelle, we're getting a song, some information, we're connecting with someone. And we have the control over that. And it's that sense of mastery, I think, that sense of mastery, cause often it isn't mastery at all, but it's that sense that I think sort of drives a lot of what we call progress, at least in that particular sphere of personal technology.
NNAMDIApple likes to describe Siri as a productivity tool, and you say that, yes, I do feel sometimes like I'm being productive when I'm using it, but in the final analysis, I might be being less productive because I'm not doing other things. You say it's the bio-chemical rush that you get when you tell her to text your son that you'll be late picking him up from a cross country practice and she does it. But the real product, underneath what's happening, is that bio-chemical rush. What do you mean by that?
ROBERTSI mean that when you, any of these things where there's a click involved, essentially. I mean, if you're buying something online, you know, materially, you're getting the product eventually, in a couple of days. That's what you bought. But the feeling of shopping online. That feeling is in the moment. And you get that as soon as you spot the object on the screen and make the decision in your head, I'm gonna get this. There's another little, you know, rush of good feeling. And then, of course, when you click, you get to complete.
ROBERTSAnd I think that that's really what a lot of these companies are capitalizing on. But, you know, the earlier point you made, I think, really, really summarizes the paradox here. And that is that these applications do allow us to get more done, you know, and sort of be more productive. But they can also get in the way of productivity. And that, I think, is the, again, is the paradox that we face here. What are we trying to produce here? Are we trying to produce a feeling of productivity or actual output? And I think when people sit down and look at their daily activities, you know, the way they spend their time.
ROBERTSThey can sometimes be surprised, because the feeling we have is that we're getting a whole bunch done. And yet, if you actually measure your output, sometimes, especially when you use these applications, you may be getting less done.
NNAMDIYeah, because I often consider now, literally, how much time I spend per day checking my Facebook page, checking my Twitter account, checking my emails. Because there is this urge to do it fairly frequently. And all I get from it is that, well, bio-chemical rush.
ROBERTSWell, right. And pay attention to that urge, because, you know, people that study addiction will tell you that the circumstances that lead to addiction are what they call intermittent rewards. That is, rewards that don't come at a predictable rate. Which is exactly what we're talking about with the online or digital world. You don't know exactly when someone is going to like something or send you a text or send you an email. So you're always sort of attuned to the possibility that some new message will come in.
ROBERTSAnd it's that state of attention that we're in, that sort of leads us, that heightened state of awareness for something that's coming in that leads us to focus on these technologies. And can make them so distracting.
NNAMDIHow does this desire for productivity and efficiency inform the rest of what you call the impulse society? You say this is much bigger than smart phones, much bigger than even technology.
ROBERTSWell, right. Because this pattern that you and I are talking about right now, at the individual level, you can really sort of blow that up and sort of understand things that are happening at an institutional level. So companies, the entire US Congress, our education system, are all now operating in this same way, in the sense that they're focused on quick rewards. And they're finding it harder and harder to make commitments for long term investment or even long term thinking.
ROBERTSOr even to believe in the future anymore. And it's this same pattern. And because we are, as individuals, are provided so many different ways to sort of amuse and distract ourselves, it's sometimes easy not to pay attention to the way this larger pattern is really slowing things down. I mean, right now, Congress is back, and nobody expects anything to get done. We've assumed, we've just sort of embedded. We've internalized this cynicism, as voters, in part because we know that, how hard it is to make any sort of long term commitment in our lives.
ROBERTSAnd we understand that institutionally, it's even harder. So this pattern is, it's not just the smart phone at all. But the smart phone is sort of emblematic of what's happening to us as a broader culture.
NNAMDINevertheless, when President Obama says, I haven't yet developed a strategy for dealing with ISIS, we all say, what? You haven't developed a strategy yet? They've been around for at least 10 minutes now.
ROBERTSRight. Exactly. Isn't there an app for that? I mean, come on, you know? Right, and he's actually demonstrating some of -- he's sort of pushing back against this, isn't he? He's saying, no, I'm not gonna rush into this. We can where rushing into, you know, some Middle Eastern crisis has gotten us before. So why would we want to do that again? And of course, we punish him for that. Because we want -- our political culture is the same way. We want instant gratification. And, you know, clearly, some politicians have reoriented to that mindset and are happy to sort of deliver promises of instant gratification.
NNAMDIOur guest is Paul Roberts. He's a journalist and author. His most recent book is called, "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think it's a bad thing that so much of our modern economic system is geared toward giving individuals what they want and when they want it? Do you see a downside to how easily smart phones and online technologies serve our impulses? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me get this out of the way immediately. Because we keep saying -- talking to people about get you what you want when you want it. And it was brought to my attention that before he was in Congress, when he was in high school, in his yearbook, former Virginia Congressman, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in his yearbook, I want what I want when I want it. And I guess, as a teenager, that may sound pretty cool, but you're saying that, as a society, that's where we are.
ROBERTSRight. And -- but that perfectly captures sort of a mindset that has been sort of front and center in the American culture since the beginning. We've been very ambitious, driven, goal oriented, and there's nothing wrong with those things, you know? A dissatisfaction with the status quo is really what led Americans to create this country. And it has driven a lot of our economic success. But it has become an end in itself. And I think that's really what every individual has to sort of stop and ask themselves.
ROBERTSWhen I want something now, is it leading to something larger, something better? Something greater down the road? Or is it simply for a momentary satisfaction?
NNAMDILet's go back about a century. How would you compare the introduction of Siri in 2011 to Henry Ford introducing Americans to affordable cars in the early 20th century? What was he offering American society when he made the Model T, something that ordinary Americans could aspire to?
ROBERTSWell, this is a classic example, because Ford was offering people freedom. And power, individual power on an unprecedented scale. And other people had come up with automobiles, but Ford had figured out a way to make them cheap. So he had this new industrial model. And suddenly, mechanized mobility becomes available to the masses, and it's transforming. What's interesting there is that most people who bought a Ford, a Model T, regarded it as an elaborate tool.
ROBERTSAnd it was going to help them become more productive as citizens. It might allow them to be more productive, in terms of transportation. They could, you know, their speed just increased by a factor of five or six. If they had been relying on horse and wagon. They could use the car to -- they could convert it into a tractor. They could use the motor to grind. I mean, there were all sorts of things that they could use it as a tool. And that really underscored where we were individually, in terms of the culture.
ROBERTSWe were a work related, productive country of producers. People made things. And it wasn't too long though, after that…
NNAMDIYou point out that Ford's profits dipped significantly after many Americans bought their first cars. The vehicles were well made. They gave people more personal freedom, but people didn't have much of a reason to buy a new one very quickly after that first purchase. What approach did Ford's rival, General Motors, take towards changing that, and why do you find that so significant?
ROBERTSBecause he recognized that Ford was old school. That he was a 19th century man and that we were in a new era that was driven, not just by technology, but psychology. And he recognized that Ford had done his job too well. These cars, as you say, were too well built. So once you bought one, there was no need to buy another. You didn't have a need for twice the mobility. You could only drive one car at a time. What Albert Sloan over at General Motors recognized was that if it was a needs based society, our economy was really stuck.
ROBERTSBecause we couldn't sell enough to pay for those big factories that made the products cheap enough for people to afford them. And that was Ford's problem. Sloan recognized if we make people want something faster than a needs based economy would dictate, we're set. And so, he realized that you could help people move, not just physically, but in status. By buying a nicer car, you could move up in status. And you could do that along any other dimension once you had a wants based economy. Since wants are infinite, this was perfect for a new kind of industrialist who needed, you know, to constantly be raising his output.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing our conversation with Paul Roberts. His book is called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." You can still call us during the break, 800-433-8850. How do you think America's psychology has evolved during the past century? Do you think we're more likely to prioritize the individual over the greater good than we were, oh, generations ago? Why or why not, 800-433-8850? Or send email to email@example.com. You can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Paul Roberts. He's a journalist and author. We're discussing his most recent book. It's called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to go to Ron in Arlington, Va. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me. I'm a former pediatrician, now an ADHD/ADD coach. And learned a few things in my years of pediatric practice. I told parents, I can't tell you how to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child but I can tell you in several sentences, perhaps just two, how to spoil a child. Give a child everything they want as soon as we they want it.
RONAnd so that's been my mind for quite some time and I apply that towards ADHD coaching and executive functions of which impulsivity is one portion of executive function.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. From what do you...
RONOkay. And I have (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWell, go ahead, please, because I was wondering if -- do you have a question?
RONYeah, I do. Has this author integrated the issue of impulsivity into the larger picture of how people evaluate data, the way data is presented? And I don't just mean the media. I mean how our entire processing information -- of information is quite different than I think comments that have to deal with executive function as a part of that whole spectrum would be of relevance to your audience?
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Paul Roberts.
ROBERTSWell, this is a great call. I mean, you've really covered a lot of really critical ground here and raised a bunch of important issues. I mean, first of all, the point about, you know, how to spoil a kid, you know, we are all sort of aware, I think, that there are values you have to teach your child. Some of them would be patience, self discipline and a willingness to work for something slightly larger than yourself, at least some of the time.
ROBERTSBut we don't insist on those in the culture at large. In fact, the commercial culture is -- opposed those values at every turn. So those values are being eroded to the extent that our commercial -- you know, the consumer economy is successful, it's successful by eroding those values.
ROBERTSIn terms of how we process information, how we make decisions, I mean, this is-- this goes to the core of the matter. We tend to respond to data as it comes in. And we tend to reorient it to those sources of data that are sort of most frequent. So if you're getting a lot of likes on the Facebook page for, let's say, an extreme sort of photo, you're probably going to be taking more extreme photos, right, which is going to tilt the way your own behavior shifts.
ROBERTSAnd you look at a political campaign. They will tend to respond to the constituency that sends the biggest messages, and they will begin reorienting policy to that group. So it totally skews, you know, executive decision and the whole executive function. So it's really important and yet we're just now sort of getting a grip on the way those changes are playing out.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ron. If it's instructive to look at the things we bought a century ago, the things we desired, what can we learn from looking at the jobs we did, the things we built our economy around? We made, it would appear, a lot more things back then. There was a time in American history when we built a lot of things.
ROBERTSWell, yeah, as we were saying earlier, we were -- it was a producer economy. You know, you couldn't rely on a lot of the things that you used to just be available in the store so you made them yourself. And it was hard. We spent a lot of time, say, making food. We used to spend -- the average household used to spend half of its labor hours keeping itself fed. And most of that was being done by the woman of the house. So it was clearly not a paradise.
ROBERTSAnd being able to move to a more specialized economy where you could afford to have a company produce your food or at least bring it in the form where you could coo it at home was -- that was great. You move to the here and now, we've kind of gone -- we've taken that and kind of gone past the threshold now where so much is being done for us that, look at the average person. We have no idea how to make anything anymore. I mean, lift up the hood of your car. How many in the younger generation have any idea how to fix it?
ROBERTSI mean, not only do we lack the skills, but they have rendered that technology so opaque that you look at it and there's -- you know, there's nothing you could do. And you take that situation and you roll it out across the consumer economy, we're stuck. If the network gives out, we're stuck.
NNAMDINot to fast forward too far but how do you think it affects our collective psychology now that our economy revolves so much around providing people with services rather than building and manufacturing physical things?
ROBERTSWell, you know, I think we touched on some of that by saying that we lack the skills of making things ourselves. And we lack, on top of that, I think the senses of competence and confidence that came with that. I mean, when you're talking about a nation of producers, there are many things you don't have. But one thing you do have is a sense of individual competence. And I think one of the things this culture suffers from is a sense that it knows what it's doing individually. So there's that.
ROBERTSBut I think that beyond that one of the challenges of a service economy is that, you know, we don't value service providers the same way we value people who made things. So we don't pay them as much. And the more that we are an economy based on services, the less money we're earning. And that in -- you know, that's a huge problem clearly.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. This time to Benjamin in Washington, D.C. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINHi. Good afternoon, Kojo and Paul.
BENJAMINThanks for taking my call. So my question is -- it sparked a huge debate a colleague of mine had -- a colleague of mine and I had about needs versus wants. And I guess the question is, how do we tell someone what they need and not what they want? And this debate spurned from a comment made by my colleague about needing a, let's say, 20-bedroom home. And who are we to tell them that they don't need that and that that's a want? How do we determine that? What the threshold?
ROBERTSThat's totally fair. I mean, nobody wants to be told what they can have, what they need, what they want. I mean, we've gone through periods in this culture where we've, you know, the nanny state is the most recent, where we've essentially argued, here's what you should have, here's what you should want. And nobody likes that and it doesn't work. People push back against that.
ROBERTSThere are alternative sort of ways to provide a threshold. Obviously the market gives you one threshold. If you can't afford that 20-room house then it doesn't matter whether you need it. You don't get it. The challenge there is that the market has sort of stopped behaving as a disciplinarian, hasn't it, because it offers credit at such absurd and unrealistic levels.
ROBERTSSo if we don't -- if we're not going to allow the nanny state to tell us what we want and if we don't trust the market anymore, in other words, we can't trust the credit limit the bank gives us because it's not going to hold on to the loan anyway, then who do we rely on? You know, historically we said, oh religion. Oh, our church will tell us what is okay to want. In the old days you couldn't want anything. It was all a sin. We're not willing to do that either.
ROBERTSSo it's a role for culture. It's a role for a community-wide conversation. But we're really reluctant to have that conversation because since the economy is based on want and on more and more wants, to begin a conversation about the fact that perhaps we want too much or want things that we can't really afford is to suggest that the entire economy is on shaky foundation.
NNAMDIGlad you went there because my next question is, at what point do you feel our collective psychology shifted so severely toward the individual? What happened between Roosevelt's new deal and where we find ourselves today?
ROBERTSI think you've got to go back further. I mean, if you look at the American character as it was -- as sort of 19th century Americans were trying to define it, it was all about sort of individualism and breaking away from hierarchies and tradition. I mean, that was our -- that was sort of the nature of our struggle with the old world, right. So we accomplished that and then we're trying to figure out who are we? We're Americans. What does that mean?
ROBERTSBy the time we get to Roosevelt's period and the depression, individualism had sort of run amuck. And that was one of the responses was to really -- to sort of push back with a much more collective response. We need a new deal. We need to make -- we need to emphasize personal sacrifice. We need to suggest that people save more money. The wild times of the 1920s were a cautionary tale. And so you begin to sort of understand why we were sort of retrenching and stepping back and questioning the notion of absolute individualism.
ROBERTSAnd that really carried us through for three, almost four decades after the war. And it was that collective sort of impulse that helped us win the Second World War. By the 1970s though, that was being -- you know, this was all cyclical and it's beginning to shift back. And one of the reasons it's shifting back is that the huge governmental programs that we built up, which sort of institutionalized this idea of collectivity, those programs were in trouble. You know, the economy was in tatters. The post-war miracle was over. People were casting about for yet another model, a new strategy.
ROBERTSAnd that new strategy was all about -- it was about two things. It was about cutting business loose, sort of deregulating the marketplace because we convinced ourselves that the marketplace knew best. It was much more efficient and much smarter than any government, so A. And B, sort of is part of that, we would go back to a notion where individual gain was absolutely the game you wanted to play.
NNAMDISo when we today try to have a discussion about our, oh, aging infrastructure, and whether or not we should rebuild our aging infrastructure, and that debate gets bogged down in whether or not the taxpayers should pay for that or whether, well, that's something that the market can handle, the private marketplace will take of it, that bridge doesn't need to be strengthened, let it fall apart because we're not going to pay for it, what's going on there?
ROBERTSRight. Well, I mean, you've just pointed out another paradox here that the market is interested in things that provide a dependable and large return. And so it's not necessarily in the case of infrastructure. Why would the market build a bridge to a poor neighborhood? Those motorists can't afford to pay enough to make it worth it to a private investor to build a bridge there or to build a highway there or any other piece of infrastructure.
ROBERTSSo that was sort of the argument behind government in the first place and has been for some time that, you know, you have to spread the benefits across society. Because if you're simply allowing the market to choose, you're going to have a pretty patchwork set up. But I think the infrastructure question also points to the other challenge we face, which is to think and act long term. You know, we built a massive highway system in the post-war period. And, you know, hundreds of thousands of miles, billions and billions and billions of dollars. I mean, in current terms probably trillions of dollars.
ROBERTSTry to imagine us building even a tenth of that today. Try to imagine the political culture that would have to emerge in order to allow us to make that kind of a long-term commitment. We don't have it at this moment. In the current atmosphere it's not present. And one of the hallmarks of that is an unwillingness to spend less now or tax ourselves more now.
NNAMDIYes. Am I going to have to pay more taxes for us to do this? Then let's not do it.
ROBERTSRight. Because we've been told -- our political culture has sort of allowed this story to emerge that you shouldn't have to pay more taxes. The taxes are always an evil. And, you know, certainly there's evidence that we have misspent our taxes, that they've been, you know, poorly organized, inefficiently collected. There's a -- you know, there's a great deal of argument for reforming the tax system. But as an example of being able to sort of pay for things now and make long-term commitments, you can't just do away with things just because they're unpleasant.
NNAMDINot to get too wonky here, but do you think that the regulatory state is something that's necessary to, in a way, protect us from ourselves or do you think something happened during the past century that pushed our psychology so much toward thinking of our own short-term benefit that what used to be sufficient regulation no longer passes muster anymore?
ROBERTSI think that's part of it. I think people -- individuals are sort of becoming less and less capable and self reliant. And so they're more reliant on outside parties, whether that be the regulatory state or the consumer market, the education system. We're sort of afraid of doing things on our own. At the same time I think the regulatory state itself has simply become something that has its own sort of life and agenda that is separate from its original function, which was to sort of mediate between the individual and the marketplace.
ROBERTSSo there is always room for reform. The challenge is, you know, pursuing meaningful reform in an environment that's so poisoned -- political environment that's so poisoned. I mean, right now reform is so ideologically charged that it's very difficult to have a real conversation about it.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Bill in Harpers Ferry, W.V. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYeah, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I have two questions that deal with the concept of individual happiness or the pursuit of happiness.
BILLHow would you categorize the idea of acquiring things versus having experiences? And the second question is, you know, how would this tie into the concept of the hedonistic treadmill? And I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. Paul.
ROBERTSWell, it's a good question. I mean, so having things versus having experiences is one question and then sort of the hedonistic treadmill. I think that, you know, there's an emphasis on experiences having greater value than things. And that's been a theme in the consumer culture recently. And, I mean, it is good to have experiences but I think you want to go one level deeper and ask about consumption toward what end. Because if you're just consuming the experiences, I don't think that that's really that much sort of better or more noble than simply buying -- you know, having a new product, a new thing.
ROBERTSI mean, in both cases there's an experience that you're enjoying for the moment. And I think the larger question one might want to ask is, where is this leading me in the long term? For example, if I'm going to be, you know, traveling a lot, is this building up a lifetime of memories that I'm really going to enjoy and I'm going to say at the end of my life, wow, that's a life well spent? Well, great. If that's the case, you're doing the right thing. But if you're simply focusing on the moment to moment, then you might find yourself, you know, at mid age or later saying, wow, you know, maybe that wasn't the best use of my time.
ROBERTSIn terms of the hedonistic treadmill, it's a really interesting concept, the idea is that no matter how sort of happy you get, your brain continually sort of readjusts your expectation levels so that you keep wanting more. And this is the challenge with -- this is supposed to help explain why countries that are wealthier aren't necessarily reporting higher levels of individual happiness. In other words, the richer we get the more we come to expect more.
ROBERTSAnd there's -- the data's sort of back and forth on that. It's very hard to -- it's such a complicated picture about why people are happy and how consumption relates to happiness and what other things might be playing a part. Like, is the political culture making it hard for you to enjoy the things you have? Is the uncertainty of the economy making it hard for you to believe that what you have now you'll have ten years from now? So those are complicating factors.
ROBERTSBut I think that the general concept is something definitely worth paying attention to, which is if you continue to sort of ratchet up your expectations for happiness and you base that on your consumption level, where does that end?
NNAMDIWe got an email from Gwen in Hyattsville who wants to know what -- well, I'll just read it. "It would seem to me that Paul would have interesting thoughts on a social network that's purely aspirational. People post the wedding dress of their dreams to Pinterest, the apple pie of their dreams, the bracelet they really, really hope their boyfriend will buy them, all of it. I have a Pinterest. I post a lot of meals I wish I could cook or consume, but I don't expect that anyone will ever satisfy most of those aspirations. Is that weird too, making public aspirations we don't even really actually hope will be realized?"
ROBERTSYou know, I mean, everyone has got to choose their own thing. It's like how much time you have in the day to spend on Pinterest or anything. I mean, that's one question, the sort of things that you focus on. I mean, the more you think about a particular thing the more that becomes part of who you are, you know. So, I mean, you know, if you -- if it's a time in your life when you have that much -- that many hours in the day to focus on those things, that's great. But I think you always want to be asking yourself that sort of underlying question, where is this leading me? Where is this leading me? What happens 10 years from now, you know, if I've got -- if I don't have as much time...
NNAMDIAs much leisure time.
ROBERTS...right, will my level of happiness go down because I can't be posting pictures of the wedding dress or the apple pie I want?
NNAMDIA few years ago, you took a deep dive into our food culture and you wrote the book, "The End of Food." How does the research that you've done into our impulses and the nature of short-term gratification fit into what you learned about where our food comes from and how we consume it?
ROBERTSI think it's -- it comes directly. I mean, that's really where this book arose. It was a lot of the ideas that I'd sort of encountered in the research in the food book. And, you know, one would be the way that, as we were talking about earlier, how we've made food a lot more convenient, which has been great. And we've sort of allowed the food economy to shape itself around our individual desires, which has also been good. But it's sort of taught us to expect that that's the world, that the world will sort of reshape itself around us. And that's fine until suddenly the -- that outside world stops providing those things.
ROBERTSYou know, one example is I think most cities have about four days of food in their inventory at any given time, because we're in the -- we're sort of in the just-in-time inventory model now. And you imagine what would happen if things broke down for a while. I mean, it just take a hurricane for us to realize how tenuous our margins are now. So there's -- I think there's that issue, which really comes to the fore. And, you know, there's the issue of what does being able to get something right away do to us as individuals? I mean, do we need delay of gratification to teach us how to be strong individuals?
ROBERTSSo, you know, we're offered something right away, we take it because why wouldn't we? And yet what have we done to our, sort of, our patience muscle? So it raises those questions. Then, of course, what happens in the food industry -- the food industry's sort of a model for the rest of the consumer economy. You see that in cars, in consumer credit, in personal technology, it's all there. So a lot of themes, a lot of -- basically it's sort of the -- on the, you know, the good and the bad mixed together in ways that sometimes could be tough to sort itself out.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk with -- or continue our conversation with Paul Roberts. He's a journalist and author whose most recent book is called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." We'll find out if this is all a downhill road or if there's a road up from here. You can call 800-433-8850. If it looks like the lines are busy, you may want to shoot us an email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Paul Roberts. He's a journalist and author. We're discussing his most recent book. It's called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." When it comes to short-term gratification, do you see any way for our politics to break out of the cycle where the next election matters more than anything else? Just this week, the president signaled that he won't be moving on immigration, a critical issue, until after the mid-term elections -- something he's doing essentially to protect his Democratic colleagues who are on the ballot this fall, whereas of course the immigration issue has a lot of longer-term consequences than that.
ROBERTSRight. And that's a great example of a political culture that is sort of so focused on short-term gratification that we're appalled and offended when someone says, I'm going to have to hold off on this. Now, we can say, oh, it's for political reasons. Well, hello, what else is he going to do? But because we've gotten so accustomed to uber-pragmatism in politics, we can't even begin to have a conversation about why that might be a sensible move. I mean, the same thing with, you know, he acknowledges he doesn't have a strategy for ISIS and he immediately gets hammered for that.
ROBERTSI mean, it was probably not the wisest thing politically to say, we don't have a strategy. But to sort of acknowledge that we don't want to jump in with our eyes closed, as we have so many times before, it makes a lot of sense. And how do we get out of that, though? How do we get out of that? Well, I think what's critical to understand is that the political culture is not operating in a vacuum. It is attached very closely to the financial culture, particularly since the amount of money going into politics over the past 20 years has increased so rapidly. And what that has done, among many other things, is it's essentially turned our political sphere into an arm of the financial market, in the sense that we think of donors now as investors.
ROBERTSAnd those investors want a return on their investment. And so that pushes the political culture to seek out the fastest return. So, for example, you go negative, because that is the fastest way to guarantee a return on your donors' investment. You know, consultants, who are -- who we hire, you know armies of consultants to help politicians shape their message. Those consultants are thinking about the next campaign they're going to be in. So they want to win to be able to show their next possible client. The way that you get that win is to make your current client go more to the right or more to the left, because a more extreme message is a surer way to win in the primaries.
ROBERTSAnd you can see how, again and again, as we've sort of businessified the political sphere, we've turned it into a -- it's become a big commercial venture. So in other words, to reverse that decay, you've got to start sort of pulling the business out of politics. And that begins with reforming campaign finance.
NNAMDIDo you have hope in our ability to recalibrate how much of our society that you think is geared toward feeding our individual gratification? And if so, what gives you hope in the long term?
ROBERTSWell, I do, because I think you can see all around us people at various levels are really tired of the status quo. I mean people feel -- well, what we're talking about today, people feel at a gut level. You know, they sense there are major things wrong with the way the society is moving and the things we focus on and the things we value. They know that what the consumer culture values aren't the values they were taught as children. And they're not the values that they're teaching their own children, right? We're talking about, you know, patience and discipline and a willingness to work for the common good. Those aren't values that are sort of espoused in the general culture any more, at least not to the degree that they should be.
ROBERTSSo people see that and they're pushing back. And they're pushing back in all kinds of ways. They're pushing back in -- it's like people unplugging, you know, like, you know, the family that unplugs because they don't like what personal technology is doing to their children. It's people who are deciding that they're not going to listen to the political echo chamber anymore. They're going to turn off Fox or CNBC, because they see what that's doing to their faith in democracy. And all across, you know, the people -- the local food movement.
NNAMDII was about to say, the local farm movement would be a part of that, local food.
ROBERTSExactly. It's people -- maybe you start because you just want food that tastes good. Maybe that's the initial thing that draws you...
NNAMDIA good place to start.
ROBERTS...right, the farmer's market. And you say, I want a strawberry that tastes like a strawberry. But in the process, you begin developing a relationship with the producers and you start understanding the whole notion of -- you reintroduce the idea of production into your life. And you recognize that, okay, so this dude's hard working and this is why he has to charge this much. And this is why these strawberries are only available a certain number of weeks a year because there is the local realities, right?
ROBERTSAnd you sort of reimpose real life on some of your decisions. You know, local food is not going to solve the entire food problem, nor is local anything going to solve this whole sort of impulse society that we're talking about. But it's a way for individuals to begin to see a pathway out.
NNAMDIOn to Daniel in Alexandria, Va. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELThanks for taking my call. My question has to do with this idea of the endgame. And I think you may have replied to part of it. But, okay, at what point do people get to the tipping point? What is -- well, how do you define the dipping point? Is it even or is it uneven? I mean, how do -- how do these things resolve themselves over time? And when are we going to go running for our 12-step program, so that we get out of this mess?
ROBERTSWell, that's great. I mean, that is sort of what we're sort of struggling with right now. It's, you know, have we reached the tipping point? You know, you look at after the recession, you know, and people had to reset a lot of their expectations, you know, in terms of how much they could have. Some of us took hard lessons from that. Some of us didn't. Some of us are, institutionally, if you look at some corporations, we're right back to where we were. And you know, we talked about sort of getting the money out of politics, I think you're going to need to reform the way corporations strategize. Because that is a big source of short-termism right there.
ROBERTSI mean, as an example, the amount of money that corporations are willing to invest in the long term today, whether we're talking about R&D, whether we're talking about maintenance and safety, whether we're talking about employee training...
NNAMDICuts into the bottom line.
ROBERTSIt is, exactly. And it cuts into quarterly earnings and share price. And as long as we're focused on those near-term goals, especially share price, it's very difficult to think long term.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Adam in Washington, D.C. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMHi. Thanks for an interesting conversation. I was wondering what your guest thinks about how tactics in marketing have changed or have evolved with this culture of impulsiveness. I was thinking, back when you were talking about the sort of historical context, I was thinking of the late, I think his name is Edward Bernays, who was sort of a marketing genius and had these various foils to sort of take advantage of the subconscious in people. And I was wondering where you see -- is there an importance in taking advantage or having some subtlety in marketing, if this impulsiveness is so at the forefront of our consumer culture?
ROBERTSThat's a great question. And it reminds us of the history of this. I mean, this isn't new. This has been going on for a century. Bernays was the -- you know, he's the nephew of Sigmund Freud and really one of the leaders of this movement to psychologize the sale of things. And, you know, that's really -- that sort of culminates in the "Mad Men" era, right? Where we've understood that what we need to do is be inside the consumer's head. And you know, that then takes a step up in terms of intensity with the computer revolution, which allows us to almost literally do that.
ROBERTSI mean, think about your personal technology. It's almost an appendage. If you lose your smartphone, you feel as if you've lost an arm. That, you know, we don't know sort of where our psychology stops and the market begins. So absolutely. And marketers take advantage of this. And this is something that consumers who are interested in not just being consumers but being citizens again -- I mean it's sort of a side question, why we allow ourselves to be called consumers in the first place, but be that as it may. Individuals who are interested in sort of taking back their own lives from the marketplace need to start by asking, you know, how is it that we allowed the marketplace to get so close to us?
ROBERTSAnd one of the ways is through our personal technology. Another of the ways is sort of allowing the market to so closely survey us and sort of monitor our preferences that it can personalize its offerings. On the one hand, that's great because we get personalized offerings. On the other hand, we've essentially merged with the marketplace. And that's a merger that we need to reconsider.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. How would you say the nature of innovation has change? Is a new smartphone app something that's qualitatively different to you than, oh, a car or building a dam?
ROBERTSYeah, absolutely. I think innovation is where we're really falling down and really an example of the impulse society. We focus more and more on innovation that provides quick returns. And whether -- and then this operates at many different levels. I mean a lot of companies used to invest pretty heavily in basic research. And that's the kind of research that you don't necessarily know what it's going to -- how it's going to pay off or when. You're just wanting to develop the science so at some point down the line it may be develop -- you might be able to develop it into a product. We're much less willing to do that.
ROBERTSA company is much less willing to take that kind of a chance. We want sure things. So we'll take a technology that's already out there and we'll add a refinement. Like, we'll come out with a smartphone that's...
NNAMDIHow can I make this more convenient for somebody?
ROBERTSOr even less than that. It's like, here's a smartphone with a different colored case. Wow, that's innovation, you know, because we know that -- I mean, you know, I've got an iPhone and they do wonderful things. But you got to question where a culture is when people will spend the night in front of a store to get the next iPhone without even knowing what the features are on that phone. They'll just assume that they're going to like those new things. They clearly don't need them, right? Because they don't even know what they are. And yet we've embedded this idea in our head that the next thing, the next upgrade is automatically worth having.
NNAMDIOn now to Betty in Warrenton, Va. Betty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETTYWell, hi. I don't feel you'll guest answered the question the gentleman two people before asked about the value of traveling as -- versus experiences. Or perhaps he didn't think like I do about that. Should I go...
NNAMDIHow do you think about it?
BETTYWell, yeah, I got a choice. I can take my money and invest in a big house, which I will be housebound, because everything will go into upkeeping and dressing up that house. Or I can take my money and see what's really on this planet. What comes in on my television has been rigged to make me think a certain way.
BETTYBut when you go out and you see the world, you find out you've been kind of misled about what's going on among people, the stereotypes about certain cultures, for example. And when I travel and meet these people from these cultures, we have wonderful conversations (word?) while we've known each other. I'm black. I meet somebody who's Nordic...
NNAMDIAren't you really talking about the difference between spending money on things and spending money on the accumulation of knowledge?
BETTYOkay. I called it an experience. But I like the way you put that. But the important thing is, when I come back home and I have to vote, my voting is really informed, what I've learned about being around the world. You volunteer to go with archeological digs. And you understand the importance of this mother ship that we're on.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. So allow me to have Paul Roberts respond, Betty.
ROBERTSSo that -- I mean, that's perfect. I mean, Betty's really hit the nail on the head. But from her answer, you can see she's being very deliberative. She's saying, here's what I want to get from this experience. She's making an investment. It's a long-term investment. And she has a goal that she wants. She wants to come back more informed or enriched. So it -- I guess it really doesn't matter what you're using to meet that goal, as long as it's the goal. I guess that's what I'm interested in is the idea that you have a goal, that you have a place that you want to be that's different from where you are now.
ROBERTSAnd that, ideally, if we can, you know, frost the cake, maybe that that goal also includes being something larger than yourself and reconnecting to some of the, you know, larger issues that society needs to reconnect with.
NNAMDIIt's Paul Roberts. I'm afraid we're out of time. He is a journalist and author. His most recent book is called "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification." Thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERTSIt's great to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Andrew Katz-Moses. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Timothy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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