Their searches, downloads and purchases are shaping America’s personality with a clandestine, socio-economic merger of the Market and Self. Contributor MICHELLE SHAIL chats with author Paul Roberts about the ethics of capitalism, the decline of the personality, and the advent of Apple's iPhone X in his book Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification.
My eldest son entered his senior year of High School this Fall, and we're tallying up his activities, grades and attitudes into that race toward adulthood. Displeased with a late start, we brokered a performance contract. Fulfilling chores, good grades, and a generally positive attitude would be rewarded. By Homecoming, little if anything had changed and time seemed dominated by texts, posts, tweets and games. So, we put him on the bench by removing ALL of his technology. The sociological wasteland of adolescence.
It’s not just the digital natives suffering from the distraction of technology these days. They’re merely one demographic of a new global society consumed with self-gratification. Our seemingly endless searches for sports, news, sex, shopping and celebrity means that the Market and Self have become one. How often am I texting with friends at work? How many first dates have I blown off to binge on a new Netflix series? And how am I creating space for a romantic life when I work so much that I lose my VPN key fob in my bed sheets? It seems that technology is forever taking us away from the present.
Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification weaves compelling information about economics, psychology and America’s history to illustrate how we’re trading consumerism for authentic connections. I recently spoke with the author Paul Roberts in Washington.
The ability to form productive groups around organizing principles is the cornerstone of a democracy. But Roberts argues “endless consumption of cheap consumer goods has become the means by which Americans now define themselves. We have a bias towards short term corporate returns” the author continues, “and consumer credit we cannot service.” Health care spending is untenable while rates of obesity, diabetes and depression spike like a hockey stick. Over 40M Americans carry student loans of $30K, whilst over 1M ages 18-34 are underemployed. Indeed, Generation Connect—those who grew up after the advent of the internet—are having the most difficult time adapting to the conventional world.
Critics argue that we’re finally recovering from the Great Recession. Corporate balance sheets are healthy. The Stock Market is at an all time high. Unemployment was at 6.9% in 2014 and the banks have repaid their bail out money yielding a nice return for the feds. However, the gorilla in the room few can see (due in part to a preoccupation with counting their Facebook Likes) is something called Middle Class Prosperity. “The jobs that have come back are either high-end positions requiring specialized knowledge, or, more often, low-skill and low-wage service jobs.” Roberts goes on to note that “median household income is 7% less today than it was fifteen years ago.” It is increasingly difficult to prepare a child for a world that technology is forever changing.
Roberts says that history can help. Our nation’s progress came when American Colonists’ began asking big questions about taxes, the economy, and the accountability of public servants. It is not merely an inherent right to question our leaders in America. It’s our patriotic duty. And Roberts contends that when we abdicate our responsibility for sustaining a society of freedom, justice and equality we create a system manipulated by those who govern our spending with endless options of consumer purchases and entertainment. Amusement does’t lead to appeasement, as the Roman Empire so tragically demonstrates, but rather to the coercion of a shallow populace of chronic consumers. The Founders hoped to redact this fate by drafting principles embolden with liberty, prudence, and common sense.
This ‘Time Out’ from technology seems to be working out as less of a punishment for my son and more for an opportunity for me. Nature abhors a void, and in the absence of binging on TV, posts, texts and purchases my kids and I are putting forward something we call in our family a “Best Effort.”
When I couldn't fathom what technology would produce next, the Apple iPhone X was announced touting an all-glass design with 5.8” Super Retina display, the A11 Bionic chip with Neural Engine, Qi wireless charging and an improved rear camera with dual optical image stabilization. Face ID now enables us to unlock, authenticate and pay using Face ID via a new TrueDepth camera. Be that as it may, we're resolved to use it as a tool rather than a toy in our audacious pursuit to live and revel in the present.
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