The Impulse Society: How Our Growing Desperation for Instant Connection Is Ruining Us

Consumer culture does everything in its power to persuade us that adversity has no place in our lives.

The following is an excerpt from Paul Roberts' new book, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.

The metaphor of the expanding fragile modern self is quite apt. To personalize is, in effect, to reject the world “as is,” and instead to insist on bending it to our preferences, as if mastery and dominance were our only mode. But humans aren’t meant only for mastery. We’re also meant to adapt to something larger. Our large brains are specialized for cooperation and compromise and negotiation—with other individuals, but also with the broader world, which, for most of history, did not cater to our preferences or likes. For all our ancestors’ tremendous skills at modifying and improving their environment, daily survival depended as much on their capacity to conform themselves and their expectations to the world as they found it. Indeed, it was only by enduring adversity and disappointment that we humans gained the strength and knowledge and perspective that are essential to sustainable mastery.

Virtually every traditional culture understood this and regarded adversity as inseparable from, and essential to, the formation of strong, self-sufficient individuals. Yet the modern conception of “character” now leaves little space for discomfort or real adversity. To the contrary, under the Impulse Society, consumer culture does everything in its considerable power to persuade us that adversity and difficulty and even awkwardness have no place in our lives (or belong only in discrete, self-enhancing moments, such as ropes courses or really hard ab workouts). Discomfort, difficulty, anxiety, suffering, depression, rejection, uncertainty, or ambiguity—in the Impulse Society, these aren’t opportunities to mature and toughen or become. Rather, they represent errors and inefficiencies, and thus opportunities to correct—nearly always with more consumption and self-expression.

So rather than having to wait a few days for a package, we have it overnighted. Or we pay for same-day service. Or we pine for the moment when Amazon launches drone delivery and can get us our package in thirty minutes.* And as the system gets faster at gratifying our desires, the possibility that we might actually be more satisfied by waiting and enduring a delay never arises. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the efficient consumer market abhors delay and adversity, and by extension, it cannot abide the strength of character that delay and adversity and inefficiency generally might produce. To the efficient market, “character” and “virtue” are themselves inefficiencies—impediments to the volume-based, share-price-maximizing economy. Once some new increment of self-expressive, self-gratifying, self-promoting capability is made available, the unstated but overriding assumption of contemporary consumer culture is that this capability can and should be put to use. Which means we now allow the efficient market and the treadmills and the relentless cycles of capital and innovation to determine how, and how far, we will take our self-expression and, by extension, our selves— even when doing so leaves us in a weaker state.

Consider the way our social relationships, and the larger processes of community, are changing under the relentless pressure of our new efficiencies. We know how important community is for individual development. It’s in the context of community that we absorb the social rules and prerequisites for interaction and success. It’s here that we come to understand and, ideally, to internalize, the need for limits and self-control, for patience and persistence and long-term commitments; the pressure of community is one way society persuades us to control our myopia and selfishness. (Or as economists Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis have put it, community is the vehicle through which “society’s ‘oughts’ become its members’ ‘wants.’ ”) But community’s function isn’t simply to say “no.” It’s in the context of our social relationships where we discover our capacities and strengths. It’s here that we gain our sense of worth as individuals, as citizens and as social producers—active participants who don’t merely consume social goods, but contribute something the community needs.

But community doesn’t simply teach us to be productive citizens. People with strong social connections generally have a much better time. We enjoy better physical and mental health, recover faster from sickness or injury, and are less likely to suffer eating or sleeping disorders. We report being happier and rank our quality of life as higher—and do so even when the community that we’re connected to isn’t particularly well off or educated. Indeed, social connectedness is actually more important than affluence: regular social activities such as volunteering, church attendance, entertaining friends, or joining a club provide us with the same boost to happiness as does a doubling of personal income. As Harvard’s Robert Putnam notes, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”

Unfortunately, for all the importance of social connectedness, we haven’t done a terribly good job of preserving it under the Impulse Society. Under the steady pressure of commercial and technological efficiencies, many of the tight social structures of the past have been eliminated or replaced with entirely new social arrangements. True, many of these new arrangements are clearly superior—even in ostensibly free societies, traditional communities left little room for individual growth or experimentation or happiness. Yet our new arrangements, which invariably seek to give individuals substantially more control over how they connect, exact a price. More and more, social connection becomes just another form of consumption, one we expect to tailor to our personal preferences and schedules—almost as if community was no longer a necessity or an obligation, but a matter of personal style, something to engage as it suits our mood or preference. And while such freedom has its obvious attractions, it clearly has downsides. In gaining so much control over the process of social connection, we may be depriving ourselves of some of the robust give-and-take of traditional interaction that is essential to becoming a functional, fulfilled individual.

Consider our vaunted and increasing capacity to communicate and connect digitally. In theory, our smartphones and social media allow us the opportunity to be more social than at any time in history. And yet, because there are few natural limits to this format—we can, in effect, communicate incessantly, posting every conceivable life event, expressing every thought no matter how incompletely formed or inappropriate or mundane—we may be diluting the value of the connection. 

Studies suggest, for example, that the efficiency with which we can respond to an online provocation routinely leads to escalations that can destroy offline relationships. “People seem aware that these kinds of crucial conversations should not take place on social media,” notes Joseph Grenny, whose firm, VitalSmarts, surveys online behavior. “Yet there seems to be a compulsion to resolve emotions right now and via the convenience of these channels.”

Even when our online communications are entirely friendly, the ease with which we can reach out often undermines the very connection we seek to create. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist who has spent decades researching digital interactions, argues that because it is now possible to be in virtually constant contact with others, we tend to communicate so excessively that even a momentary lapse can leave us feeling isolated or abandoned. Where people in the pre-digital age did not think it alarming to go hours or days or even weeks without hearing from someone, the digital mind can become uncomfortable and anxious without instant feedback. In her book Alone Together, Turkle describes a social world of collapsing time horizons. College students text their parents daily, and even hourly, over the smallest matters—and feel anxious if they can’t get a quick response. Lovers break up over the failure to reply instantly to a text; friendships sour when posts aren’t “liked” fast enough. Parents call 911 if Junior doesn’t respond immediately to a text or a phone call—a degree of panic that was simply unknown before constant digital contact. Here, too, is a world made increasingly insecure by its own capabilities and its own accelerating efficiencies.

This same efficiency-driven insecurity now lurks just below the surface in nearly all digital interactions. Whatever the relationship (romantic, familial, professional), the very nature of our technology inclines us to a constant state of emotional suspense. Thanks to the casual, abbreviated nature of digital communication, we converse in fragments of thoughts and feelings that can be completed only through more interaction—we are always waiting to know how the story ends. The result, Turkle says, is a communication style, and a relationship style, that allow us to “express emotions while they are being formed” and in which “feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated.” In other words, what was once primarily an interior process—thoughts were formed and feelings experienced before we expressed them—has now become a process that is external and iterative and public. Identity itself comes to depend on iterative interaction—giving rise to what Turkle calls the “collaborative self.” Meanwhile, our skills as a private, self-contained person vanish. “What is not being cultivated here,” Turkle writes, “is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” For all the emphasis on independence and individual freedom under the Impulse Society, we may be losing the capacity to truly be on our own.

In a culture obsessed with individual self-interest, such an incapacity is surely one of the greatest ironies of the Impulse Society. Yet it many ways it was inevitable. Herded along by a consumer culture that is both solicitous and manipulative, one that proposes absolute individual liberty while enforcing absolute material dependence—we rely completely on the machine of the marketplace—it is all too easy to emerge with a self-image, and a sense of self, that are both wildly inflated and fundamentally weak and insecure. Unable to fully experience the satisfactions of genuine independence and individuality, we compensate with more personalized self-expression and gratification, which only push us further from the real relationships that might have helped us to a stable, fulfilling existence.


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