Instant Fulfilment - Do We Really Need It Right Now?
I think it’s safe to say that we now live in the age of the instantaneous. Instantaneous disruption. Instant change. We have products and services on demand, available instantly. Logistically, the instant access to things is nothing less than amazing. If there is a book that I want from overseas, I can have it arrive from the other side of the globe in just a week or so, thanks to online ordering systems and an intricate system of land, air and seaborne transport. Several hundred years ago, at the peak of the age of exploration, ordering something from so far would have taken six months or more, if it was at all possible.
Current technology seems poised to take us even further. Alphabet (aka Google) has arrived in Australia with drones. Their drone service (under the brand name ‘Wing’) promises products from local business within minutes.
“Whether you’re a parent with a sick child at home and have run out of baby paracetamol, a busy professional who forgot to pick up fresh bread during your regular weekly shop, or you simply just want to order your morning flat white without the hassle of having to drive to the cafe, Wing has teamed up with local Canberra businesses to give customers the opportunity to have a range of goods delivered in a handful of minutes.” (From Wing)
If we extend this to the example of my book from overseas, perhaps that might mean I could receive it in just a few days. Long-range drones could bring it across the ocean and then short-range drones could take it through staging centres until it arrived at my door. From six months to just a few days. Now that seems like magic. It clearly fulfils the overarching philosophy of instantaneous fulfilment that permeates the design of our economic and retail services.
Still, I wonder what the consequences of this are? I know that I’ve often been at my most creative when I don’t have something I perceive I need. I’ve invented recipes I love because I had to substitute ingredients. I’ve found unexpected delight in books I only read because I was waiting for another to arrive.
What I don’t have shapes me as much as what I do.
I wonder if there is an ultimate maximum speed at which things could arrive in my life. To make this work, I could conceive of machine learning technologies that try to predict what I need so that they can order and deliver it before I’m even fully aware that I need it. In a way, this fulfilment precedes me even being consciously aware of my needs.
Again, the presence of this sort of light-speed fulfilment is not neutral. It shapes my choices in rather insidious ways. For example, we might all be far more creatures of habit than we like to admit. Therefore, the accidental collisions, delays and other impediments in life actually give rise to new opportunities because they force us out of well-worn tracks. Disrupting our ingrained patterns of behaviour is fundamental to innovation. So does instantaneous fulfilment turn us into the ultimate consumer?
Not having things exactly when I want them would seem to be part of building our resilience to the vagaries of life. Even beyond its impacts on my own innovative tendencies, I wonder how a rush towards instantaneous fulfilment affects my happiness.
Research conducted in the 1970s around delayed gratification in children suggested that those who were able to initially resist the lure of a reward (a marshmallow), benefited in their enjoyment when they ate it later. Granted, more recent work suggests confounding factors like socio-economic status may make delayed gratification is easier and more practical.
If I set the research aside for a moment and think even about my own lived experience, I think gratification for the different things in my life sits on a continuum. For obvious emergency items, like medications, my need is immediate. However, for many of the other things that arrive in my life, it is more complicated. Taking time for something to arrive means that I can build up excitement and anticipation. Granted, if I wait too long, the very needs that a thing was meant to fulfil might subside.
There is a deeper problem here and it isn’t a technological one. The problem isn’t how quickly we can get things to people. The problem is actually how to deliver things to me in a hyper-personalised way that accounts for whether these things should take a longer or shorter time to arrive, based on whether I benefit from the delay or anticipation.
Like I mentioned, medicines should arrive in my life as quickly as possible, but if expensive and treasured gifts took a little while, it might build up the excitement and anticipation. It should probably even be difficult to obtain some things quickly and easily, like fast food. We could become our own worst enemies if we could get instant fast food.
If we assume that the goal is reduce the friction for everything, then we treat the fulfilment of products and services as a purely technological problem. Instead, we should start by looking at the psychological and cultural impacts and then work backwards toward the technology. This avoids treating instant fulfilment as a technological or economic certainty.
Drone Photo by Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash