With every new technological development and innovation, today’s businesses learn better how to target our desires and passions, how to market their products to the appetites of the populace. We’ve never lived in an age in which targeted advertising can become so entangled in our personal, social, and civic pursuits. Yet we forget—and often ignore—the implications and consequences of this entanglement.
This is why Paul Roberts’ new cover story for The American Scholar is so important. Excerpted from his new book, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, Roberts considers the way our economy has enmeshed itself with society, and the consequences this relationship can have on our personal and political lives:
…[T]he entire edifice of the consumer economy, digital and actual, has reoriented itself around our own agendas, self-images, and inner fantasies. In North America and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree in Europe and Japan, it is now entirely normal to demand a personally customized life. We fine-tune our moods with pharmaceuticals and Spotify. We craft our meals around our allergies and ideologies. We can choose a vehicle to express our hipness or hostility. We can move to a neighborhood that matches our social values, find a news outlet that mirrors our politics, and create a social network that “likes” everything we say or post. With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.
And yet … In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.
This desire for immediate gratification reflects our understanding of efficiency as a virtue—a conception engrained in modern society, as Alastair MacIntyre noted in his book After Virtue. Our greatest good is encapsulated in the freedom and efficiency of individualism. In today’s society, our desires have become paramount: we want to read, eat, and watch what we want, with speed and ease. People can order groceries without stepping outside their front door. They can text or chat with their friends without ever having to make a phone call or schedule a face-to-face meeting.
Roberts thinks this heightened awareness of personal desires and passions has also lead to a depletion of real-life character. “The efficient consumer market cannot abide delay or adversity or, by extension, the strength of character that might be cultivated by delay or adversity,” he writes. “To the efficient market, character is itself an inefficiency to be squeezed from the system.” Virtue (at least the classical sort) requires limits, and self-control. It requires saying “no” to present wants, for the cultivation of future goods. But today, society gives us every opportunity to get what we want, presenting these options with deceptive ease and perceived harmlessness.
However, people seem to be recognizing some vices inherent in this efficiency-as-virtue model. Many are turning away from online gaming, social media, and other online tools that may have long-term consequences. Some have started making meals from scratch and are introducing daily family meals back into their homes, in an effort to re-cultivate a tradition of cooking and hospitality that’s largely been lost in modern America. There’s even a book out called Slow Church, protesting the “McDonaldization” of the U.S.’s religious institutions, encouraging churches to reject “the cult of speed” and efficiency in favor of genuine, meaningful community.
But the “market-driven narcissism” that Roberts has identified still exists. It affects all of us: the way we converse, the leisure activities we enjoy, the way we perceive ourselves. Roberts uses Brett Walker, a 29-year-old currently at a rehab center for Internet addicts, to explain the consequences of the online world. “For four years, even as his real life collapsed, Walker enjoyed a near-perfect online existence,” Roberts writes. We may not all be online gamers—but the worlds of Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest offer us these same opportunities for escape and self-curation. They give us the opportunity to neglect real-life character in our pursuit of present pleasure and status.
Weighing the consequences of our consumer culture is something many authors have done in the past, from Neil Postman to Christopher Lasch and beyond. But the temptations of virtual reality and the vices of modern society have not slowed or dissipated—thus, it’s important to continue listening to authors like Roberts. Our society and our selves are largely driven by appetite. This is a truth we have to acknowledge. What we do with that truth can have significant consequences—for the cultivation of virtue or vice in our lives.