The Impulse Society and our obsession with instant gratification

The latest book from Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil



By Paul Roberts

The Impulse Society opens in Seattle, not far from Microsoft’s headquarters, at the continent’s first rehab centre for technology addicts. The centre’s denizens are so socially isolated they can barely hold face-to-face conversations. They are so hooked to gaming that their self-control and their ability to make decisions has atrophied. To Roberts, a veteran journalist, these addicts, enslaved by impulse, are facing a dilemma each of us will eventually confront: how to cope in a society that is almost too good at giving us what we want.

This isn’t merely instant gratification on the individual plane—the shrinking window between wanting and getting the next iPhone, that marble countertop. In this winding, cautionary tale, Roberts (The End of OilThe End of Food) laments the decline of the kind of long-range planning that pulled America from the depths of the Great Depression. In its place, he sees the rise of a society beholden to short-term impulses and the new, new thing. In this world, CEOs openly chase the fastest reward, politicians seek quick fixes at the expense of genuine progress and individuals ignore the greater good in place of a relentless search for self-discovery.

But consumption is a big part of the puzzle. Whereas a century ago most economic activity focused on necessities, the reverse is true today: 70 per cent centres on discretionary spending. Perhaps not surprisingly, this drive to consume is falling short of providing us what we actually need: “We can make great plasma screens and seat warmers and teeth whiteners and apps that will guide you, turn by turn, to the nearest edgy martini bar,” Roberts writes. “But when it comes to, say, dealing with climate change, or reforming the financial system, or some other large-scale problem out in the real world, we have little idea where to start.”

The great irony, Roberts notes, is that for all our emphasis on pleasure and gratification, society’s main output these days seems to be anxiety. (Witness the oceans of antidepressants and tranquilizers we consume.) Ultimately, Roberts finds, we’re paying a steep price for a quarter-century’s disengagement from one another.

Roberts is hardly the first to track the narcissism, anomie, deep emptiness and other by-products of the American project, and the book offers little in the way of a road map to get us out of this mess.

Ultimately, however, Roberts builds a deeply troubling case. Our political culture demands rapid, visceral responses. Roberts challenges us to reverse course, to re-engage with complicated, enduring problems. He asks us to question just how fulfilled and evolved we truly are, and what we have lost along the way.

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