We live in a fast world. We can travel to the other side of the Earth in several hours. We can see information from anywhere in a couple milliseconds. We can publish our own thoughts with the click of a button.
Our society and our technology sees speed as a central focus. Moreover, speed is one of the key ways to improve something. Ask anyone how to make something, anything better, and it is very likely that he will respond with “make it faster?”. Indeed, the notion of speed is essential to an “action-oriented” perspective of the world. If we see the world as a series of actions and interactions, it is certainly desirable that those actions occur as quickly and efficiently as possible. Only then are we responsive and responsible as individuals and as a society.
The origin of this need for speed is in the sense of control. When our dictums are executed promptly we feel that there is not a very great divide between what we want the world to be and what it actually is. In other words, we feel that we are in control. On the other hand, it is important that the commands of those in control are executed quickly, because slow execution leads to bureaucracy. When a military leader gives an order he expects it to be followed (literally) immediately. When the Supreme Court makes a decision it is effective immediately. And when you say “I want ___” you really mean “I want ___ now“.
The implication of this is that as a society gets more advanced and a power hierarchy (read: organized government) becomes more stable, everything happens orders of magnitudes faster. Our technology enables us to automate and improve day-to-day actions. Cars allow us to travel miles in minutes, airplanes allow us to travel to new countries in hours. The Internet allows us to transmit information at the speed of light. Telephones and cell phones have revolutionized communication.
But all this technology results in even more demand for immediacy. We used to expect others to reply to our mails in days. Now we expect them to e-mail us in hours, even minutes. Updates posted on Facebook easily accumulate hundreds of comments in less than an hour. In a world that revolves in the blink of an eye, those who are not immediate are left behind. There is enormous pressure to give a response to something as fast as possible.
This is not a good thing. A society or culture that demands too much immediacy is bound to value quantity over quality. Our government is in fact a victim of this sort of “immediacy overload”. We demand results as soon as possible, and the moment some government initiative falters half the country criticizes Barack Obama. We want results and we want them fast. The result is that not only is it better not to do anything at all than to take risks, the government is transformed into a hulking bureaucracy paranoid of failure. In this sense, our own (perhaps unreasonable) demands on our government, our demands of simultaneous quality and immediacy, are guilty of producing some of the most-criticized aspects of our government.
The educational system is another example of immediacy gone wrong. Parents, the state, and students themselves demand results that show not only that they are improving but that they are constantly improving. In other words, they want updates every step of the way. They want immediacy. Thus we have a deluge of standardized tests, test review sessions, various tests in school, etc. The ills of testing overload are familiar, but now it is clear that these ills are actually caused by an unreasonable demand for immediacy.
The next time you are doing anything under pressure, such as writing an essay, doing a project, or anything on-the-job, take account of the effects of the demand for immediacy. Recognize how fast you are expected to work and gauge the effect of that demand on your productivity, quality, and creativity. The great discoveries of science and the great literary works were not envisioned under the pressure to churn some result out every second.