As I See It: Expectations of Immediacy
May 26, 2009 Victor Rozek
In 1860, a revolutionary multi-species information delivery system was unveiled in St. Joseph, Missouri. Its creators were honest enough to name their enterprise after the harder-working species in the joint venture and called it the Pony Express. The system included 190 stations spaced approximately 10 miles apart–about as far as a horse could run at full gallop–and spanned some 2,000 miles between Missouri and California.
Some 183 riders and 400 horses carried mail between St. Joseph and Sacramento, capturing the imagination of a nation eager for more immediate news from its western frontier. Immediacy, however, is contextual and at that time speedy delivery of a transcontinental message took 10 days in the summer and 12 to 16 days in winter. Given that the journey was usually measured in months, and was prohibitive in winter, the new standard was impressively quick. Expectations of immediacy had been redefined and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, an attitude began evolving which, 150 years later, would fuel our very own Great Recession.
Like the product cycles of today’s rapidly changing technologies, the Pony Express didn’t last long. After just 18 months of galloping cross country, it was made obsolete by the telegraph. But although the telegraph amplified immediacy by increasing the speed of transmission, it was limited by the fact that information traveled station-to-station rather than person-to-person. That problem would shortly be solved by yet another invention that would eventually consign the telegraph to history’s recycling bin.
Just 15 years after the demise of the Pony Express, the first working telephone was created and with it, the definition of immediacy changed again. Notably, the telephone coupled immediacy with the expectation of availability and the promise of reward. When a call was placed, the presumption was that the phone would be answered and that the caller would be rewarded by reaching the person they sought.
That presumption, however, was often frustrated. When no one was home, the phone (young people may be surprised to learn) just rang and rang, until immediacy got another facelift with the invention of the answering machine. If someone took the time to record a message, there was an implied responsibility to return the call–sooner rather than later. Thus, obligation was added to the expectations of immediacy, availability, and reward.
Cell phones introduced portability and with it the expectation of immediacy changed anew. There is an unspoken presumption that people will carry their cell phones at all times, in all places–and there is great vexation when calls default to the mobile answering machine known as voice mail. The cell phone added another critical component to immediacy that would prove to be divisive and costly: Expectations of availability and reward became detached from context. From the caller’s point of view, where you are and what you’re doing is less relevant than the requisite that you carry and answer your phone. From an economic perspective, however, detaching reward from context allowed widespread systemic fraud.
But for all its convenience, voice mail is apparently going out of fashion. According to a recent technology discussion on National Public Radio, voice mail is now considered to be slow, unreliable, and annoying, and its use is declining. Too many buttons to push, too many canned messages to endure. It’s just not immediate enough.
The cell phone is slowly being usurped by a variety of social networking applications and texting devices, which will someday be replaced by who knows what–perhaps chips directly implanted in our brains, creating one, universal Borg-like network.
But while technology can be relied on to change, what remains firmly encoded in the national psyche are our latest expectations. They form a baseline against which other technologies and other contexts are measured. (If I can get a high speed Internet connection at Starbucks, why is only dial-up available at home? If kids can be enlightened and entertained by an iPhone, why is school so boring?) It was Paul Newman who said that if you find passion in one part of your life, it will spill over into all the others. Well, the same can be said for our expectations.
An argument can be made that our expectations of immediacy, availability, and reward, divorced from context and assured by obligation, were forged by evolving technology. Over time, these expectations exercised a subtle but profound influence in the business community, morphing into beliefs about how the world should work, what is allowable, and what is just. And when those expectations were coupled with the deregulation of financial markets, they spawned an economic crisis of global proportions.
The desire for immediacy can be seen both in the initial response to the crisis, and the absolute sense of entitlement displayed by negligent financial institutions. The search for the quick and easy fix was evident by how hastily money was thrown at the problem. As soon as the crisis surfaced, before structural and systemic problems could even be identified, much less addressed, $700 billion in bailout money was committed by the Bush administration (a policy continued by the Obama team with only cosmetic modifications). Recall that the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, simply said that the money was needed immediately, and would not say for what or for whom, claiming sole discretion over distribution of the funds. The recipients of those funds, on the other hand, not only exhibited immediacy in their urgent and persistent demands, but also the expectations of availability (all the money they needed would be provided); reward (succeed or fail, management was entitled to its bonuses); and obligation (taxpayers were obliged to detoxify their investments because they were simply too big and important to fail).
Wall Street’s detachment from context was beautifully illustrated by Jake DeSantis, a commodities trader at American International Group. DeSantis felt so poorly treated by the no-bonus demands of American taxpayers who had ponied up more than $170 billion to prop up his company, that he sent a whiney resignation letter to the New York Times. In it, he argued that since he was not directly responsible for the company’s losses, he should therefore not be “cheated” out of his bonus, “any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.”
It was an amazing contextual disconnect. There was no sense that we are all in this together; no understanding that if taxpayers–many of whom lost everything–were being asked to repay generations of debt and accept long-term cuts in services as a result, perhaps returning a bonus while keeping your job is not so much to ask. There was no recognition that if you play for a team it doesn’t matter if you excel; if your team loses, you share in the loss. The larger context, ignored by Wall Street, is that if the plumber and the electrician work for the same company and one of them burns the house down, nobody gets paid and somebody gets sued. The fact that he was working for a company that helped bring down an entire economy was apparently lost on DeSantis. Like his Wall Street colleagues, he expected to be made whole, nothing else mattered.
Technology, to a great extent, determines what is possible and available to us. It is an expectation setter, and as expectations change so does our understanding of basic concepts like reward, obligation, and immediacy. Expectations generated by technology spill over into other parts of our lives, redefining our values and redirecting our actions. Once the numbers on Wall Street computer screens ceased representing people’s life savings and became expectations of reward, the die was cast. Human behavior became as soulless and void of compassion as the technology that enabled it. And when a society becomes technologically driven and divorced from context, the outcomes it creates can only reflect the sensitivity of the machine.