Instant gratification is a shallow pleasure

Instant pudding is a great idea. I’m a big fan of instant cocoa. I can even eat instant potatoes au gratin. But Instant Everybody is one product that, despite its attractive packaging, mass-market appeal and initial sweetness, always leaves a bad aftertaste.
Originally developed for the accomplishment-driven 1980s, pagers and mobile phones allowed overworked, overachieving business people to focus every waking moment (and often every sleeping moment, as well) into productive, billable time.
Soon, the manufacturers of Instant Yuppie began to expand their product lines to include portable computers, which in turn became laptops, notebook computers and palmtops, which became decreasingly massive and increasingly transportable.
As the market gained momentum, a wave of new and flashy must-haves hit technological beachcombers. With the popular advent of the now-requisite Internet access for the general public, manufacturers released hundreds of new products aimed at consumers; in order to expand and include, they changed the parent name to Instant Everybody.
And here we are. We have our e-mail, our Instant Messengers, our palm pilots, our mobile phones and our pagers that still receive a signal in the basement of the Health, Physical Education & Recreation building (and even if they don’t, voice mail is always there to pick up the slack). As a society, we’re just a personal 24-hour Web cam away from the realization of the ultimate dream of Instant Everybody: to form a gargantuan, all-inclusive network of connectiveness whereby we become a singular available people.
Armed to the digital teeth, we’re ready to take the world by storm — and to be fair, we’re not doing half bad (although whether or not what we’re doing is half good is another question). Our standard of living is high; our homes are larger and more comfortable than ever; our potential for living in luxury is ever rising. There are daily innovations in a thousand different areas: from more efficient plumbing and automobiles to healthier foods and people to safer airplanes and water. We’ve made a world of progress, leaving behind only the question of what kind of world is that?
With the increasing popularity of Instant Everybody, we know that doctors, doughnut shops and large grocery stores no longer have a corner on all-night availability. Everything we could desire, everyone we could possibly want to contact is waiting just a button or click away. Only a series of numbers separates us from that person who never leaves the chat room.
To be certain, Instant Everybody has more legitimate uses: a stranded traveler can call for roadside assistance from within the safe confines of his or her vehicle; a child can call for a ride home to get out of an uncomfortable or inappropriate situation; a business person overseas can still retrieve important documents as needed; and a student can access thousands of pages of pertinent information on any subject even when the library is closed.
But for every reasonable use, there are a hundred unreasonable uses. For every e-mail containing important information, there are a hundred virtual peddlers whose unsolicited messages fill up the electronic inboxes of the world (although to be fair, the disposal and recycling of their junk mail is significantly easier and less wasteful than that of their paper counterparts). For every well-made, practical Web page, there are a hundred space-fillers, a hundred pages under construction, a hundred eye-straining technicolor nightmares that serve only to remind us of the true lack of importance or design required to stake one’s claim on the online plains. For each time Instant Everybody allows us to see someone or something in a new and profound light, it causes us to see the swollen irrelevance of these products a hundred times over.
And there’s the rub: too much of Instant Everybody is forever irrelevant and unnecessary. Does every client need to be able to contact every provider with the smallest question or the least significant request? Does micromanagement need to go global? Does the bloated belly of an economic structure that takes its meals from making the unessential essential really need to down another cold one?
Every day, we move closer and closer to the ultimate worldwide 6-billion-user network. Every day, Al Gore’s Internet becomes more widely available and more congested. Every day the air gives flight to more superfluous mobile phone calls (“So then the dog started eating the casserole from last week! Whoops, hold on for a second, I just rear-ended somebody.”) and more unwanted callers — even caller I.D. doesn’t help when the boss knows it’s a satellite phone.
What people today most lack is having to go without. Although poverty and suffering never cease to exist, we are enjoying a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. However, for all the convenience and ease that Instant Everybody lends us, it takes its piece without so much as a “please.”
Personal space, time alone, time to think and learn to separate things of interest from things of real importance, time to spend in personal interaction and meaningful togetherness, time to contemplate whatever we perceive truth to be — this is what we are losing.
Instant Everybody has a pleasing taste going in. However, its airiness makes it a better appetizer than a main course.
Andy Jenken’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Utah paper, the Daily Utah Chronicle.