Instant gratification is kind of nice.
Oh, sure, patience and work that pays off is incredibly rewarding too, but there’s nothing quite as visceral as that moment of unwrapping something new, of having a fancy tickled immediately after it hits, while the novelty is still fresh in mind. It’s amazing how effectively companies use this love of instant gratification to make us feel ingratiated.
Take the clip at the end of a film’s credits, for instance. Known as stringers, they grant the viewer a glimpse at a possible sequel in reward for five minutes of patience, rather than a year or two of waiting for the previews. In return, they create buzz and demand that a studio can leverage into future financing. The wait between episodes on TV has the opposite effect, often leading to cancellation due to weary falling viewership, though this is well-mitigated by incredible cliffhangers (see Lost and Game of Thrones).
These visual, cognitive rewards are pleasant and effective. A great final clip on an episode of TV or at the end of a film can leave us with a lasting impression that outweighs the product as a whole, or at least illuminates the best parts in our memory. Boondock Saints, a cult movie that hasn’t held up as well as I would’ve liked (save for Willem Dafoe’s awesome performance), has a string of man-on-the-street interviews that offer different perspectives on vigilantism. These interviews completely flavor the film. They turn an entertaining action romp into a thoughtful philosophical exploration. In other words, they added the depth that helped make the film a true force and created enough clamor for them to make a terrible sequel a decade later.
Stores, banks, credit cards, and events often give out goodie bags or rewards for signing up. These enticements are there to speed the sense of reward even if you’d get a better reward by choosing another company or event and waiting. Still, I feel regularly tempted by the carrots dangled in front of me.
Amazon, Steam, and Netflix have granted instant gratification for games, movies and TV, and even the moniker on-demand implies that entertainment is at your beck and call. Thanks to digital downloads, I only have to wait a few moments of downloading before I can enjoy the fruits of my purchase. For the past two decades, bookstores and music emporiums have survived on the ability to provide instant gratification compared to ordering online, but the rise of iTunes and the growth of bandwidth has slowly destroyed that. There are still plenty of us (myself included) who claim to love the feel of a book over that of an eReader, but convenience and ease, combined with the virtually instant gratification that the Kindle store provides has eroded the divide between the traditional and the novel.
This, however, is just the beginning. We are entering a new era of instant gratification: the age of the 3D printer.
It’s hard to realize that the 3D printer is over 30 years old already. Since its first recorded production of a plastic model in 1981, 3D printing has been employed in industrial design and manufacturing. It’s mind-blowing that the local community college now has one available to students. Software can take 3D models, break them down into planes, and reproduce items at the press of a button. What materials can be used to print remains the only serious restriction keeping us from building a Star Trek style replicator.
Indeed, we’re already able to produce prosthetics (most famously a replacement jaw, bionic ears, and more recently working hands), nano-size batteries, food, and even more printers (not to mention the controversial printing of weapons). Every week there seems to be more news about what new and novel thing we can now print or print with.
But the true effect of 3D printing won’t be felt by you or I until the 3D printer becomes a household item. That moment where little Joey can see a firetruck on TV, go punch in the code, and have the driving, flashing toy in his hands 10 minutes later will have a greater effect on the future of humanity, the way we deal with gratification and our development of patience than anything before.
Neal Stevenson briefly explored this idea in The Diamond Age, which presupposed a centrally located bank of building materials piped into every house. As long as one can afford the materials (which are infinitely recyclable), any item could be produced. One of his main characters produces several toys, which later are confiscated and returned to the stream due to the family’s budget. Stevenson’s book truly focuses on the development of interactive media’s educational, indoctrinary, and propagandist abilities rather than the minor (then-sci-fi) footnote of common-place 3D printing.
So let us consider little Joey and his virtually instant toys. No longer does he need to beg or needle his parents to go down to the local toy store. Assuming materials are plentiful and cheap, mom or dad could just print his toy and stop the nagging instantaneously. We’ll ignore the fact that this is terrible parenting, and assuming that, when left to his own devices, Joey would do this anyway. The first few times a new toy appears, the elation and joy is as great as waiting for that awesome birthday present, but over time, as with all instant rewards, that satisfaction will wear off.
What interests me the most is thinking about Joey at age 15 or 20, when a lifetime of instant gratification, instant access to toys, books, music and movies, instant communication, all take their toll. Will Joey be left sans-patience? With the ultimate case of the trumped up and dreaded inability-or unwillingness-to-focus-or-wait known as ADHD? Or will Joey find that he only has an interest in things that take time and patience; that waiting, and being rewarded, is the most novel thing the 3D printer has produced?