Waitless Culture

Walking back from class today I noticed that literally half the people walking around were on phones. They were all chatting, and though I didn’t catch much of the conversations, being that it was at 11:20, I am certain most people were simply making plans to meet their friends for lunch.

This is neither good nor bad, but it is interesting. Most of the students I saw had just come out of class, very likely within the previous five minutes. And so many of them were already on their phones.

I tried to imagine what they would have done in those five minutes if they hadn’t had cellular phones. I mean to say, I tried to imagine what they would have done in those five minutes if nobody had cellular phones. You know, the way we sometimes try to think back to the time before bank machines, and it’s hard to remember?

Well, when I was their age, almost nobody I knew had a cell phone. They were prohibitively expensive and basically unnecessary. That is to say, because we lived without them, we did not consider them a necessity. We had all kinds of strategies to make up for the fact we couldn’t communicate with our friends instantaneously. (Because nobody checked email more than once a day in those days, either… nobody in my circle, anyway.) Some of us had very clear habits, like eating lunch at a certain place and time on a given day. Others simply made plans for the next meeting every time they met their friends.

All of this seems so long ago, even though I myself also lived this way until just a year and a half ago. In the intervening time, I’ve discovered the convenience of never having to wait for information. If someone is late for a meeting, I can call and confirm that I’m in the right place. I can find out why they are late, and by how much time, and I can do something else in the interim, if time permits. I can message someone to tell them the results of this or that test or examination, and therefore others don’t necessarily need to wait for information from me, either.

Cellular phones, because they’re a ubiquitous in Korea, are simply a part of life here, but they’re not the only devices that bring us such convenience. Imagine having to wait weeks for news of a friend who is ill in some country on the other side of the world. Imagine losing touch with friends for years at a time because communication infrastructure just is too slow and you’re “too busy”. This sounds crazy now, when email arrives instantaneously and when sending an email is as easy as clicking a key on your keyboard. No more going to the post office, no more licking stamps and addressing envelopes.

And no more waiting. It seems to me that I have become increasingly bad at waiting for things. If I want to know something, I go look it up on the Internet. If I want to talk to someone, I often enough call them up when I first think of this desire to call them. When a topic strikes me, I even post my thoughts on it. I would never have spent this much time on a private diary, of course, but I also would likely have deferred diarizing until much later in the day.

None of these observations are new, of course. But have you ever asked what the endpoint of this all is? When we are so ubiquitously surrounded by technological solutions to all of our information needs that we never need wait for anything, what will we be like? Will we be impatient like children? Will we be more at ease in the world? Will we be more volatile?

It seems that we have fewer and fewer opportunities to wait for things, and to learn how to wait. Waiting used to be such a major part of peoples’ lives: waiting in line for bread or service in a grocery store; waiting for letters to arrive; waiting for photos to get developed; waiting for news from faraway lands. I won’t say that learning to wait makes people better, of course: people who waited for letters to come in the post have also happened to commit horrendous crimes, even en masse. (The worst genocides of the 20th Century predate the Internet.) But I am beginning to suspect that never learning to wait could potentially be a disastrous thing to lose out on, and one that could be unhealthy for a society.

How will people who haven’t learned patience raise children? How will they teach? How will those children learn? Will Alvin Toffler’s famous “Future Shock” be inflicted not on adults, but on children born into an accelerated society?

Will the current trend, towards impressive packaging and crap content, continue to rise and dominate our industrial, aesthetic, and educational production? Will all of our art, science, technology, textbooks, and narratives be about the short-term buzz and the immediate high? It seems likely, for people who have little time to spend on the payoff; good visuals will grab people, and few will have the patience to slog through the lines and lines of explanations. Our art will probably become increasingly visual and visually immersive, until this is superceded by technologically-mediated experiences even more immediate and immersive (VR is only the beginning of a whole industry of diversions, the power of which is limited only by how invasively we can implant our media-infrastructure into our own neurology).

Will we prefer faster-on and faster-off recreational drugs in the future? Will alcohol fall out of favour for being “too slow”?

Will our politics be reduced even more than it has been already to visceral, immediate responses? Will the majority of voting populations be driven not by even the one-line slogans we hear now, but instead simply by mere images, and perhaps single catchwords? Will democracy even be feasible as a form of government in a society with a waiting capacity approaching zero? Will any known form of organized government be feasible in such a society?

These questions suggest to me, well, more than anything that I should be considering this for a short story. But I think the questions are big enough, and real enough, that it’s worth discussing outside of fiction, as well. Are we in the developed world becoming a Waitless society? And what is it doing to our shared modern human culture?

2 thoughts on “Waitless Culture

  1. Gord:

    Sorry for the tardiness of this response, but something else you might want to consider is the manner in which–certainly in Japan, and I assume everywhere–cellular phones have displaced public phones. I’m old enough to remember when public phones where all over the place, easily accesible to anyone who had the 10-25 cents (depending on exactly when and exactly where) it took to make a call.

    Now one often has to hunt to find a public phone. That’s not considered a problem, of course, because “everybody has a cellphone.”

    Except those to poor to afford one.

    Except those who, due to age or other causes, are not mentally spry enough to master a new technology.

    And except us stubborn cusses who choose not to be accesible at all times everywhere.

    The advent of the cellular phone and the manner in which it has made things less convenient for those unwilling to pay for convenience is a perfect example of how privatization does not always produce more pleasant societies.

    As a Marxist acquaintance of mine used to delight in remarking about cases like this: “it’s all a capitalist plot.”



  2. David,

    First, your response isn’t tardy at all. :)

    Next, I think you’re got a point to some degree. For example, I was telling my girlfriend that I think, in a few decades, there won’t be a publicly funded postal service in most advanced countries. (Just as likely, there won’t be a publicly funded telephone service… only bunches of competing private networks operating on what’s left of the public infrastructure, or, in countries where wireless is really big, operating on the airwaves.)

    Of course, I think the step from no-phones to phones is big, but I think the step from landline phones to wireless phones is bigger. Actually, the modern cell phone in Korea represents more than that. The modern cell phone is hanging on the very verge of becoming a PDA, a palmtop, and so on. They have cameras, internet access, text-messaging (though, unfortunately, The Hermit Kingdom uses CDMA as its standard so I cannot text-message friends in Cyprus, India, or anywhere else outside of Korea… yet). These things represent more than making just wireless phones. They represent a transformed way of relating to people.

    I think they are making up for the way urban life has altered Korean society, to be honest. In village life, people would have always been near-instantaneously available, and often enough within earshot. News would travel fast.

    Why don’t Korean phones have Bluetooth? Well, it could be the same reason that so often you see people NOT introducing their mutual friends to one another; people often have enough connections (read: obligations) to others around them. Why would they want anyone else to be able to connect to them out of the blue by phone? I can see why this function might be popular in the West, and I can also see why nobody seems to want it here… yet.

    Privatization certainly does not always produce more pleasant societies, to be sure, but I think, at the same time, cell phones aren’t a proof of that. It just so happens that the advent of cell phones happened to come at a time when a prior infrastructure still exists, even if it is on the massive decline, and when there’s a big fashion of privatizing anything new, because, well, that’s how America got rich, right? Anyway, the landline network is still extant enough that no government is willing to set up a public wireless network. Yet.

    I’d love to be spearheading a free cell phone network for people. You know, maybe one that forced people to download ads or—this is a much better possibility—do community service hours in exchange for free service? Hmmm. I wonder if such a thing would be possible? I suspect the moneyed classes would never go for it, but young people, especially students, probably would.

    By the way, even owning a cell phone you can choose not to be accessible 24-7. Turn it off. Or simply don’t answer. This may get some angry reprisals (some Koreans get unimaginably angry when you don’t respond immediately to their calls), but people will get used to the idea. I certainly don’t answer my phone every time it rings… though I make an effort to call back if I know the caller. (My phone tracks who’s calling and so on, so calling back is easy.)

    And if worst comes to worst, tell them it’s your life and you are not obligated to answer just because someone is bloody calling… that no, you are NOT available 24/7. And that they’d better just accept it.

    I’ve gotten off track here. Have you read Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown? It’s a great book with a lot about the public phone network in America and what a wonderful socialist thing it was, till it was ripped apart and made in to dumb companies. Sterling is also very interested in how new forms of media supplant older ones. You should just search his name and see what you come up with. His Viridian stuff is techno-design-environmentalist, but other stuff is sometimes about Dead Media and so on.

    You’ve got me wondering, though, whether something like what happened to the landline network access system (payphone infrastructure) could also happen to the Net. I don’t think so, but maybe eventually. Hmmm. Something to think about for the old SF ideas file…

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