The ‘instant gratification economy’ is nothing new


CEO: Travis Kalanick
40 Under 40 rank: 13 Outsourcing at its finest: Uber's app blends the convenience of online ordering with the luxury of having a personal driver. With the Uber app, users can order a driver-for-hire to taxi them from point A to point B. Riders who sign up pre-enter their payment information, so the ride itself is cashless and easy to split between other users. Plus, riders can track their driver's progress via GPS on their smart phone, ensuring a reliable pickup. Vehicles come in a variety of styles, from economy to mid-range sedans to SUVs to upscale rides. Uber is now available in 18 countries and 24 U.S. cities, and it's growing.
Photograph by John R. Coughlin — CNNMoney

“Why can’t you just wait for a baked potato?”

That was my grandmother speaking to my father, probably in 1984 or 1985. He had been trying to convince her to purchase (and use) a microwave oven. She wasn’t having it. Not so much because of radiation fears, but rather because a baked potato was supposed to take nearly one hour to cook in a conventional oven. She eventually relented. Got a remote control for the TV too.

I was reminded of this today when reading Liz Gannes’ discussion of the instant gratification economy, otherwise known as the “Uber for X” phenomenon. The notion of ‘on-demand’ shifting from the virtual to the physical. She wonders if it’s just a Bay Area bubble, or if ordinary America is on the verge of a mobile-induced lifestyle change.

There also have been various stories over the past few months about how all of this is a reflection of our collective laziness. Or of short attention spans. Or of millennial self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t seem to me that today’s ‘instant gratification’ technologies are scratching any different itch than did that microwave oven or remote control. Let alone the airplane, automobile, dishwasher, gas grills, McDonald’s, word processing software or countless other innovations that have become part of almost everyone’s daily lives.

The most pervasive consumer tech advancements always have been about speed and efficiency. Nearly two decades before Fidelity Investments pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Uber, the firm created black car service Boston Coach. Same pain point and founding rationale, just executed differently. Did people worry when Boston Coach launched that we were too lazy to wait for a taxi outside of the airport, or so isolated that no friends or family were willing to pick us up? And, if so, is there anyone today who still would decry call-ahead airport pickup services?

As time becomes a more and more precious commodity — particularly with technology blurring many of our home/work lines of demarcation — it isn’t surprising that we continue to ask technology to take over some of our more mundane tasks (particularly if that technology creates new service jobs). Yes, there can be inherent value in doing things for yourself, but there also can be more value in spending 15 extra minutes in the office or playing with your kid or sleeping. Picking up your own dry-cleaning isn’t exactly the same as learning to fish.

Which brings us back to my grandmother. Or actually my grandfather, in this case. When he was a first-generation American teenager in the 1930’s, he worked in his dad’s small grocery store. One of his jobs was to take telephone orders from customers, and then walk (or possibly bike) the orders to customer homes. Things are changing. But not quite so much as we might all think…

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