The Cost of An On-Demand Society

What happens when everything starts accelerating?

“The Suez accident, which is holding up an estimated $9.6bn of goods a day…has drawn attention to the inherent fragility of tightly stretched global supply chains at the very moment when they are already being buffeted by a pandemic and in an era when the philosophical underpinnings of global trade are being challenged.”

This is how the Financial Times summarized the stakes as the massive Ever Green cargo ship remained lodged across the Suez Canal. It’s freedom, thanks to the diligent work of a tugboats and what appeared to be a comically small excavator — the subject of a million memes — will now mean that this precarious system can now continue. Or, the FT went on to speculate, perhaps not.

“The strains created by COVID-19, with its initial shortages of personal protective equipment and its continued ugly scramble for limited vaccine supplies, have exposed problems in the global trading system,” the FT continued. “Those difficulties could plausibly push governments and businesses alike to rethink a just-in-time supply-chain model that has arguably wrung efficiencies from the system at the cost of resilience.”

Wringing efficiencies from a system at the cost of resilience is a concise way of summarizing much of modern society. And, as the FT dully notes, after a while you start to wonder how much more efficient you can be, and how resilient the system really is. How much is there left to squeeze?

Earlier this month, before the Ever Green parked itself across the Suez, Taylor Lorenz explained a new trend amongst digital creators in The New York Times: monetizing “every aspect of their life — down to what they eat, who they hang out with and who they respond to on Tik Tok.” This is possible through app like NewNew, which allows fans to “pay to vote in polls to control some of a creator’s day-to-day decisions.”

Per the Times:

“For example, a creator can use NewNew to post a poll asking which sweater they should wear today, or who they should hang out with and where they should go. Fans purchase voting power on NewNew’s platform to participate in the polls, and with enough voting power, they get to watch their favorite influencer live out their wishes.”

Which sounds pretty abhorrent, until you realize that it follows naturally from the same logic that dictates the global economy the Ever Green so drastically disrupted — that is, one built to service us on demand. Even describing its impact ends up being pretty similar.

Again, from the Times:

“Creators are burning out, but their fans want more and more,” said Jen Lee, 25, the founder of a popular creator economy community on Discord. “By monetizing each aspect of their life, they can extract value from everyday interactions.”

At some point, just as the FT speculates we might with the global economy, you start to wonder what is it of value that’s being extracted, exactly?

The value extracted from an on demand economy — now, an on demand society — was at one point supposed to be time. Faster supply chains lead to more efficient product or service distribution which is meant to benefit the end user with convenience, ie. time. On social media, time — the amount of it people will spend on you — equals influence, which can equal profits, so you sell your time in order to create more of it.

In either case, time does not end up as surplus. Instead, it’s reinvested. On the one hand, time is used to consume more; on the other, it’s used to be consumed more. What ends up happening, in the end, is that instead of feeling like we’re stockpiling time, we always feel like we’re losing it. It starts to feel like everything in society is accelerating. It starts to feel, for some, like they’re being left behind by a system that is always moving on without them, changing faster and faster. Looking forward starts to feel dangerous, the future uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Maybe it’s just easier to look back.

As it happens, while all this has been going on, nostalgia is selling well.

The market for physical trading cards and vintage GAP hoodies are all of a sudden hot commodities. Also, the ‘90’s are back. And there’s a market for so-called Mini Brands, miniature versions of consumer products like Spam or Skippy Peanut Butter.

“Mini Brands service a nostalgia for the very recent past, when the grocery represented a familiar expanse; it was a place where, as Allen Ginsberg put it in ‘A Supermarket in California,’ a person could go ‘shopping for images,’” Amanda Hess wrote earlier this month. “Now that same space feels anxious and claustrophobic, recast as a site of potential infection and a backdrop for violent confrontations between neighbors, captured by trembling cellphone videos.”

Weirdly, it’s possible that a society predicated on the constant and instant demand for more time in the future begins to be incapable of contemplating it.


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