Recommending and Disagreeing With "The Impulse Society"

Why we should be better at liking things that run counter to our beliefs.

November 16, 2014

The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification by Paul Roberts

Published in September of 2014.

We tend to like what we agree with.  If something conforms to our previously held views then we will judge it worthy.  Books, articles, or blog posts that run counter to our experience and opinions will be judged harshly.  We all suffer from the ill effects of the confirmation bias.

This is why I want to recommend to you The Impulse Society.  This is an excellent book whose premise, arguments, and conclusions all run counter to my beliefs.  I agree with very little in this book, but I still found it engaging and cogent.  

The Impulse Society makes two central arguments.  The first argument is on the micro scale: that our 21st century culture of instant tech-enabled gratification has caused each of us to lose touch with deeper values of community and hard work that lead to true happiness.  The second argument is on the macro or societal scale: that a range of U.S. institutions (particularly government and corporations), have traded in long-range thinking and notions of equity and fairness for short-term (impulse driven) gains.

The problem with The Impulse Society, and other popular nonfiction books in this genre (see The Glass Cage), is one of balance.  Roberts’ has something to sell, and that bill of goods is a story about individuals and society heading down the wrong path.  What is left out are all the data points and all the trends that could make up a counter-narrative.  I’m all for exploring the contours and costs of greater economic inequality and the disappearance of the secure middle-class job for huge numbers of Americans, but this story needs context.  A globalized and technology-driven economy has winners and losers.  We need to look no further than the millions of people in emerging economies that have moved from subsistence agriculture to an urban existence to feel very good about where the world is going.  This is not to romanticize the life of migrants in China or India, only to recognize that rural village life is all too often marked by very low-levels of education, high fertility and childhood mortality, and a general lack of options.  The world has gotten much better for millions upon millions of people in the last 20 years, and will get better still in the years to come.  This is a story completely absent from The Impulse Society.

The failure to find balance in this book are not only on the macro side.  Roberts seems convinced that social media and the web have only impoverished our existence.  Do you feel impoverished?  The last I checked it is possible to spend more time with books and less time with Facebook.  More time talking to friends and family and less time tweeting.  Books that claim that any new technology is pushing us towards social and personal catastrophe should take the time to examine similarly previous claims in previous generations.  Our culture seems to have survived the perils of comic books, rock n’ roll, pinball machines, explicit musical lyrics, and video games more or less intact.  My guess is that Twitter and Facebook will not bring us down. 

So why read The Impulse Society if Roberts gets it wrong on the macro and the micro?  Because maybe I’m wrong and he’s right.  Or maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.  Or maybe because the book will do for you what it did for me - make you think and question your own assumptions and ideas.  We should read more books that run counter to our own beliefs. We should find ways to engage with people who hold different ideas than our own. Roberts conclusions may be ones that I disagree, but he builds his arguments based on evidence, and he makes for good company.  What else could we want in an author?

What are you reading?


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