The Instant Gratification Problem Meets A Prison Debate Team

 

My buddy Isaac says it to me on a weekly basis now — “We live in the instant gratification age. We don’t have to wait on anything.”

For instance: If we are in a staff meeting and someone needs to verify data before making an important decision.  Hit up Google on the smart phone.  Why? Because “we live in the instant gratification age. We don’t have to wait on anything.”

Or, if we are at lunch and someone attempts to recall the time that Albert Pujols hit a homer off of Brad Lidge in the MLB playoffs.  We check out youtube (also owned by Google) and locate the clip of Lidge’s soul breaking down as a result of the epic home run.  Because “we live in the instant gratification age. We don’t have to wait on anything.”

Or if someone in casual conversation mentions a that Garbage sang the song Connection in the 90s and someone else disagrees because they (rightly) recall that Elastica sang said song and wants to backup their claim. “We live in the instant gratification age. We don’t have to wait on anything.”

The internet has afforded us the ability to have real time information, to access unprecedented amounts of data, and to log and record almost every human interaction on the planet for all to view.  But at what cost?

Is there something ethically damaging about having all knowledge and information at your fingertips every day?  Has a necessary human function gone extinct with this new wave of technology?

Over at the Wall Street Journal, a reporter named Leslie Brody covered a debate between prison inmates and the Harvard University debate team.   The inmates are part of a rehabilitation program called the Bard Prison Initiative through Bard College “that seeks to give a second chance to inmates hoping to build a better life.”

One quote stood out about the prisoner’s preparation routine:

“Preparing has its challenges. Inmates can’t use the Internet for research. The prison administration must approve requests for books and articles, which can take weeks.”

So catch that.  The prisoners must wait for information.  They must exercise patience.  When a curious question enters their minds, they must dwell upon it, await their turn at a public computer, search for a resource to help them, request the resource, and wait for the resource to arrive.  And in that waiting, they get to continue to dwell upon their initial inquiry, refine their research question, develop a list of subquestions, and think through their project — all before the information arrives.

Then, once the resource arrives, there is a time limit to utilizing this scarce resource.  Inmates must commit information to memory, organize as they read, take good notes, and efficiently summarize what they read – All during the checkout period of the book.

And the result of this seemingly archaic process of information gathering?  Did the inmates get blown out by the Harvard students with instant access to tons of data?  Did the inmates wilt under the pressure?  Where the inmates incapable of putting together a compelling argument?

One Harvard debater had this to say about the inmate team: “They caught us off guard.”

  • Their preparation was on point.
  • Their logic was compelling.
  • Their communication skills were above par.
  • Their ability to think and organize on the fly was superb.
  • They caught us off guard.

Wait, how did a group of prisoners keep up with a Harvard trained debate team with such disparate access to information?  Shouldn’t access to information change the outcome?  Shouldn’t the instant gratification generation be able to mop the floor with this group of inmates with outdated research access?

Apparently not.

So here is the question I raised at the beginning: Is there something ethically damaging about having all knowledge and information at your fingertips every day?

I think so.  Instant gratification (with respect to information) prevents us from maintaining and developing certain critical habits for thinking people.

  1. Committing things to memory.  I can remember a time when I had upwards of 100 phone numbers committed to memory.  But today?  Just ask yourself – How many numbers do you have committed to memory?  Compare that with the numbers stored in your phone.  Which one is larger?  My suspicion is that your phone list is larger than your memory list. we live in a culture where information is stored digitally.  Thus, we have stopped memorizing numbers. We have stopped memorizing simple mathematic formulas (we can store them on a calculator or in Excel).  We have stopped valuing the act of memorizing pieces of information.
  2. Organizing as you read.  We tend to read for a specific answer instead of reading for understanding.   We treat all books as reference books and have largely lost the art of reading for the overarching narrative – the shaping structure of a work of written art that shapes our character.
  3. Exercising patience.  How many times have you gotten on an airplane that doesn’t have wifi and thought, “What am I going to do with all this free time?”  Partially it may have been that you hate flying.  But partially it may have been because you rarely have to practice patience in our culture.  But patience is a wonderful virtue that affords you time to process, think, unwind (mentally), and permit your mind to become “less foggy.”

These are three implications as they relate to instant information.  I wonder what other implications exist with respect to other forms of instant access in our culture.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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