The Curse of Instantaneous Gratification

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read the obituary of Junior Mance, a jazz pianist who died on January 17 at the age of 92. I’d never heard of Mance, but his obituary was interesting (as obituaries often are) and it occurred to me that I could sample some of his music. I searched for Junior Mance on Apple Music, found a collection of his work, and spent the morning listening to, and really enjoying his music.

This isn’t the first time an obituary has turned me on to something interesting. I’ve discovered and read books because of obituaries and gone down many a Google rabbit hole because of obituaries.

Something occurred to me later in the day when I was thinking about Mance’s music and how much I enjoyed it. Suppose it was 1977 instead of 2021 when I read this obituary and suppose Mance lived out his 92 years and was a jazz musician for seven decades, as I learned he was. Reading the obit, and the descriptions of Mance’s music made me wonder at what his music might be like, then seek it out to hear for myself. It was a cold, gloomy, and damp all day long, and with ice clinging to the cars throughout the day. Would I, on a similar day in 1977, trudge out in the cold, icy rain, to a nearby record store in the hopes of finding one of his records so that I could bring it home and listen to it?

Media of all kinds is so ubiquitously today, available at a click, that I sometimes forget things weren’t always this way. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is convenient and enlightening to read about a musician and be able to hear what you were reading about seconds later. I take it for granted that when I come across an interesting book in the New York Times Review of Books that I can have said book in my hands in mere seconds. To this end, my patience for delay, is extremely limited. In 1977 I don’t think this would be the case. I would likely have scratched down Junior Mance’s name in a notebook, on a list somewhere, so that I could investigate further at some later date. I would have thought nothing of the delay because it wasn’t really a delay the way I think of it today. A passage I read in another article yesterday, “Making the Nation” by Glenn Adamson in Smithsonian summarizes this well:

Yes, we seem to live our lives on permanent fast forward these days, with boundless opportunities for immediate gratification and distraction. Information and resources are more accessible than ever before.

Then there’s the curse of instantaneous gratification: how it can interrupt the flow of a narrative. If I am watching a movie and am curious about an actor, I will pull out my phone and look them up. I will either pause the movie or stop paying attention while doing my search. Either way, I break the spell of the narrative. This happens when reading a book, or article. Often something I read leads to me look up more while I’m still reading about it. I pause reading to do this and break the flow of that narrative. This happens during conversation, when debating a point. Someone (sometimes me) inevitably pulls out a phone to Google the point in question. The flow of the conversation is thus disturbed.

The result is that I virtually never make it through a movie, TV show, chapter, or article without some kind of interruption. My need-to-know, and to know now (because I can) overrides my desire for that uninterrupted flow of the narrative. I wish it wasn’t this way, and part of me wishes that I could unlearn this behavior and go back to a less interrupt-driven lifestyle.

There is a tenuous balance that slightly favors my ability to get information quickly, and the Junior Mance obituary illustrates why. If I did not have instant access to Mance’s music, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it, and I would have missed out on something special. Interruptions, and the breaks in the narrative flow they cause is the curse of instantaneous gratification. 


  1. So true. For me, I have found the movie theater to be the last place where I can enjoy something for 2 hours without interruption. Alas, even that has been interrupted for the past year!


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