There’s not much I do that’s actually difficult anymore.
It didn’t used to be that way.
When I applied to colleges, it was suggested to me that I create a number of tiers of schools: the long-shots, the probables, and the back-ups. I collected catalogs and applications from a number of schools in different parts of the country. To do this, I had to find telephone numbers, call admissions offices, get on mailing lists, and wait to receive my material. I wound up with a stack of applications, each one differently shaped, with different numbers of pages, and different requirements.
I dug in. The first application was a number of long, narrow pages. (It looked a lot like a real estate contract, but I didn’t know that back then.) It asked me to print my name and Social Security number at the top of each page. What a pain. I set it aside, and looked at the next application. This one seemed easier, until you got to the essay requirements. They were asking for multiple essays.
This was before the computer had entered the bedroom of every student, so rewriting essays was not just a small effort. I passed on that one.
Finally, I found a state school application that looked reasonable in what it was asking of me, and they had “rolling admissions” which meant that, if I applied early, they would tell me early. I shoved all the other applications in a drawer and filled out the state application, which had the added benefit of being far from home. If they said yes, I would be spared a lot of trouble.
Getting into college is just one example of the hoops we all used to go through without really thinking about it. Sure, we’d try to avoid them (just look at my college admissions strategy) — but we did not resent them.
Similar examples abound: I recall a time when, if something irritated me in the newspaper, I’d have to go through a number of steps before I could find any contact information for someone to tell. Even if I took the easiest route and wrote a letter to the reporter, I had no way of knowing if they would get it and even if they did, it would be days hence.
Nowadays, I routinely get messages fired off in anger, the sender secure in the knowledge that her or his opinion will immediately reach me. The children of my friends apply to multiple colleges in an afternoon. Job seekers turn resume-sending into a project unto itself, applying to hundreds of companies. If I hear a song on the radio that I like, I can download it into my iPod in less than a minute.
Choice. Ease. Speed. Bliss.
But, there are downsides. Intemperate opinions fly around and I send messages I might wish to have slept on, necessitating corrective action. The competition to get into colleges is through the roof in part because it’s so easy to apply. Employers seeking to fill positions must wade through hundreds of ill-fitting, scattershot cover letters that may or may not even get the company name right. And, perhaps worse than all that (at least for me), in seeking out only music I am familiar with, I miss the discovery of new bands that the record store used to bring me.
These drawbacks are all well-known and well-discussed. But there is another, more insidious and creeping downside to the culture of information-ease in which we now live: We resent anything that takes time or effort.
The New York Times discovered this when they tried to make a little money off of the popularity of many of their key columnists. They created TimesSelect, a subscription-based area where you had to pay if you wanted to read Maureen Dowd. People from across the political spectrum complained and jeered, and how! You would have thought the National Archives had decided to charge a sawbuck to look at the Declaration of Independence. The Times backed down.
The Gray Lady is just one example. But they’re all over. Journalists no longer pick up the phone to talk to a spokesperson, they quote from an organization’s web site instead. Young scholars would rather cite an article from the Web than a book – because getting books requires taking the trouble to mosey on down to the library, while I can get that link in just a few clicks. iTunes is only profitable insofar as it tends to provide the illusion of free downloads by making songs so inexpensive and the playback rights so liberal that I may as well have just pulled that tune down off of Gnutella. And woe betide Apple if it restricts overly much.
In our personal, day-to-day lives, where things really matter, how often do we choose ease over energy, and resent the notion that we might have had to put in some effort to get what we want? How many businesses have you growled at because they don’t have a good enough website, or don’t have a way to order online, forcing you to actually go somewhere to obtain goods or services? How often have you excoriated (at least inwardly) a government agency for not having public records online? How many gas stations have you passed up because they don’t have pay at the pump?
It’s this growing sense of entitlement that worries me. We are turning into a culture where everyone feels — and acts — entitled to know whatever they want to know, contact whomever they want to contact, and say whatever they want to have, whenever they want to. And we resent it when things are not this way. This feedback loop squeezes out deliberation, thoughtfulness, and restraint and, on a personal level, human development.
It’s hardship, large and small, that improves us and forces us to grow. As we shift from a culture of personal industry to one of personal effort-avoidance, what will spur us to reach further tomorrow than we did today? What will teach us that, no, we can’t always get what we want when we want it? What will push us to grow up?
From where I sit, easily typing away in my basement, I don’t see it.
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces a videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.