The other day, on the way back from a weekend at our friends’ lakeside cabin in Maine—no air conditioning, no television, just starlit boat rides and loon serenades —my husband and I passed the ruins of the old Polaroid headquarters, visible from Route 128 in Waltham, Massachusetts.
At the same moment, many thousands of people were taking and posting pictures with Instagram, created by the billion-dollar company that does for the Internet age what Polaroid (and is about to do again with its upcoming instant digital camera): Get us what we want when we want it. Bow to the god of immediacy. Turn us into a nation of instant-gratification junkies.
Junkies who are impatient, obnoxious, rude, road-raging individuals.
Yet, what’s surprising is not what awful human beings we’ve become, but what surprisingly decent people most of us still are most of the time. You’d think frequently fulfilled expectations of instant gratification would have turned us into sociopaths, but instead, most of us are just garden-variety narcissists.
So, let others wring their hands over the lack of civility in today’s society. I’ve got a different concern about the effects of technology, and it’s this: We lack anticipation in our lives.
The act of anticipating is full of drama and expectancy and longing and maybe even a little life-affirming anxiety. But we’ve sacrificed a lot of it for the sake of instant gratification and, perhaps, the joys of spontaneity. There’s no turning back, of course—and I’m not sure I’d even want to—but I do miss good old fashioned anticipation, sometimes.
When I was growing up, one of the biggest treats of the year was when The Wizard of Oz was broadcast on TV. It was an event. The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t be showing in the movie theaters or playing on a different television channel another time or available on DVD (or even VHS!), since video players didn’t even (gasp!) exist.
When I first arrived at college, there was nothing like the feeling of racing to my mailbox and turning the key to see if a letter had arrived from my sister or one of my high school friends, whom I missed so much. Nor was there such wonderful anticipation as waiting all day for the magic hour, 11 pm, when the telephone rates would drop and I’d get to talk with my long-distance boyfriend.
On those rare instances when we took photographs, it could take weeks—even months—to finish shooting a roll of film, bring it to a store or send it off to be developed, and then wait to receive the pictures.
Unless you took them with a Polaroid camera. You didn’t do this too often because the pictures were not high quality and the camera was cumbersome. But, every now and then you took a Polaroid because it was fun and gimmicky and you got to see the picture right away.
But “right away” is a relative term. With the earlier versions of Polaroids, you’d first yank out the film, then wait 60 seconds (and “shake it like a Polaroid picture”, as the Outkast song goes), then gently peel the outer cover off the picture, and, voila, there was the image!
Or, in the later versions, you’d get to see the image develop right in front of your eyes: the film would first be blank, and then some fuzzy outlines would appear, and then more and more details would emerge until the picture of you hugging your dog was complete.
I’m not claiming we still don’t get hits of anticipation here and there, these days. But I think some of the specialness is taken away when you can catch My Cousin Vinny playing on some TV channel pretty much any time, day or night, or just download it for free and watch it whenever. Or when you can receive texts and phone calls from your girlfriend all day long (the cause of many a breakup) instead of longing for the sound of her voice. Or when you can download a book in less than ten seconds instead of waiting for your local library to put it out on the shelves. Then you’d have to get up and go get it.
We didn’t know it at the time, but a Polaroid picture wasn’t just a gimmick, it was genius and it embodied both instant gratification and a heightened sense of anticipation. I just wish that were true of more things, today.