The lost art of patience

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

I’m losing my patience. Not so long ago I’d happily wait ten minutes for a bus, or even whole days for the next instalment of my favourite television programme. It didn’t seem to bother me in the slightest that my holiday photos would not be seen until I’d picked them up from the chemist. I even went to the library to get information from an encyclopaedia.

Life, in short, used to be a waiting game, and patience was not just a virtue but a habit. Now I wonder how I survived in a world without Google Maps, Uber or smartphones with in-built cameras.

The whole direction and purpose of modern life, at least on the surface and for those well-off enough to benefit, is to make everything frictionless, personalised, easy. Click a button, a taxi turns up to your house. Click another, it’s a handyman or a pizza, or a book or a date. Soon even the act of pushing a button will be viewed as an unnecessary nuisance. We’ll just bark orders at a personal home assistant. ‘Alexa! I want to eat!’ And eat you shall.

Total convenience has its uses of course. But it’s making us bad, intemperate people, and lazy. Various studies find a surprising number don’t bother reading articles they click on or even share with others. We will ditch a website if it doesn’t load up inside one hundredth of a second, and will drop a date who’s not instantly and impossibly perfect. In the US, the amount of time spent reading for personal interest at weekends and on holiday fell by six minutes to 21 minutes in the decade up to 2015. I struggle to keep on a page for more than a few seconds before I feel the urge to reach for the phone and find something more interesting.

And no one — absolutely no one — can be bothered to read terms and conditions of course, even though they tend to be quite important. How many of you actually examine all those privacy agreements in the wake of Europe’s new GDPR rules? Or how many of you happily clicked agree, and still want to complain about the dissemination of our private data?

The death of patience also means the death of politics, since politics must be an exercise in forbearance and frustrating compromise. ‘The first requirement of politics is not intellect or stamina,’ wrote the former prime minister John Major back in the glacial days of the late 1980s, ‘but patience’. However, the internet is inculcating new assumptions about how things should work. Everything online is fast and personalised: access to everything and everyone, to millions of web pages, all the goals, all the baby pictures, and all for free. You zoom in, you zoom out, swipe, tap and insta-chat with a far-flung relative. As Douglas Rushkoff explains in his recent book Present Shock, in the modern world ‘what we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important’. Thinking deeply about the past or the future doesn’t factor.

There are lots of reasons to be upset with politics, but one of them is the rapidly expanding gulf between the choice, freedom and speed that characterise our lives as consumers, and the tedious plodding world of parliamentary procedure and legislation. When you’re used to having everything immediately, not getting what you want seems like an affront.

Take Brexit. Note how, for example, so many people who disagree with the result use the language of a small child who has yet to develop a theory of mind: why should I accept the result — I didn’t vote for it? And, on the other side, we voted to leave, so we need to leave as fully and as quickly as humanly possible. Polls show that the majority of people think the government is handling the negotiations badly. Maybe that’s because Brits expect immigration control and free trade, as if it were as easy as ordering a new lawn-mower off Amazon.

Politicians of course respond to this desperate need for speed: we’re promised some magical tech to solve the Northern Ireland border, a trade deal with the EU that will be ‘the easiest in history’ and tremendous, instant new deals with the rest of the world. Everyone — business, the EU, David Davis, Brexiteers, me — is losing patience. But without patience to let the negotiations run, we’ll jump from crisis to knee-jerk response, and end up with a bad deal.

The patience deficit is everywhere. In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan describes how following the Grenfell Tower tragedy we rushed to apportion blame — whether admonishing Kensington and Chelsea Council or MPs accusing the police of covering up the true numbers of deaths — without any slow consideration or careful analysis of what actually happened. There was a collective need to know right away which side to take. Equally, every terror attack is pursued by wild speculation and unhelpful rumouring. Every mildly controversial statement, tweet or photo is accompanied by an instant, absolute outpouring of rage and condemnation, usually before any facts have been established.

The only group that benefits are populists, who are far more in tune with the spirit of the age. Some are left-wing — like Bernie Sanders — and some are right — like Geert Wilders — but all became popular by promising fast and easy answers to complicated questions. Look at Donald Trump’s pledge that trade wars are ‘good and easy to win’.

Centrists are traditionally parties of power, and excel at compromise and caution. Experience of power has taught them that problems are difficult to fix quickly. So they offer a politics of half-promises spoken through mealy mouths.

Populists offer the politics of Tinder: swipe left or right to get what you want. Over in Italy, the governing Five Star Movement, currently in an uneasy alliance with Northern League, was founded in 2009 by a blogger and comedian who described politicians as ‘parasites’ and promised to use the internet and direct democracy to open up the tired old political establishment ‘like a can of tuna’. His slogan is ‘fuck off’. No wonder Northern League is so popular — culturally, the party’s spot on.

Politics can’t survive for long if it’s out of step with the world in which it operates. As the world becomes — as it surely will — ever faster and ever smoother, either politics has to speed up or we will all have to slow down. Or somebody will have to come up with a compromise, fast.

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