We want it all. And we want it now. But why?

Life seems to get faster and faster. On the 75th anniversary of the invention of powdered coffee, Julian Baggini pauses consider the Instant Society


Seventy-five years ago, the tinkling of a spoon in a cup signalled the dawn of a new cultural epoch. After seven years of research at a laboratory in Switzerland, the scientist Max Morgenthaler had perfected the technique of spray-drying liquid coffee into a soluble powder. And so on 1 April 1938, the world's first instant coffee, Nescafé, was launched and from then on instantaneity came to permeate almost every aspect of our lives.

The history of commercial innovation since has been characterised above all by the gradual abolition of waiting. Instant coffee was followed by dehydrated packet soup, noodles, mashed potato, Instant Whip and Dream Topping. Later, microwaves and ready meals replaced cooking with push-button feeding. Cashpoints gave us 24/7 access to our money, while increased portability meant that music and phones were always available. Now the internet and 4G mobile provide television, video, news, music, books and information on demand, and a teenager has designed an app to condense the world's new stories into a few words. Waiting is so unusual that many of us can't stand in a queue for 30 seconds without getting out our phones to check for messages or to Google something.

It's very easy to slip into a nostalgic lament for the slow ways of old. But as the story of Nescafé illustrates, the Instant Society only took hold because it enabled real gains. At the start of the 1930s, growers, bankers and exporters were looking for better ways to store and sell their product, so as to deal with the huge coffee surplus following the Wall Street Crash and the collapse of prices. Powdered instant seemed to be the ideal solution. Brazil had a larger market for its beans, Nestlé had a profitable product, and consumers for whom ground coffee was too costly and fiddly had an economical, handier alternative.

As we become more attuned to the hidden costs of much that appears to be "cheap and convenient", these twin goods have started to acquire a darker reputation. But we are only able to become dismissive of cheapness and convenience when they become so ubiquitous so as to make us forget how expensive and inconvenient life used to be. Back in the 1930s, hardly any households had washing machines or fridges, while vacuum cleaners and electric irons were still something of a luxury. Food, fuel, telephone calls and electrical goods were all so expensive that the idea that they might one day be considered too cheap would have been laughable.

It's therefore no wonder that the Instant Society developed so inexorably. In culinary terms it reached both its apex and its nadir, depending on how you look at it, in the 1970s, when it seems everything was being reduced to dehydrated powders.

Anyone who lived through the 1970s will recall the aliens who laugh at us – "clearly the most primitive people" – because we take potatoes, peel them with our metal knives, boil them for 20 of our Earth minutes and then "smash them all to bits". The only proof of "intelligent life on Earth" they found was in a house in Huddersfield, where people just added boiling water to a packet of Smash.

Then there was Kellogg's Rise & Shine, considered better than orange juice because it kept in your cupboard until you needed it, and then you just added water and stirred: "No peel, no pips and it's got vitamin C", as the television commercial boasted. Why on earth would anyone prefer real, perishable, fiddly, fruit and vegetables?

Advertisers even had the audacity to cloak these ersatz foods with the mantle of the real thing. Another Smash commercial showed an astronaut helping himself to dollops of space-age "lamb chop" and "pea" sludge. But he spooned the fluffy mashed potato from a proper bowl, as "there'll never be a substitute for Cadbury's Smash".

If we now find ourselves looking down on the cheap and convenient, it is only because we now have better things which are affordable. Rise & Shine was much more appealing when real orange juice and smoothies pressed from fresh fruit were an expensive luxury. Cooking can be rewarding when it is a choice and no longer the onerous duty of the housewife, and when a dishwasher can lighten the load at the other end of the process.

Nobody looks down at the cheap and convenient when there are no attractive alternatives. Who would hand in their mobile in return for vandalised phone booths that eat coins like children gobbling Smarties? No one would prefer the glacial pace of metered dial-up internet over unlimited high-speed wireless broadband. And for all the complaints about supermarkets, few have the time or money to trek from independent shop to shop instead.

The Instant Society does come at a price, the nutritional and culinary deficiencies of all those packet foods being only the most obvious. Cashpoints and internet banking, for example, have made our financial interactions more impersonal and money feel somehow less real. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the loss of contact with depositors and creditors has undermined the bankers' sense of responsibility to them.

It also seems to be an unfortunate fact of human nature that when things come too easily, they are valued less. No one would ever buy an LP and not listen to it, or shoot a roll of film and not develop it. But a recent survey suggests four out of five songs in iTunes collections never get played, and I'm sure many pictures on digital cameras and phones don't even make it to the computer, let alone get printed. In the Instant Society, we get more and we get it faster, but we make much less of it.

The challenge is to avoid or mitigate deleterious effects such as these without giving up the most important gains the Instant Society has facilitated. To do that, the relatively time or cash rich cannot just lecture those with fewer resources about the evils of the cheap and easy. Where the Instant Society has brought forth monsters, people need to be provided with affordable and convenient alternatives.

The small upmarket fast-food chain Leon, co-founded by the now government school food adviser Henry Dimbleby, is one company doing just that. Dimbleby told me he values nothing more than "long meals with friends and family" but he also recognises that on busy high streets, you need to be "as fun as McDonald's", and as fast. The idea of Leon is "you can have your cake and eat it," which means fast food that is real food, made from fresh ingredients, not highly processed.

Leon exemplifies the pragmatic response to the drawbacks of the Instant Society. It doesn't try to turn back the clock or even slow it down. Instead, it tries to enrich the accelerating minutes so that they become filled with fulfilling experiences and not empty distractions.

For all the moans about the on-demand mentality, most of us are not doing a bad job of managing it for ourselves. We're downloading demanding books, catching up on serious documentaries, browsing for recipes that help us cook from scratch. It is, nonetheless, very hard to maintain focus when every moment provides infinite possibilities for something else, something new, something now. But it should be possible to get the most from the Instant Society by using it to fulfil our practical needs more quickly and easily than ever, ignoring all the temptations that offer so much and deliver so little, and taking time on the things that really matter. Learning to do all that won't come in an instant, but after 75 years, we might just be starting to get the knack.

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