Nov 19 2019

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Living in an Instant World: What’s Next After Now?

The fifth and final post in Re/code’s week-long instant gratification series.

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This story is part of a group of stories called

Uncovering and explaining how our digital world is changing — and changing us.

When I lose myself in typing until my stomach tells me that it’s time to eat, I open my phone and type “sp” in the search bar.

The only-in-Silicon-Valley on-demand food services SpoonRocket and Sprig have quite literally fueled the writing of this instant-gratification series.

I check both their menus to see what appeals. SpoonRocket is the cheaper of the two, and has a nifty system of roving hubs of cars that make its orders arrive super fast. Sprig food tends to be fancier and healthier, and each meal is accompanied by a tiny dessert at the end, like a vegan dark-chocolate truffle, or a sort of fruit-and-nut brittle.

I like them both.

For this series, I welcomed the on-demand world into my life, and then it crept in even further. One night after the stories started publishing, I took the train home and saw the station covered in ads for a startup I had just written about, the restaurant-delivery site Caviar, touting deliveries from the hippest tapas and deep-dish pizza joints in town that arrive quickly and without waiting in line behind hipsters.

I tell someone that I like her desk bouquet, and she says it came from BloomThat, an on-demand flower service that shows up in 90 minutes.

Even my editor caught the instant bug. He updated me via instant message about the Dominos pizza he had rush-delivered via an app as we worked on late-night edits. He ordered next-day underwear on laundry day.

It turned out that my local scoop shop launched its own app, called “Ice Cream Life.” Ice cream is the ultimate on-demand food, right? If it melts — game over.

Some days you just need a little ice cream, like perhaps the day after you eat a vegan enchilada and cold-pressed juice with turmeric from the on-demand food-delivery app Thistle. My two pints of salted caramel and mint confetti show up 26 minutes after I press the button. With two pink spoons.

There aren’t yet answers to some fundamental questions about the staying power of the instant gratification economy. Is there wide-scale demand? Will people pay for it? Who is this for? Will it work outside of cities?

So there are doubters, and for good reason.

“There is a small market for stuff to be delivered with high reliability quickly,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor Yossi Sheffi, who leads the school’s research on transportation and logistics.

“There seems to be a reason all these services were started in San Francisco: Because there are lots of young people who work long hours and have lots of money,” he says. “This is not a slice of America. It’s not even in every neighborhood in San Francisco.”

That may have been true in the beginning. But on-demand apps are clearly reaching different demographics. SpoonRocket’s Anson Tsui will tell you that he and his co-founder came up with the original idea for the company when they were frat brothers in college at Cal, hungry after a night of partying but too drunk to drive. (Coincidentally, the founders of Caviar were pledge brothers at the same frat at Cal at the same time)

Today, busy working parents are some of the most vocally supportive users of these apps. On Yelp, you’ll find Oakland mom Lempi Miller, who writes, “SpoonRocket is like the soccer mom’s secret weapon.”

The availability of such services — the mere possibility — has stoked demand.

“I have the Amazon app on my phone, but now that’s overlooked. And I never think of going a few blocks to Walgreens,” says Chris Jennings, an online video host based in San Francisco.

“I signed up as soon as it was available, and I got the initial email, “Would you like to be part of the beta?’” Jennings says. “They gave me a free six months, and it just keeps renewing. That was April 2013. I’m sure I’m going to have to pay for it at some point, but now I’m hooked.”

Jennings is talking about Google Shopping Express, the company’s expensive experimental same-day service built to compete with Amazon. He starts clicking around his email to find receipts. “What was my last order? A bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste, compost bags, a bath mat.”

He clarifies. “Those are all separate orders.”

Jennings has set up a virtual Google Voice number attached to his doorbell so he can let people into his entryway from his phone when he’s not home.

“Say you run out of toothpaste in the morning, you can order it, and then it’s ready for when you brush your teeth at night,” he says.

“The majority of the time, there’s no interaction,” Jennings says, meaning he doesn’t have to say hello to a delivery person or sign for a package.

And in the future, people may be taken out of the delivery equation altogether.

That future is coming sooner than you think. Two years ago, the geek world went wild for an idea called Tacocopter. “Flying robots deliver tacos to your location,” said its website. “Easy ordering on your smartphone.”

People wanted it to be real so badly that they took it seriously.

PCWorld nitpicked: “It’s unclear whether or not Tacocopter uses a native app or a smartphone-friendly website to accomplish this.” Other logistical issues — time of delivery, quality of tacos — also got some play.

The more serious-minded tech-commentary site Techdirt was already anticipating the theoretical regulatory fight with the FAA. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the regulations that now limit such uses of drone technology will almost certainly remain in effect much longer than the technological limitations remain a hurdle,” wrote Mike Masnick.

Eight months ago, Amazon upped the Tacocopter stakes with a promo video for Amazon Prime Air, showing a hovering robotic aircraft depositing a package on a suburban patio. It was a marketing stunt designed to jumpstart the holiday shopping season.

In July, Amazon wrote to the FAA asking for permission to test flying commercial drones outside at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The company said it hopes to deliver packages weighing five pounds within 30 minutes of orders being placed.


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