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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

on demand

(1980’s | businese (finance) | “on request,” “when you want it”)

When did “by request” become “on demand”? The expression in financial circles is quite old; a note or loan might be payable “on demand” (all at once when the lender calls for it) rather than on a fixed schedule over time. But somewhere in there, it took on a much wider range of use. The campaign for abortion rights certainly played a role; by 1970 it was not unusual to hear talk of abortion on demand, which became a rallying cry as laws banning abortion came under attack. That trend has been going the other way for the last two decades, too late to stop the expansion of “on demand,” which now applies to nearly everything that can be ordered over the internet, from groceries to streamed movies to academic courses. All you have to do is snap your fingers, or tap your phone. (Doesn’t sound right, does it? even though it’s a literal description. But the old meaning of tapping a phone continues to get in the way.) You may have to wait longer than you did when you left the house to supply this need or that, but we are beguiled by the ease of letting a credit card and a delivery service do all the work, making the new “order” seem all the more attractive.

So a staid and venerable financial term has sprawled all over the place like lava flow from an angry volcano, aided first by medical and cultural trends (not just abortion — drug treatment and medical care more generally glommed onto the phrase in the seventies and eighties) and then by the rise of the personal computer, which even before the internet infiltrated our lives occasioned much talk of providing computational or word-processing services on demand. The phrase has become a hyphenated adjective as well. “On-demand economy,” based on people spending money from their smartphones, is a phrase you will hear more and more.

There seems to be an implicit democratization at work, too. If you have enough money, just about anything is available on demand, and that’s been true for centuries, making allowances for the fact the number of things we want, or think we need, has grown over time. Now you don’t need much money to acquire goods or entertainment on demand. If money can’t buy it, it’s not so easy. We may forget that not everything desirable can be had at the click of a mouse.

I’ve suspected for a long time that the internet has completed our transformation into a nation of three-year-olds, a trend initiated by the Sears Roebuck catalogue and the rise of advertising in the late nineteenth century. The consumer economy requires people to come up with new stuff to want and must continually come up with quicker and more reliable ways to get it to them. eBay, for example, consummates a huge number of transactions every day called “buy it now.” Is that much different from “Want it NOW” or “gimme NOW”? When it comes to tangible items, it’s not even instant gratification — that CD or toaster won’t fall into your lap the minute you click “confirm and pay” on Paypal. But we’ve learned to treat it as instant gratification; making the purchase is as good as holding the object of desire in our hands. Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages faster than ever; next year it will be something else. We have created an economic monster that requires our appetites, and the means to sate them, to continue growing indefinitely. How long can we keep it up?

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