Friday, January 10, 2014

Everything is subject to change over time

From Two Cheers for 'First World Problems' by Virginia Postrel.

In a world of constraints, necessary trade-offs, constantly changing circumstances and ever changing expectations, it is a challenge to maintain philosophical and emotional harmony. Postrel has some excellent discussion of the tension between rising expectations and maintaining a sense of perspective.
Online shopping and overnight shipping have become like Google or IMDB. They constitute what what my strategy-professor husband Steven Postrel calls “new-wave utilities,” a category that also includes ubiquitous retailers such as 7-Eleven and Starbucks. These businesses have taught us to count on them -- and take them for granted -- the way we assume the tap water will be clean and the lights will turn on. Unless something goes wrong, we don’t think about how amazing they are or how we got them in the first place.

It took years of sustained efforts by online retailers and delivery services to make overnight orders realistic. It also took dissatisfaction: insanely demanding companies working to please insanely demanding customers -- or, in some cases, to offer customers services they hadn’t even thought to ask for -- as each improvement revealed new sources of discontent.

“Form follows failure,” is what Henry Petroski, the civil engineering professor and prolific popular writer, calls the process. Every step forward begins with a complaint about what already exists. “This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers,” he writes. “And there follows a corollary: Since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time.”

Rising expectations aren’t a sign of immature “entitlement.” They’re a sign of progress -- and the wellspring of future advances. The same ridiculous discontent that says Starbucks ought to offer vegan pumpkin lattes created Starbucks in the first place. Two centuries of refusing to be satisfied produced the long series of innovations that turned hunger from a near-universal human condition into a “third world problem.”

Complaining about small annoyances can be demoralizing and obnoxious, but demanding complacency is worse. The trick is to simultaneously remember how much life has improved while acknowledging how it could be better. In the new year, then, may all your worries be first world problems.

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