My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

A list of unheralded improvements to ordinary quality-of-life since the 1990s going beyond computers.
topics: history, personal, politics, sociology, technology
source; created: 28 April 2018; modified: 17 Dec 2019; status: finished; confidence: certain; importance: 4


It can be hard to see the over time, but I think one way to get a handle on them is to look at their downstream effects: all the small ordinary everyday things which nevertheless depend on obscure innovations and improving cost-performance ratios and gradually dropping costs and new material and… etc. All of these gradually drop the cost, drop the price, improve the quality at the same price, remove irritations or limits not explicitly noticed, or so on.

It all adds up.

So here is a personal list of small ways in which my ordinary everyday daily life has been getting better since the late ’80s/early ’90s (as far back as I can clearly remember these things—I am sure the list of someone growing up in the 1940s would include many hassles I’ve never known at all).

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpener, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats. Ordinary life had a lot of hassles too, I remembered once I started thinking about it. These things rarely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the 1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list. Now, imagine if I could have extended this back another decade. Then another decade. Then another few decades…

(For broader metrics of increase in well-being such as life expectancy, income, pollution, slavery, poverty etc, see , the , the work of like , etc.)

Roughly divided by topic:

Computers

  • the Internet/human genetics/AI/VR are now actually things

    • electric cars will be ordinary things in 5–10 years; self-driving cars not long after that
  • not rewinding VHS tapes

    • not watching crummy VHS tapes, period
  • not making a dozen phone calls playing phone tag, to set up something as simple as a play date

  • hotels and restaurants provide public Internet access by default, without nickel-and-diming customers or travelers; this access is usually via WiFi

  • satellite Internet & TV are affordable & common for rural people

  • not worrying about running out of AOL hours

  • not being yelled at for tying up the phone line

  • USB cables mean that for connecting or recharging, we now only need to figure out ~10 different plugs instead of 1000+ (one for every pairwise device combo)

  • programmers able to assume users have 4GB RAM rather than 4MB RAM

  • not needing to know the difference between PLIP, SLIP, IRQ, TCP/IP, or PPP to get online

  • Linux X, WiFi, and laptops usually work

  • no longer needing to clean computer mice weekly thanks to laser mice

  • electronics prices keep falling to the point where people whine endlessly online if a top-end VR headset or smartphone costs less in real terms than a Nintendo NES did in 1983 ($100) or a Sony Walkman cassette player in 1979 ($150), and kids couldn’t even imagine having to pay $50 for a new copy of 1—a far cry from paying $5 these days for a great PC game during a Steam sale.

  • hearing aids are a small fraction the size, have gone digital with multiple directional microphones (higher-quality, customizable, noise-reduction), halved or more in price, become water-resistant, and even do tricks like Bluetooth

  • wheeled luggage no longer expensive or rare, but cheap & ubiquitous

  • not getting lost while frantically driving down a freeway; or anywhere else, for that matter

  • most books and scientific papers can be downloaded conveniently and for free

  • search engines typically turn up the desired result in the first page, even if it’s a book or scientific paper; one doesn’t need to resort to ‘meta-search engines’ or enormous 20-clause Boolean queries

  • smartphones: far too much to list… (eg careless smartphone photographs are higher-quality than most film cameras from a few decades ago, particularly in niches like dark scenes)

  • spaced repetition has escaped the cognitive psychology labs

  • nuisance software patents have been expiring (eg GIF, arithmetic encoding, MP3)

  • catching the tail end of a cartoon on TV and being able to look it up instead of wondering for the rest of one’s life what it was about

  • having fansubs available for all anime (no longer do anime clubs watch raw anime and have to debate afterwards what the plot was! Yes, that’s actually how they’d watch anime back in the 1970s–1990s when fansubs were often unavailable)

  • everything is available subtitled, not just TV

  • most programs have a usable FLOSS equivalent and in some areas FLOSS is taken so for granted that new programmers are unaware they used to have to pay for even text editors/compilers or that Linux is Communism

  • we no longer need to strategize which emails to delete to save space

  • not worrying about Blockbuster or library fines

Technology

  • houses which are insulated and uniformly comfortably warm, rather than leaky and using heaters running constantly creating drafts and hot/cold spots

  • hot water heaters increasingly heat water on demand, and do not run out while shocking the bather

  • stoves which are increasingly induction-based and safe rather than fire hazards burners/gas

  • riding lawn mowers are affordable & common for rural people

  • power tools (such as drills, leaf blowers, or lawn mowers) are increasingly battery-powered, making them more reliable & quieter & less air-polluting

    • speaking of batteries: batteries are built-in—remember how advertisements always had to say “no batteries included”?—so no more mad scrambles at Christmas for AA or AAA batteries to power all the presents (which could easily add $5$10 to the total cost!)
  • cars last longer and get better mileage

  • airplane flights no longer cost an appreciable fraction of your annual income2, and people can afford multiple trips a year.

  • coats are thinner, more comfortable, and warmer thanks to better forms of synthetic fiber and insulation

  • laser pointers are no longer exotic executive toys or for planetariums, they’re things you buy off eBay for $1 for your cat

  • LED lights are more energy-efficient, heat rooms less & are safer, smaller, turn on faster, and are brighter than incandescents or fluorescents

  • movie theater seats have become far more comfortable as movie theaters competed with DVDs/home-theaters & Internet & video games (and concession prices seem like they’ve increased less than inflation)

  • the European Union & single Euro currency make the EU easier to understand & travel in it much less tricky and expensive

  • we no longer have to worry about our car windows being smashed to steal our radios, or our GPSes

  • car security alarms no longer go off endlessly in parking lots

  • all cars have electrified power windows; I don’t remember the last time I had to physically crank down a car window

  • radio stations have minimal static

  • TVs no longer have rabbit ears that require regular adjustment

  • LASIK surgery has gone from an expensive questionable novelty to a cheap, routine, safe cosmetic surgery

  • teddy bears & other toys are

  • clothing has become almost “too cheap to meter”; the idea of, say, darning socks is completely alien3, clothing companies routinely burn millions of pounds of clothes because it’s cheaper than the cost of selling them, and Africa is flooded by discards.

    • materials science has produced constant visible-yet-invisible improvements in textiles yielding, among other things, far better insulated (and cheaper) winter jackets: instead of choosing between winter coats which make you look like the or freezing (and if you get wet, freezing anyway) or exotic ultra-expensive garments aimed at mountain climbers, you can now buy ordinary (and much cheaper) winter coats which are amazingly thin and work even better to keep you warm—so much so that you have to be careful to not buy too well-insulated a coat, lest you swelter at the slightest exertion and be placed between the Scylla of overheating & the Charybdis of opening your coat to the freezing air to cool down.

Society

  • it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in a big city like NYC, Chicago, or DC

  • crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abuse drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities

  • Nicotine gum & patches no longer require a doctor’s prescription to buy (although moral panics have produced retrogression on nicotine vaping fluid)

  • marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states

  • air quality in most places has continued to improve, forest cover has increased, and more rivers are safe to fish in

  • copyright terms have not been indefinitely extended again

  • board games have been revolutionized by the influx of German/European-style games, liberating us from the monopoly of Monopoly

  • shipping/logistics has become cheaper, faster, more reliable, and more convenient in every way:

    • USPS introduced self-adhesive stamps in the early 1990s, and by 2010, licking stamps was almost nonexistent
    • you can avoid ripoff mattress stores by ordering online, thanks to compact vacuum-compressed foam mattresses which can be shipped easily
    • the cost of shipping goods has plummeted
    • shipping speeds have dramatically improved for lower-cost tiers: consider Christmas shopping from a mail-order company or website in 1999 vs 2019—you used to have to order in early December to hope to get something by Christmas (25 December) without spending $30 extra on fast shipping, but now you can get free shipping as late as 19 December!

Food

  • coffee/tea/alcohol:

    • decent loose-leaf tea widely available
    • microbrews/craft beers have revolutionized beer varieties & availability (similar things could be said of wine, cider, and mead)
    • McDonald’s coffee which doesn’t explode in one’s lap while trapped in a car and causing disfiguring third-degree burns
    • McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts coffee, and mass market coffee in general, no longer taste like ‘instant char-fee’
    • Keurig & other coffee machines which heat the water separately from the coffee-making are increasingly common, especially in hotels; this means that tea drinkers (like myself) can make tea which doesn’t taste hopelessly like coffee due to ineradicable coffee contamination
  • fast food in general has gotten much better: much tastier, and we don’t worry about getting salmonella or E. coli from our burgers

  • even mass-market grocery stories like Walmart increasingly routinely stock an enormous variety of exotic foods, from sushi to goat cheese to kefir

  • ‘meat’ is an accepted fad diet

  • sous vide cooker have gone from devices bought only by professional European chefs for thousands of dollars to a popular $70 kitchen gadget

  • restaurants have gone from smoking, to smoking sections, to non-smoking entirely; and smoking in public has become rare

  • fresh guacamole can be easily bought due to pressure pasteurization (“Pascalization”), avoiding the inexorable spoilage of regular guacamole and buying fresh guacamole from the supermarket only to forget about it for a day and discovering it’s ruined

  • tasteless mealy bitter-skinned apples are still dismayingly common, but now one can buy (in most supermarkets) far superior varieties of apples, such as apples (beginning 1991) or apples (beginning 2009)

  • you no longer need to cook sausages to death because is now rare.


  1. Part of why I never got an SNES or Super Mario Bros 3, despite enjoying it a lot whenever I could play it with my friends.↩︎

  2. Where do you think all the money came from for those pretty stewardesses & elaborate meals in those glamorous PanAm flights? Even much more recently, that $289 is not quite so amusing when you inflation-adjust it to today.↩︎

  3. Have you ever noticed how much time even ‘middle class’ mothers used to spend sewing up pants or darning socks or organizing family clothes banks even as recently as the 1970s or 1980s? Somewhere around then, mothers stopped teaching their daughters how to sew or make clothes—I think less because of any feminism and more because it no longer seems like a particularly worthwhile skill to learn, especially given pressure from other uses of time like sports or homework. My grandmother in the 1950s routinely made whole outfits—dresses and pants and socks—for her family, while my mother only sewed under considerable duress, and my sisters couldn’t use a sewing machine at all (until one of them took up jewelry as a hobby as an adult). When I’ve asked about other families, this has been a common pattern.↩︎