It can be hard to see the gradual improvement of most goods 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).
Small stuff matters too. Progress is usually debated in terms of the big things like lifting the Third World out of poverty, or science & tech: discovering gravitational waves, creating world champion AIs, turning AIDS into a treatable rather than terminal disease, conquering hepatitis C or, curing deadly cancers with genetically-engineered T-cells. But as cool as those big things are, and matters of life-and-death for many, such achievements tend to be remote from ordinary people, and not your everyday sort of thing (or so one hopes). What about the little things in an ordinary life?
The seen and the unseen. When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded1 with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, 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. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life.2
Roughly divided by topic:
With computers, it’s hardly worth trying to enumerate the improvements on every dimension:
Cheap: electronics prices keep falling.
These days, people whine endlessly online if a top-end VR headset or smartphone costs less in real terms than a Nintendo NES did in 1983 ($316) or a Sony Walkman cassette player in 1979 ($498), and kids can’t even imagine having to pay $117 for a new copy of Super Mario Bros. 33—a far cry from paying $5 these days for a great PC game during a Steam sale, or nothing at all for many of the most popular games like Fortnite.
the Internet/Human Genetics/AI/VR are now actually things
Imagine dealing with the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in 1989 instead.
- not rewinding VHS tapes before returning to the library or Blockbuster
- not worrying about Blockbuster or library late fines
- 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
- indefinite: not worrying about running out of AOL hours, liberated from the tyranny of time metering and (mostly) bandwidth metering
- all day: because you won’t be yelled at for tying up the phone line
Ethernet: not needing to know the difference between PLIP, SLIP, IRQ, TCP/IP, or PPP to get online
20xx is The Year Of the Linux Desktop: no, but seriously, Linux X, WiFi, & laptops now usually work
Hygienic Mice: no longer needing to clean computer mice weekly thanks to laser mice
Hearing Aids are a small fraction the size, have gone digital with multiple directional microphones (higher-quality, customizable, noise-reduction)4, halved or more in price, become water-resistant, and even do tricks like Bluetooth
GPS: not getting lost while frantically driving down a freeway; or anywhere else, for that matter
Universal Cables: 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)
Universal Fulltext: most books and scientific papers can be (perhaps with a little work) downloaded for free—the ‘universal library’ came to pass, despite many peoples’ best efforts
Universal Search: 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’ to cover a dozen search engines which each index a different tiny fraction of the Internet, or gradually building up enormous 20-clause Boolean queries to filter out noise
Universal Storage: we no longer need to strategize which emails or photos or documents to delete to save space
RAM: programmers able to assume users have 4GB RAM rather than 4MB RAM
Microsoft Windows Hacking: consumer computers in the ’90s were a pain because they all ran Windows and if you ever connected them to the Internet, there were so many ways to get hacked or systems degraded. This is far less of an issue now.
If you managed to never install a bad IE toolbar (or get hacked by one of the countless IE vulnerabilities) and managed to track down the safe version of every application you installed (there being no kind of package manager-based app store as popularized in the ’90s by Linux distros), you would still get hacked remotely by a worm (this was the golden age of Internet viruses/worms like ILOVEYOU/Code Red/Nimda/SQL Slammer). At MS’s nadir, people were estimating that botnets were so active in portscanning the Internet for vulnerable Windows systems that a new Windows installation would be hacked before it finished downloading all the security patches.
In January 2002 Bill Gates issued a memo and MS had its come-to-Jesus moment, making security a priority: switching to Windows NT as a foundation (benefiting from VMS designs), rewriting old code in memory-safe programming languages (especially .NET), investing heavily in static program analysis tools (some developed by MSR), adding free antivirus/firewall programs to Windows, increasing bug bounties, monitoring hacking more actively, releasing more free updates & moving to SaaS models (enabling continuous updates), and in general investing far more money into security.
Smartphones: far too much to list… (eg GPS, and careless smartphone photographs are higher-quality than most film cameras from a few decades ago, particularly in niches like dark scenes where smartphone night modes can achieve things few or no non-digital film cameras were capable of)
Spaced Repetition has escaped the cognitive psychology labs, and has been a great blessing to foreign-language learners, medical students, and many others
- Back Catalogue Access: catching the tail end of a cartoon or movie 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
HVAC: houses which are well-insulated & uniformly comfortably warm, and centrally-cooled, rather than leaky and using heaters or wall units running constantly creating drafts and hot/cold spots
Showers: hot water heaters increasingly heat water on demand, and do not run out (while sometimes shocking the bather)
Stoves which are increasingly safe and clean, because induction-based (rather than the perpetually dirty fire hazards of burners/gas stoves)
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 $12–$23 to the immediate total cost, and would have to be replaced in a year)
- reliable & efficient: cars last longer and get better mileage6
- all cars have electrified power windows; I don’t remember the last time I had to physically crank down a car window
- electric cars are feasible choices rather than follies, and will be ordinary things in 5–10 years
- self-driving cars not long after that
Air Travel Democratized: airplane flights no longer cost an appreciable fraction of your annual income7, and people can afford multiple trips a year.
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, cooler & safer, smaller, turn on faster, last longer, and are brighter than incandescents or fluorescents
Movie Theater Seats have become far more comfortable as movie theaters, forced to compete with DVDs/home-theaters & Internet & video games, upgrade their uncomfortable school-style stadium seats to real seats; and concession prices seem like they’ve increased less than inflation, making them less of a total ripoff; I remember having to call the movie theater for times or check the newspaper to see which of several theaters might have a screening at the right time (crazy, I know); nor am I particularly nostalgic for film rather than digital projection, where damage to the film might be noticeable, and one had to wait on the projectionist.
EU: the European Union & single Euro currency make the EU easier to understand & travel in it much less tricky and expensive
- car theft is rarer, and in particular, we no longer have to worry about our car windows being smashed to steal our car radios8, or our GPSes
- car security alarms no longer go off endlessly in parking lots. (It wouldn’t’ve been a normal day in the suburbs in the 1990s without hearing at least one. I don’t know if the car manufacturers fixed car alarms, or if everyone mutually agreed that this was not working out & stopped buying them.)
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
Clothing has become almost “too cheap to meter”; the idea of, say, darning socks is completely alien9, clothing companies routinely burn millions of pounds of clothes because it’s cheaper than wasting scarce human labor reprocessing & selling them for a song, and Africa is flooded by discards.
- materials science has produced constant visible-yet-invisible improvements in textiles yielding, among other things like plusher plushies, far better insulated (and cheaper) winter coats: instead of choosing between winter coats which make you look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man 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.
Wheeled Luggage no longer expensive or rare, but cheap & ubiquitous
Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
- urban life: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and summer riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).
Nicotine gum & patches no longer require, absurdly, a doctor’s prescription to buy and became OTC, benefiting quitters and stimulant users alike (although moral panics & deeply irresponsible reporting about black-market marijuana products have produced severe retrogression on vaping)
War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance
Environment: air quality in most places has continued to improve, forest cover has increased, and more rivers are safe to fish in
Intellectual Property Maximalism rollback: copyright terms have not and probably will not be indefinitely extended again to eternity to protect Mickey Mouse, and in 2019, for the first time since 1998, works entered the public domain
Logistics has become cheaper, faster, more reliable, and more convenient in every way:
- advances in Internet & computers of course have superseded many logistical problems—the best-solved problem is the one you don’t have in the first place
- USPS introduced self-adhesive stamps in the early 1990s, and by 2010, licking postage stamps was almost nonexistent (and not a moment too soon to guard against SF extortion plots!)
- no more coupon scams: most people recognize rebates/coupons are scams, and the rise of discounters/warehouse stores/Internet shopping has largely obviated them
- no more mattress scams: you can avoid ripoff mattress stores (typically owned by an exploitative oligopoly of mattress companies with massive margins) by ordering online, thanks to compact vacuum-compressed foam mattresses which can be shipped easily
- the shipping cost of goods has plummeted
- the shipping speeds have dramatically improved, especially for low-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 $53 extra on fast shipping, but now you can get free shipping as late as 19 December!
- the shipped packages are also nicer: initiatives like Amazon’s “Frustration-Free Packages” have led to a trend of fewer clamshell plastic packages which can’t be opened without risk of slicing your figures
Beverages, particularly Tea/Alcohol/Coffee:
- high-quality loose-leaf tea widely available & popularized by chains like Teavana
- 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 & causing disfiguring third-degree burns requiring skin grafts
- mass market coffee in general (McDonald’s & Dunkin Donuts coffee in particular) no longer taste like ‘instant char-fee’ (similar to Starbucks popularizing relatively high quality coffee)
- Keurig & other Single-Serve 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 (compare McDonald’s post-2003 chicken sandwiches with before), and safer, as we no longer worry about getting salmonella or E. coli from our burgers10
even Mass-Market Grocery Stores like Walmart increasingly routinely stock an enormous variety of foods, from sushi to goat cheese to kefir; and if you don’t like those, you can probably find a more upscale one like Whole Foods, which behind the egregious (like shelves of homeopathy) host the exotic
Sous-Vide cookers have gone from devices bought only by professional European chefs for thousands of dollars to a popular $70 kitchen gadget
War On Smoking Won: restaurants have gone from smoking, to smoking sections, to non-smoking entirely; and smoking in public has become rare. (Aside from any health benefits, this makes everywhere smell and look nicer. And to the extent smoking is stimulating and pleasant—see previous point about legalizing off-prescription nicotine & vaping!)
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)
Resealable Packaging on many foodstuffs reduces spoilage waste while also increasing convenience
Better Apples (not the computer kind): the tasteless mealy bitter-skinned so-called “Red Delicious” apples are still dismayingly common, but now one can buy (in most supermarkets) far superior varieties of apples, such as Honeycrisp apples (>1991) or SweeTango apples (>2009), with fascinating new varieties coming out every year (thanks both to improvements in breeding technology and innovations in the “club” business model eliminating free-riding & the Red Delicious’s fatal race-to-the-bottom)
Better Sausages: you no longer need to cook sausages to death, because trichinosis is now rare.
Now, imagine if I could have extended this back another decade. Then another decade. Then another few decades… For broader metrics of increase in global well-being such as life expectancy, income, pollution, slavery, poverty etc, see Our World in Data, the Performance Curve Database, the work of Hans Rosling like Gapminder, Human Progress.org etc.↩︎
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.↩︎
I expect even greater things as more advanced signal processing technology becomes possible within battery life constraints, with deep learning, and I find it intriguing how many hearing people eagerly took up Apple AirPods, which could do on-iPhone processing (benefiting from specialized ASICs & large phone batteries). Could hearing aids/earphones in the next decade become better than natural hearing, even among the young?↩︎
Given our acreage, I’m not sure when, if ever, robotic lawn mowers will be an option, as much as I would love to stop mowing. For people with small lawns, I understand they work well, and have since at least the early 2000s.↩︎
This sort of reliability gain seems like it might be widespread. People love to complain that “they don’t build them like they used to”, but I am suspicious because most such comparisons appear to reflect survivorship bias or are selective, and ignore improvements such as pollution or safety or variety—assuming they don’t ignore inflation entirely.↩︎
Where do you think all the money came from for those pretty stewardesses & elaborate meals in those glamorous Pan Am flights? Even much more recently, that $676 average airfare in 1990 is not such a bargain when you inflation-adjust it to today.↩︎
Remember when physically detaching your car radio to avoid leaving it in the car was considered a 100% normal thing to do?↩︎
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 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.↩︎
Consider how you no longer see deaths from regular E. coli outbreaks. As far as I can tell from US statistics, the total number of fast food-related E. coli deaths in the 26 years since the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak still do not exceed the number of deaths from that single Jack in the Box incident. In particular, despite the enormous amount of attention paid to Chipotle’s food safety, there appear to have been 0 fatalities. Fast food is pretty safe.↩︎