My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The EA Forum team sometimes shares older posts to the frontpage as “classic reposts”. This is one of those.

We recommend reading the full post on Gwern’s blog, which has a lot of neat features the Forum can’t replicate. If you have thoughts on the post, or on “ordinary life improvements” you’ve seen in your own life, please share them here! (See Hacker News for other contributions.)


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).


Progress is usually debated in terms of the big things like lifting the Third World out of poverty, eliminating child mortality[1], or science and 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). Small stuff matters too. 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 crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones and 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. (“The past is a third-world country”, but America in the 1990s could also have used some improvement.)

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. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. 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]

Improvements

A few examples, excerpted from the post.

Computers

  • Cheap: electronics prices keep falling.

    • These days, people whine endlessly online if a RAM or semiconductor shortage (something that happens every decade or so, as the industry has notorious boom-and-bust dynamics) means that they have to pay as much as they did a few years ago for something, but the long-term trends are dramatic.

  • The Internet/​​​Human Genetics/​​​AI/​​​VR are now actually things

  • VHS tapes:

    • 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

  • 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

  • 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

Technology

  • 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 electric burners/​​​gas stoves)

  • Riding Lawn Mowers are affordable & common for rural people

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

Society

  • 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

  • War On Smoking Won: somewhere in the late 1990s, the decline of smoking accelerated and it largely disappeared from public life—restaurants have gone from smoking, to smoking sections, to non-smoking entirely; and smoking in public outdoors 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 next point about nicotine!)

  • Nicotine gum & patches no longer require, absurdly, a doctor’s prescription to buy, benefiting quitters and stimulant users alike (although moral panics & deeply irresponsible reporting about adulterated black-market marijuana products have produced severe retrogression on vaping)

  • 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

    • 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! (“‘Same-day delivery’—what the hell is that?”)

    • 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


  1. My grandmother casually horrified us a few years ago by going through the list of her dead siblings: 2 died as infants on the farm of ‘summer diarrhea’ (bovine tuberculosis from unpasteurized milk), an unremarkable fate in the area, and then 3 died in their teens–20s after moving to the city to work in textile factories. The rest died later. For comparison, she lost 1 child thus far out of 5 (stillbirth), and 0% of her >12 grandchildren/​​​great-grandchildren. ↩︎

  2. 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 political freedoms, life expectancy, income, pollution, slavery, poverty etc, see Our World in Data⁠, the Performance Curve Database (handy for looking at experience curve effects), the work of Hans Rosling like Gapminder⁠, Human Progress.org etc. ↩︎