Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, May 19, 2014

110. Great Expectations: The Implacable Externality

I saw a sign in front of a shop the other day that read, "We will exceed your expectations." So I walked in expecting them to exceed my expectations. By the time I walked out, I owned the place.

I've found that having a baby, and then a toddler around the house gives you a new perspective on things. For example, the likely genesis of the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. Or the persistent belief in the plausibility of developing a perpetual motion machine.

Additionally, thinking about a full life ahead for a new person, it made me think about what has changed for the better or for the worse since I was born, with respect to the prospects for a child having the sort of life you might hope for them. On this train of thought, it occurred to me that few of the technological advances made since I was born really register in this sort of calculation. Do I expect my child's life to be better or more fulfilling due to the presence of computers and smartphones and high definition television? Not really.

Now, I know, this comes across as a standard 'get-off-my-lawn' rant about how I walked uphill to school both ways in the snow and I liked it, but that's not really what I'm trying to get at. It really is kind of surprising that all the years of inventing and advancing things, all of which was appreciated enough by the people who purchased these advances to make the developers and inventors of new computers and phones and so on the wealthiest people in the world hasn't really moved the needle at all with respect to what level of happiness we might expect in our lives. As a kid, I would take pencil to paper and sketch out visions of fantastic video games well beyond what existed in the market at that time. Sports games where you could manage the whole farm system and run the team like a real GM, adventure games with whole worlds filled with interactive characters and endless open-ended possibilities for development and so on. And pretty much without fail, all those dreams have become reality in the intervening years and it has been pretty cool at times. I still remember the day my Dad brought home the first flat screen monitor we had ever seen and playing Ultima VI on it for the first time. But in the end, did it make my childhood any happier than my Dad's? Maybe, but I'm not sure.

The problem, it seems to me, is that almost all advances in comfort and convenience bring a built in negative externality in the form of increased expectations, by which the new level of comfort becomes the expected norm. To put it another way, it is only the rate of change in the level of comfort and convenience that matters to us, not the level. We can see this dynamic at work in so many classic literary tales, Anne goes from unloved and hard done by orphan to a much better life on a farm in P.E.I., while Harry Potter goes from unloved orphan forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs to famous wizard in a world of adventure with his own pile of gold and so on.  What we enjoy is not seeing someone suffer, or seeing someone prosper, but seeing the transition from suffering to prosperity, seeing people new to comfort and convenience who can appreciate them in a way that we, born into prosperity, no longer can.

Even more on point was an episode of The Simpson's in which Homer gets a chance to ride on a private plane and live in luxury for a couple of days, but finds himself depressed upon returning to his normal middle class life and yearning to return to the world of luxury.

Taking matters a step further, many advances in comfort and convenience bring with them an even greater negative externality when the new comfort or convenience allows us to do without some skill we once required. The advent of the personal automobile led to generations of people who couldn't really manage to get around without them. But cars brought new required skills such as learning stick shift, learning to read a map or just learning to drive period. But advances in automatic transmissions have made knowing how to change gears a lost art, GPS makes maps and navigation obsolete and if driverless cars ever become reality, even the basics of pushing a pedal and steering a course will no longer be required. Meanwhile climate control (tailored for each seat), heated seats, rain sensing wipers, DVD players and televisions continually up the ante with respect to comfort and convenience.

Movies depicting an apocalypse of one sort or another are pretty thick on the ground these days, but the Pixar film Wall-E, was somewhat unusual in presenting two distinct apocalyptic scenarios in the same movie. It opens with a relatively standard apocalyptic scenario depicting the failure of our quest for comfort and convenience - a ruined abandoned planet covered in garbage. But later on, up in space, we are faced with another apocalyptic scenario, this one representing the success of our quest for comfort and convenience. On a space cruise ship staffed and managed by robots, humans live a life of such comfort and convenience that they are weak, fat and basically incapable of doing anything for themselves. Wall-E ends with the humans rejecting this life comfort and convenience for the hard work of restoring the planet to live-ability, but so far any sign of a similar change in our trajectory seems quite absent.

In our earlier discussions in this series, I noted that the commercial syndrome pursued comfort and convenience, rather than power or status, precisely because comfort and convenience were not seen to be zero sum games in that one person's advance didn't automatically translate into another person's loss. But what if pursuit of comfort and convenience is also a zero sum game (in many/most, if not all respects) in that one person's gain is that same person's loss? And if so, does this persistent negative externality call into question the value of the entire syndrome?


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