What's better? Granted, many of the items on this list are trivial. But add them up and in the routine corners of our existence, they make a meaningful difference.
- Central air. It may be an extravagance, but the option to stay cool through the summer makes a tangible difference in life day by day.
- Latex paint. Lead paint was evil, and even without the lead, oil-based paint is a headache-inducing mess that should be left to professionals. Latex paint is a great example of one of the key modern tradeoffs: Quality at the top end of craftsmanship is sacrificed for a lot of convenience.
- Thermopane windows. They keep houses warmer and eliminate the biannual struggle with storm windows.
- Decent cheap furniture. I wish they'd had Ikeas and their ilk when I was a young lad. The stuff they sell won't last forever, but it is sensible, smartly designed and affordable.
- Puffs Plus. Greasy tissues seem pretty superfluous, except on the fifth day of a nasty cold.
- Velcro. Clearly a superior fastener.
- We own them. It's hard to imagine, but phones were once the property of the phone company, which only leased them to consumers. The number of phones you could have, their functions and their locations, were totally controlled by the Bell System.
- We pocket them. They can be cordless, they can be cellular, they can be tiny, which all add up to freedom of movement.
- Long-distance. Long-distance once was like cellular, but worse. Scratchy connections that were extremely expensive and time-consuming to make were the rule. Now long distance is clear, cheap and immediate.
- Touch-tone dialing. Push-button phones once seemed like an astounding improvement over fumbling with dials, which seems like barbarism in retrospect.
- Credit cards and ATMs. They arrived decades apart, but together they freed consumers from the paper chain.
- Bank by phone. A modest advance, but being able to check balances and cleared checks from home or work prevents a lot of financial turmoil.
- Online trading. Yes, it can be another trap for the unwary, but so is the stock market generally. It represents a major convenience as well as a means of further democratizing investing.
- Vending machines. There was a time when a candy machine was only that, with just one row of goods available. Now you can even get sliders in some machines, and pay for them with dollars bills.
- Discount stores. In my youth, E.J. Korvette was a big novelty. Wal-marts are now a scourge on small-town America, and the big boxes that discount stores come in are a drag on any geography they mar. But as long as we're stuck with them, Targets and Home Depots make some shopping a lot easier.
- UPC. Product codes once seemed like the arrival of, take your pick, big brother or the beast. In fact, they were just a faster way of getting out of stores.
- Safer. The principal safety feature in the family cars of my childhood was my father's arm, which popped in front of us in sudden stops. Cars once lacked seat belts, not to mention shoulder straps, air bags, padded interior surfaces and the improved construction that makes them less fatal in accidents.
- Cleaner. Emissions controls, whatever their performance hit, make a real difference in external livability, not to mention public health.
- Better gas mileage. 20 miles a gallon was once considered high mileage, though it's scandalous that 40 mpg is still considered impressive.
- More reliable. Japanese manufacturing superiority drove all the automakers to do a far better job building their vehicles. Cars last longer and run better.
- Better air conditioning. In some cars it works, and fast, and there's no more freon to destroy the ozone layer.
- Rear-window defrosters. There was a time when you had to stop the car and wipe the rear windshield if you wanted to see behind you.
- CD players. There also was a time when FM was optional, then came 8-tracks, then cassettes. Manufacturers are finally capable of putting decent sound systems into the cars they build.
- More comfortable seats. The old benches were just that -- benches.
- Better guardrails. Mostly, you no longer see many guardrails with a blunt end facing traffic. The business end is tapered, or if it is still blunt, there is another fine innovation -- the barrels of water or sand that cushion vehicles running into obstructions.
- Road dots. The reflectors in the middle of the road make it easy to see the center line and, in warm states, easy to tell when you are crossing it.
- Intermittent wipers. A totally logical invention.
- Plain paper photocopiers. In the somewhat old days copies were messy, smelly and expensive. The only alternatives to commercial printing were cutting mimeo or ditto masters or using tons of carbon paper, each option requiring letter-perfect typing. Yes, photocopiers mean worthlessness is reproduced in astounding quantities, but they've eliminated a lot of frustrating hours of extraneous effort. By making it trivial to assure the availability of important documents they've done society a favor.
- Laser printers. Same advantages as photocopiers.
- Word processing. Forget making office life vastly superior, I think about what school would have been like had word processing been invented then. Getting the language just right is hard enough when you can cut and paste and overwrite with keystrokes. When you have to type and retype the same pages, with every sheet posing the risk of another typo of unerasable magnitude, it's hopeless.
- Fax. Easy and reliable communication of important documents seemed like more of a triumph before email, but fax still has value.
- Express delivery services. Getting stuff anywhere overnight is as cool as a fax. In the olden days you only had parcel post, then UPS, nearly-as-pokey. FedEx is a role model.
- Desktop publishing. Like fax, this achievement also is partly eclipsed by the Internet. But it makes it fast and easy to create high-quality publications, which has had a democratizing influence on our culture. Desktop published newsletters and e-zines almost certainly helped create the populist infrastructure that structured the Web early on, since it supplied a readymade group of smalltime publishers looking for a wider outlet (this one included).
- html. Its simplicity made Web publishing available to the masses, including the same smalltimers.
- Computer spreadsheets. The powers of analysis these things provide are miraculous, and formerly the exclusive province of accounting experts.
- Photoshop. Another piece of software that, like spreadsheets, has transformed industries, including graphic design, publishing and photography. Basically, spreadsheets and Photoshop stand in for all the software that has changed the way most of the world does business.
- Cheap desktop scanners. Five years ago if you wanted a high-quality digital image, you had to schlep the picture to a service bureau for scanning. Now you can buy a scanner for $100 and do the job yourself.
- Very small computers. I know this is another symptom of corporate brainwashing, but I still think it's really cool that you can easily haul around with you the sum of your work and creativity and life organization. When PDAs match today's desktop for capacity and speed, I won't complain.
- Pens. Smooth and more reliable Uniballs mean no regrets for Bic stick pens or even Parker T-Ball Jotters.
- Sometimes faster. Airplanes have become more miserably crowded, but they still don't seem to spend nearly as much time circling airports as they did in the '70s.
- Sometimes easier. Airport counters are much more efficient, presumably a contribution of modern computing.
- Etickets. They remove one more nuisance.
- Frequent flier programs. They're a gimmick, but they do make flying first class an occasional option.
- The 777. It's the best jetliner ever, I believe.
- Name-brand restaurants and stores in airports. No more overpriced mystery hot dogs.
- Self-service. Checking flights, fares and seats online give you a little more control over travel arrangements.
- Early music on original instruments. Who knows about the musicological debates, but this movement's attention to history and detail has made a lot of great music easily available.
- Stereo. Reproduced sound once was flat. Now it has dimension.
- Walkmen. Walkmen are an example of how breathtaking technological breakthroughs creep into our lives unnoticed as such.Ubiquitous and ridiculously cheap, they would have unimaginable 40 years ago, the era of tinny transistor radios.
- World music. I don't care about it, but I've got to acknowledge the benefit of so many different kinds of music getting broader exposure.
- CDs. Audiophiles don't like them, but for ordinary people their playing time and resilience mean much cleaner sound with many fewer trips to the turntable. They also spawned reissue programs that have brought lots of unavailable material back on the market.
- Fresh seafood everywhere. In my youth, it was fish sticks and frozen filets.
- Fresh produce everywhere. The modern food distribution system has its downside (as noted shortly), but it's able to make an incredible variety of produce available all over the place at all different times of the year.
- Coffee. I don't drink it, but I'm assured it's vastly improved.
- Huge variety of ethnic restaurants. There was a time when pizza and chop suey were the most exotic foods in most American cities. Now ethnic restaurants are one of the few bulwarks against the triumphal march of the franchises.
- Ethnic groceries and ethnic sections in supermarkets. Similar to the restaurant situation. It's no longer just LaChoy and Old El Paso, at least in the better city groceries.
- Antidepressants. They work sometimes, and can mean everything for the people who benefit.
- Epidurals. Maintaining consciousness while avoiding enormous pain is a big plus.
- Disposable contact lenses. You can wear them comfortably until they break.
- Light-weight plastic-lensed glasses. Heads are happier.
- Plastic shampoo bottles. One less little thing to worry about. This is how they arrived (for me anyway): In a TV commercial someone knocks over a bottle of Prell shampoo, then exclaims, "It didn't break! Why, it didn't break!"
- Waning of childhood diseases. Let's not kid ourselves how important this is. It is difficult for those born in the post-war West to conceive what it meant that a baby was as likely to die in childhood as to grow up.
- Cochlear implants. Not popular in the deaf community, but hearing is a fine thing.
- Less cigarette smoking/More No Smoking sections. But why is it that smokers are allowed to maintain their near-monoply on the nightclubs where most music is performed?
- Palatable children's medicines. I still remember the quasi-orange-flavored children's aspirin I had to take. They finally figured out how to make them taste like something halfway appealing.
- They're in color now.
- They're cheap now.
- They have remote control. The idea of having to walk up to the set to change channels or adjust volume seems barbaric.
- VCRs. There are lots of ways progress erodes personal autonomy, but this is one of the powerful counterexamples -- all the more powerful considering how important TV is to our cultural lives. You can control what you watch, when, and you can skip commercials. Bring on the TIVO!
- Big screens. Personally, I watch most of my TV on a 13-inch set, but I envy the big ones.
- Quality sound. There was a time when the option of running sound through your stereo didn't exist. Short of that, the speakers on some sets are now as good as you get with a cheap stereo system.
- Portable DVD players. Can't wait until they're affordable.
- The Simpsons. No better TV ever.
OTHER CONSUMER ELECtrONICS
- Fully automatic cameras. For most of us, focusing is a very bad thing.
- Digital cameras. When large quantities of pictures are needed but not likely to be treasured, this is a great advance.
- Dubbing decks. Media companies don't like them, consumers do.
- Electric razors. Those with delicate complexions no longer have to trade off buckets of blood for a reasonably close shave.
- GPS. Someday it will be impossible to get lost, which isn't good privacy-wise but still potentially a life saver.
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
- Craftsman revival. As reproduction furniture goes, Mission is pretty cool, though getting beyond a few basic patterns quickly runs into big bucks.
- Preservation. At least now there is sometimes a battle before historic structures are destroyed.
- Highways. Similarly, Rt. 66 and other old roads now have a chance of being celebrated before being obliterated.
- Great new stuff. Um um um. Any ideas on what is actually good and recent would be appreciated.
- Quality. The water and the air are generally cleaner in the U.S. than they have been for a long time previous.
- Lead. Much less of it around.
- Protection. Wetlands, wilderness, open space and species in general are still gravely threatened -- more than ever now. But they have more organized defenders than a generation ago.
- The Web. No tedious commentary here, but it's already indispensable.
- Movies. Wide and shallow theaters, with cupholders!
- Email. Also indispensable.
- Tolerance of expression. However bland and corporate-dominated mass communication is, there is far more weird and offensive stuff being distributed openly now than 40 years ago.
- NPR and PBS. Marginal (esp. PBS), but ahead of commercial broadcasting. The amazing thing is that radio is now a vaster wasteland than television.
- Hello Kitty and weird Japanese toys in general. If something is going to be wildly popular, better bizarre. Japan possesses some special national talent to make mass-merchandised junk really cool.
- Outsider art. Good to the extent that it encourages appreciation of a broader spectrum of work, as opposed to being a marketing gimmick.
- Old stuff. Disposability is often considered a hallmark of contemporary culture. But decades ago the threads that make up popular culture were even thinner. Movies played for a few days at the theater then disappeared -- in the silent era literally, with the vast majority of footage dissolved forever. Music made the hit parade and was forgotten. Toys were used and thrown out. Society is still merciless to whole classifications of culture. But there also is a significant following for what came before, and that market has resulted in the preservation and dissemination of old movies, old music and a good deal of other old stuff that seem especially enriching the more sour one is on recent production.
- Zines. Another admirably broader venue for individual expression.
- Feminism. Anyone who doesn't think this has made a huge difference is deeply reactionary or deeply ignorant.
- Racial equality. It's a standard, even if not close to being realized.
- Hats and ties optional. Hats are no longer obligatory for men, and ties are going the same way. I look forward to the eventual triumph of casual every day.
- Modern sneakers. They don't need to be $150 to be vastly superior to the PF Flyers and Keds of the past.
- R. Crumb. By far the greatest cartoonist of our time and maybe the greatest ever.
- Fear. Nuclear annihilation was a principal constant of my childhood. Through my high school years, whenever I heard an out-of-the-ordinary siren I would be convinced it was an air raid and the missiles were coming. The threat hasn't vanished, but it is no longer the principal shaper of our consciousness.
- Disposable diapers. Current thinking is that they're not so bad environmentally, and they make baby care fit for amateurs.
- Decline of corporal punishment. People still hit, but it is not nearly as acceptable as it once was.
- Camcorders. Video will never be as quaint as 8mm film, but the superior production values (and sound) give these movies a lot more substance.
- Daycare. It ought to be better and more available, but it's there.
- Safer baby stuff. As a result of two of the right wing's great bugaboos -- government regulation and tough liability laws -- there are fewer ways for babies to choke or otherwise injure themselves on their furniture and toys.
It gets its own category because, despite misuse, when applied productively plastic really is a miracle substance. It's a shame that so much oil is burnt for fuel, since it ought to be conserved to make plastic, which adds much more otherwise unduplicatable value to our lives, whether heart valves, unbreakable jars, insulation or light-weight materials of all varieties. (Brief crackpot digression: Biodegradable plastic makes a bad situation worse. It may save some landfill space around cities for the moment, but not many centuries from now, when oil is gone and coal going, one of the great industries will be plastic mining. Anything we do to reduce the amount of material available is doubly robbing posterity -- we're wasting both the oil and the plastic we make from it.)
ON THE OTHER HAND
So if there are so many blessings out there, why is it hard to feel blessed? Continue
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