My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

post by gwern · 2021-09-08T20:46:08.068Z · EA · GW · 1 comments


1 comment

The EA Forum team sometimes shares older posts to the frontpage as "classic reposts [? · GW]". 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]


A few examples, excerpted from the post.




  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 etc. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Linch · 2021-09-09T15:46:26.477Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I think celebrating progress is good, and having a clearer "sense" of the data is good, I think the changes in the post are both qualitatively and quantitatively tiny compared to eg, changes my family members in China experienced between 1980 and 2000 or between 2000 and 2020. So I do think having your priors be formed by typical experiences in Western countries would give you a (relative) general sense of global stagnation.