When United Parcel Service and FedEx missed last-minute Christmas deliveries, gift-givers who had relied on the rush service were upset. But instead of public sympathy, their outrage and disappointment elicited ridicule.
Commentators called the procrastinating shoppers “spoilt and entitled”. Waiting so long, they suggested, was foolish and self-indulgent. The incident, many declared, was a “First World problem”.
The phrase is more telling than the critics realise. As an internet meme, “First World problem” ridicules a trivial or esoteric gripe: that Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes do not come with a vegan option, for example. By contrast, “real problems” include hunger, cholera and rape. If you’re safe, well and well fed, in other words, you shouldn’t bellyache.
Calling the Christmas delivery breakdown a “First World problem” points to what’s wrong with that criticism. We want First World reliability, and if the public just shrugged when things went wrong we wouldn’t get it.
Third World conditions are defined not merely by economic misery but by unreliable services.
“At the age of 14 I had experienced a miracle,” writes Suketu Mehta in Maximum City, his critically acclaimed 2009 book on Mumbai.
“I turned on a tap, and clean water came gushing out. This was in… [New York]. It had never happened to me before. In Bombay, the tap, when it worked, was always the first step of a process” taking at least 24 hours to produce drinkable water. Mehta’s family lived an affluent life but with Third World problems.
In a developed country, barring a major natural disaster, you can count on uninterrupted electricity, hot and cold running water, sewage disposal, rubbish pick-up and communications. The roads and bridges will be in decent repair, the lifts will work, the ATMs will have cash, and you’ll be able to find a decent public toilet.
These things aren’t necessarily free, but they are cheap enough for pretty much everyone to enjoy them. Most significantly, they’re ubiquitous and reliable. When natural disasters strike, we can expect heroic efforts to get things back to normal. Under normal circumstances, we can depend on these services to be there consistently and to work as promised. We can make plans accordingly. That’s a First World privilege.
Now think about the Christmas deliveries. Is it reasonable to expect gifts ordered from Amazon.com on December 23 to arrive at a house across the country the next day? A generation ago no one would have thought so. But that has changed.
Online shopping and overnight shipping constitute “new-wave utilities”, a category that also includes retailers such as 7-Eleven and Starbucks. These businesses have taught us to count on them the way we assume the tap water will be clean.
It took years of sustained efforts by online retailers and delivery services to make overnight orders realistic. It also took dissatisfaction: insanely demanding companies working to please insanely demanding customers – or, in some cases, to offer customers services they hadn’t even thought to ask for – as each improvement revealed new sources of discontent.
“Form follows failure,” is what Henry Petroski, the civil engineering professor and prolific popular writer, calls the process. Every step forward begins with a complaint about what already exists.
“This principle governs all invention, innovation, and ingenuity; it is what drives all inventors, innovators, and engineers,” he writes. “And there follows a corollary: since nothing is perfect, and, indeed, since even our ideas of perfection are not static, everything is subject to change over time.”
Rising expectations are not a sign of immature “entitlement”. They’re a sign of progress – and the wellspring of future advances. The same ridiculous discontent that says Starbucks ought to offer vegan pumpkin spice lattes created Starbucks in the first place. Two centuries of refusing to be satisfied produced the long series of innovations that turned hunger from a near-universal human condition into a “Third World problem”.
Complaining about small annoyances can be obnoxious, but demanding complacency is worse. The trick is to remember how much life has improved while acknowledging how it could be better.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. Her book The Power of Glamour was recently published by Simon & Schuster