Saturday, 14 April 2012

First world problems have solutions for all

How seemingly trivial complaints can drive progress for everyone's benefit

There have been a few very interesting articles written recently about the concept of "first world problems". Essentially, this is a label sometimes given to a complaint or difficulty self-deprecatingly deemed minor or inconsequential, acknowledging its insignificance compared to the terrible hardships endured by other people. But as Tracy King points out in her blog post, this does not necessarily mean that these are irrelevant or petty; and neither are such day-to-day concerns limited to what we refer to as the 'first world' (which is itself a rather arbitrary and out-dated distinction). Amanda Palmer also addresses the issue, pointing out that labelling one person's problems as somehow more deserving of recognition is to downplay someone else's equally legitimate suffering; and that everyone has problems relating to their circumstances. Both articles are excellent and I encourage you to read them.

As Amanda Palmer's article points out, humans never objectively measure their troubles against the whole world - we use our surroundings and peers as a reference point. So, we always wish for an improvement of our current circumstances, rather than just be content with our relative comfort and security. I think that this ability to forget our privilege and wish for better things is a useful, even admirable, quality. It lets us strive to improve ourselves and our environment, without constantly looking backwards and feeling guilt over the privileges we have. Sure, we should acknowledge privilege, but it doesn't have to hold us back.

I've written before about humans' amazing ability to forget about the suffering and pain around the world, and to still enjoy a beautiful piece of music, or to explore unknown frontiers - and this in turn drives creativity and progress. I think this is a related issue: that we can feel annoyed and indignant about the little things, in spite of knowing that there are bigger things we could be worrying about - and therefore make the effort to do something about it.

For example, a common theme on the twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems is having a slow internet connection, and so being unable to instantly do whatever we like; the implication being that such needs are trivial, and that we should be grateful for having internet access at all. Well, perhaps: but the desire to have better connectivity in more places is what drives the advances in technology that makes the internet available all around the world, providing access to information and education in places where previously this was not possible. We could have all been content with 56k dial-up: we were, for the first time in history, able to send data easily across the globe; but of course, we complained about how slow it was, how much it cost, the noise the modems made, the fact we couldn't use the phone... and so technology improved to meet that want. Now, dissatisfaction over existing wireless internet means the development of technologies which are useful for coping with earthquakes and other disasters

There are plenty of other examples where solving the comparably minor problems of the privileged few can have wider benefits. Annoyance at poor mobile phone reception motivates improvements in signal coverage and availability, making it possible for people in developing countries to communicate and gain access to new markets. The desire for still better graphics in already enjoyable and immersive computer games has led to advances in graphics processor technology, which now finds use in protein folding. Because people got fed up with carrying around and storing bulky paper books, e-ink was developed, and could now be used to make tanks invisible (OK, that might not be for the good of humanity, but is pretty cool). And constant moaning about mobile phone battery life spurs research into lithium ion battery technology, who's high power density and small size also permit applications such as handheld explosive detectors and modern electric vehicles.

These examples go to show what fixing one seemingly small problem can lead to. I would suspect that the desire to make our lives slightly easier and more comfortable accounts for a quite a lot of technological and social progress. It's reminiscent of the way pure blue-sky research is often dismissed as idle curiosity, and yet has led to some of the most profound - and most unexpected - breakthroughs, and a corresponding improvement in living standards. Great humanitarian advances don't always come from grand plans to save the world, but sometimes as the fruits of our own self-interest.

Of course, it is not just the fact that our small-scale grievances lead to amazing technology that justifies them. As Tracy King and Amanda Palmer point out, they don't need any further justification than the fact that we experience them. But they also have the potential to be profoundly useful to everyone, sometimes when we least expect it.

As I said before, I am amazed by humans' ability to get on with doing fantastic things despite our failures, to forget for now the things we maybe should be doing, to focus on the things we want to do. When we are comfortable, healthy, educated, well fed, and life is good, our capacity to whinge and moan about the smallest thing can actually help make a real difference.

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