A clip from one of the last episodes of Late Night to be hosted by Conan O'Brien features a conversation with the comedian Louis C.K. During this conversation, C.K. makes the observation that "Everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy." And by "everything," he means technology.
C.K. talked about how annoying telephones used to be, for example, when we didn't have cell phones and landline phones were attached to the wall and had rotary dials. Here's another bit from the dialog:
"I was on an airplane, and there was Internet -- high-speed Internet on the airplane. That's the newest thing that I know exists. And I'm sitting on the plane, and they go, 'open up your laptop, you can go on the Internet.' And it's fast, and I'm watching YouTube clips. It's amazing. I'm in an airplane!
And then it breaks down. And they apologize [that] the Internet's not working, and the guy next to me goes, 'Phhh! This is bull$#@!"
Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago."
Funny. But it points to a larger quirk in human nature that becomes ever more apparent the better personal technology becomes: We grow accustomed almost instantly to every advance. And the better it gets, the less satisfied we are with it.
One example is cell phones. Seven years ago, users were absolutely thrilled with the Palm Treo 180, which was the first smartphone. Sure, it was roughly the size and shape of a grilled cheese sandwich, sported a dangerous protruding antenna and didn't even have a color screen, but -- wow! -- we're we happy with it. Fast forward to today. Smart phones are a zillion times better -- the iPhone! The BlackBerry Bold! The Nokia E71, Samsung Omnia, HTC Touch Diamond! These phones are sublime perfection compared with phones from just a few years ago -- or even from two years ago.
And, yet most people are completely unexcited about cell phones. Choosing a smartphone is too often an exercise in avoiding the negatives. "I dunno, the iPhone is cool, I guess, but the battery life is terrible! I like the Bold, but the screen is so small!"
Are you kidding me? These things would have been incomprehensible science fiction in the year 2000. Today, most people can barely muster the enthusiasm to spend $200 on one.
The same phenomenon occurs with all areas of technology. You can buy a near-perfect digital camera for $400. Laptops with high-def and Blu-ray cost less than $1,000. GPS devices are amazing. And yet the average person remains unimpressed.
If someone invented a $300 jet pack with unlimited fuel that would enable us to fly to work at high speed, go anywhere, land anywhere and experience the freedom of flight every day, it would take us a half-hour to grow used to the idea before we started complaining about how messed up our hair gets and how they should make jetpacks that fold into a briefcase like George Jetson's car.
It's just human nature. We simply were not designed to appreciate things based on how awesome they are. We're designed to appreciate things based on our expectations of how awesome they're supposed to be. And expectations are infinitely adjustable.
Still, every once in a while it's a good idea to pull out that cell phone and marvel at it. Because technology IS amazing. So be happy.