I recently took a car ferry across to the island of Chiloé. In the distance, I could see work being done on a big new suspension bridge, which when completed will connect the large island province to the mainland. My first reaction was disappointment; I came too soon to experience the convenience of the new bridge.
My second reaction was to wonder whether greater convenience actually makes us happier. Riding the car ferry is a rather interesting experience, while driving over the bridge is somewhat more boring. On the other hand, there’s the revealed preference argument—if there were an option between the bridge and the ferry, I’d have taken the bridge (even if the toll were equal to the ferry charge.)
But is this revealed preference argument actually as strong as it seems? I don’t believe so. To explain why I’ll use the example of GPS navigation.
I have always had a good visual memory (and a poor verbal memory). Thus I am pretty good with maps, and am able to navigate in unfamiliar places based on the map in my mind. When I was younger, I got great satisfaction from using this skill when traveling overseas. My girlfriend called me “map head”. It may sound odd, but I derived great utility from creatively solving a series of problems.
GPS has rendered my navigation skill to be almost worthless. Now while driving in Chile I am just as much on autopilot as if I were driving to the grocery store in Orange County. Yes, I am free to continue doing things the old way, ignoring GPS. Indeed I often so so when alone. But with my wife? Who’s she likely to trust?
Progress imposes negative externalities on those who insist on doing things the old way. The knowledge that something better exists tends to devalue the inferior product. As a child, I watched The Wizard of Oz once a year on a black and white TV set. Now that I know the film is actually (mostly) in color, I could not bear to watch it in black and white.
Or, as food experts tell us: “Hunger is the best sauce.”
Nonetheless, I do believe that progress and happiness are closely related, but not because all these shiny new toys make us happier. Rather I suspect that both progress and happiness are the effects of a third factor—freedom. More specifically, I believe that people are happier when they are free to creatively engage in problem solving with the aim of making their lives better. Whether the new inventions actually make them happier is immaterial; people derive satisfaction from pursuing their dreams.
Here’s V.S. Naipaul:
Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue . . . This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on the periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away. (From a talk given in 1991–when the future still seemed bright.)
Of course, this post is merely restating a longstanding idea in philosophy—that it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
PS. My wife and I were recently walking on a trail through the woods of Chiloé. We could see the beach in the distance, and decided to walk in that direction. Right before the beach we encountered a stream that blocked our path, so we never reached the beach. At the same time, my wife was chatting with our daughter on the telephone. My daughter was surprised that we didn’t know about the stream. She could see it on a map that was tracking our movements on her phone, even though she was 6000 miles away! She had that exasperated “What’s wrong with you boomers” tone in her voice.
Modern technology allows us to plan trips in incredible detail. But I sort of miss the serendipity of the travel that I did when young, when I didn’t know exactly what my trip would involve before leaving home.
But that’s just me. My wife likes to plan.
Here’s that bridge project in the distance, through a porthole on the car ferry:
PPS. Just as I am good with maps, I am lousy with languages. I took three semesters of Spanish in college, and all I recall is “hola”. While I find GPS to be annoying, I’d really appreciate an instantaneous language translating device when traveling overseas. (My wife uses the iPhone translator, but it doesn’t actually work in the real world.)