When United Parcel Service and FedEx missed last-minute Christmas deliveries, gift givers who'd relied on rush service were upset. But instead of public sympathy, their outrage and disappointment elicited ridicule and lectures.
Commenters called the procrastinating shoppers "spoiled 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 realize.
As an Internet meme, "first world problem" ridicules a trivial or esoteric gripe: that the drive-through line at Starbucks is taking way too long, for example, or that the pumpkin spice lattes don't come with a vegan option. The phrase is often self-deprecating, but sometimes, as with the vegan lattes or the late Christmas presents, it's used to mock other people's priorities and expectations.
As illustrated in a famous diagram, "first world problems" are complaints such as "had to park far from the door," "your show isn't in HD" and "too much goat cheese in the salad." By contrast, "real problems" include hunger, cholera and rape. If you're safe, well and well-fed, in other words, you shouldn't bellyache.
Counting your blessings is always a good idea, but 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 fourteen 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 the kitchen of my father's studio apartment in Jackson Heights. 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.
By contrast, in a developed country, barring a major natural disaster, you can count on uninterrupted electricity, hot and cold running water, sewage disposal, garbage pickup, heat (and in hot climates, air conditioning), telephone service, Internet access and television. The roads and bridges will be in decent repair; the elevators will work; the ATMs will have cash; and you'll be able to find a decent public toilet when you need one.
These things aren't necessarily free, but they're cheap enough for pretty much everyone to enjoy them. Most significantly, they're ubiquitous and reliable. Even 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 Dec. 23 to arrive at your grandkids' house across the country on Dec. 24? A generation ago no one would have thought so. No one would have expected a mail order to be delivered overnight, especially during the Christmas rush. Just getting it out of the warehouse would have taken a few days. But that has changed.
Online shopping and overnight shipping have become like Google or IMDB. They constitute what what my strategy-professor husband Steven Postrel calls "new-wave utilities," a category that also includes ubiquitous retailers such as 7-Eleven and Starbucks. These businesses have taught us to count on them -- and take them for granted -- the way we assume the tap water will be clean and the lights will turn on. Unless something goes wrong, we don't think about how amazing they are or how we got them in the first place.
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 aren't 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 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 demoralizing and obnoxious, but demanding complacency is worse. The trick is to simultaneously remember how much life has improved while acknowledging how it could be better.
In the new year, then, may all your worries be first world problems.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.