The Decline From “Best” To “Good Enough”

We can’t fly as fast as we used to. Our music sounds worse than it did years ago. On a regular basis, I often can’t understand what people are saying on the telephone, something that never, ever happened when I was a kid.

How did we get from having the best of things to things that work “good enough?”

To me, it’s part of the disposable society that has developed over the years. If things are cheaper — or more convenient — it seems like we give up also having high quality as a feature. But sometimes, I want them both.

I love my iPhone — just having a cell phone period. The ability to call someone without looking for change — then finding a phone booth — not having to arrange a “meet up” location if you’re going to a common place and looking for friends. Just call them. Or text them. Communication, on the fly!

Just don’t expect a clear conversation. I actually have two phones, one a “dumb” one because I’ve learned over the years that “smart” phones have pretty bad talk quality. But even using my dumb phone, I can find it hard to hear someone. Yeah, the phone is convenient — but it’s not convenient to have a conversation that lasts twice as long as normal because you’re having to repeat everything.

Recently, I got a new landline, a deal through my cable provider. It’s voice over IP, and I’d heard some concerns that quality isn’t as good. I’d heard others say it’s OK. Well, I find it’s good enough, I suppose. Usually I can hear people, and it’s pretty cheap. But a call can suddenly get all garbled, and I have to ask people to repeat themselves.

OK, I know there’s that explosion in vinyl going on, but come on — most people today seem to listen to music through either CDs or MP3s. CDs already caused us to lose music quality for the convenience they offered, which I guess was a fair exchange. We lose more with MP3s in exchange for yet again more convenience. But part of me wonders if my kids will ever be shocked if they hear the quality of music from an actual record again. You know, I don’t think they ever have. And would I even notice myself?

Our stove broke recently. As is often the case, it wasn’t worth repairing it. It made far more sense to just get a new one. For one thing, we couldn’t even get the parts if we wanted to repair the old one. But it was more a price issue — the repair price versus the buy new price wouldn’t be that different.

Now, I can remember when getting an appliance was a huge decision. When you might really want a warranty protection plan because you expected to own the thing for 10 years. But with prices low, you don’t worry if it’s going to break in two or three years. Save the money on the protection plan and put it toward just buying a replacement. It’ll probably have all new killer features anyway. And it WILL likely breakdown since to make it that cheap, to make it “good enough,” the quality has gone out of it.

I saw a survey recently that people are buying old compact cars from the 80s because of their high gas mileage. I owned one of those. It got 45-50 miles per gallon. I assumed all cars would continue to go up in gas mileage, because, you know, that whole energy crisis thing.

I’m dumbfounded that years later, NOW we’re hearing again about an energy crisis and all these things that we should be doing to come up with alternative fuels. It’s like we’ve learned nothing. And that while our lives were more convenient in some ways (cheaper gas for a bit, cheaper car prices), we let ourselves move backwards, not forwards.

I was sad when Concorde stopped flying. It felt like a harbinger of backwardsness to me, that consumers could no longer go as fast as they did in the past. But you know, the bigger slower jets were good enough, so why move forward?

I know it’s not all bad. Jets are getting more fuel efficient. There are quality products out there. Life is more convenient in many different ways. But I still feel like we’re consuming fast food when we used to get fine dining.


  1. says

    You are showing your age man. The older you get the more the old days look like the good old days. As we all move faster faster faster to keep up with technology – can anyone drive or grocery shop without a cell phone? – the finer things in life often drop by the wayside.
    So it is not so much that the world is going to hell in a handbasket as that you are getting older and your perspective is changing. Someday you too will be a geezer. Get used to it.

  2. says

    Yeah, believe me, I knew I was sounded old when I wrote it. I am, of course.
    It’s not that I’m saying the old days were better, though. I want my MP3. I want my cell phone. Life rocks much better with them.
    It’s just that I see compromises more these days in what happens when some things get better. We don’t get better sound quality and portability with music. We get portability. I’ve got a phone I can take everywhere, but I’m often having to say things twice. I want fewer compromises. But maybe that’s part of what you accept.

  3. says

    Funny, my TV picture quality vastly improved in quality a couple of years back :)
    That said, what you’re saying does resonate. I think my age has brought in some acute awareness of the incremental. At 18 I needed Super Hi Bias tape for the vinyl recording in order to blast The Joshua Tree out of my Audiovox with the best treble possible. Now I am spending a lot of time deciding between the environmental impact of in-dash MP3 cds vs. the danger of handling an Ipod while driving.

  4. says

    Thanks Danny – now I feel really old. :)
    I CAN usually tell the difference between music on vinyl and on CD. The CD versions are missing so much ‘detail’ or background, or something I can’t quite put a finger on – but it’s NOT the same – great chunks of sound are missing.
    And the cars – how quickly we forget. I laugh every time I see a car ad touting great gas mileage of 25 – 30 mpg. Great? Really? HA! Do the car companies REALLY believe that we don’t recall the 40 – 60 mpg we had in the 80’s? Puhleeeze! Gimme a break.

  5. says

    I suppose these are interesting observations, even if the specifics are wrong.

    For example, CDs are “the best” and records (vinyls) are the good enough. You can talk till you’re blue in the face about the warmth of vinyl, but that warmth is lost parts of the music, like the “warmth” of talking through a wall.

    And cars do have less fuel economy than they did in the 80s. That’s because they’re bigger, have better safety features, accelerate MUCH faster, and are generally just better.

    And audio quality? Talk to my grandfather about the noise he would hear on a long distance call in the 60s. There was a rush to quality in the 80s and 90s with fiber optic cable, but $200 phone bills were also not uncommon. I’m sure if you’re willing to pay $1/minute to talk to someone, I can arrange for a VOIP provider that will be more than happy to give you a CD-quality (I’m sorry, vinyl-quality) stream. There are always trade-offs to be had.

    But standards? No, standards haven’t fallen in consumer goods quality. There are just trade-offs to be had, and most of us are voting with our dollars and saying we want faster cars, digital quality music, and washing machines that side-load to make our (more expensive) clothes last longer. We’re willing to trade off the warmth of low-fidelity music, fuel economy, and washing machines that ruin your clothes for decades to come.

  6. Prasanna says

    Have to agree with Ken here.

    While you are correct about MP3s being lower-fidelity than CDs (because of lossy compression), CDs are definitively higher-fidelity than vinyl. Yes, I know, CDs have a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, so you’re missing anything above the 22.05 kHz range. But no human (and I mean no human) can hear that anyway.

    And I’m not so sure about the voice quality on today’s cell phones (I can say it’s much better than that of cell phones in the 90s!), but a good VoIP line (like what most corporations now use) has probably the best voice quality of any phone line I’ve heard.

    When Ken mentioned “washing machines that ruin your clothes,” I actually laughed. I forgot that washing machines used to do that.