My family and I recently went to Los Angeles for spring break. I wasn’t able to select our seats in advance to ensure that all five of us could sit together unless I was prepared to upgrade our seats.
Later in the trip, we went to the Universal Studios theme park. The tickets were not cheap, $125 each. Yet when we arrived we found extremely long lines. Many of which projected wait times of one, two or three hours – for a one to two minute experience that would follow.
Of course, we could upgrade, bringing the potential total to almost $300 per ticket. This would allow us to skip the lines a limited amount of times.
The price seemed ridiculous. As we waited three hours to go on a Harry Potter ride, we watched countless families fly by us in the express line. The range of my feelings went from jealousy to shame to anger to self-righteousness.
When we finally reached the front of the line, the ride broke.
As we were delayed, a line of those who had upgraded had begun to grow. When the ride was up and running, the operators prioritized all of those who had upgraded first. Prolonging the wait for those who had waited more than three hours, while accommodating those inconvenienced for a few minutes. I grew indignant, feeling as if we were second class citizens.
While the ride experience was great and the same for everyone, everything leading up to that point just seemed off. We could have upgraded our tickets, but at the time the cost seemed both unreasonable and inequitable. (Full disclosure: Later in the week we went to Disney and upgraded those tickets, for what seemed a more reasonable $20 each.)
At Universal, I marveled at the number of families who had upgraded, surprised that so many had the means to do so. Wondering how long some must have saved up to afford what amounted to a two thousand dollar trip to a theme park.
Most of all, I wondered if this was necessary at all.
Upgrades are not limited to our experiences but extend most obviously to our products – specifically technology. Some clamor to have the latest upgrade in iPhones – often waiting in lines that make my Harry Potter experience seem like a nanosecond. Much like at the end of day a ride is just a ride, the phone is just a phone.
Admittedly I’m a bit of a luddite. Even the earlier versions of a smartphone have computer processing more powerful and advanced than the technology found in spacecraft that first took us to a moon. Most of this power goes unused, at least by me. My phone makes calls, sends texts, takes pictures, uses apps. So I’m generally not motivated to upgrade unless one of those basic functions is compromised.
Our rush or desire to upgrade is understandable. We are drawn to the best, to the latest, the quickest, the most convenient, to the status. But when we upgrade, especially when it comes at a steep price, others by default are downgraded.
The experience or product that they have spent good money on is cheapened or made worse by comparison. Inequity and resentment follow.
Much of design energy seems to focus on upgrading – creating new tiers of products and experiences. Imagine if that same effort was instead focused on addressing basic functions that are universally accessible. Or creating something new for us all to enjoy? Or better yet not designing at all. Instead finding enjoyment in what is already around us and free.
During our trip, we hiked in Griffith Park, rode bikes along the beaches, and met friends and family for drinks. None of these experiences offered “an upgrade.” Obviously none were needed.
Recently, on the podcast Writer’s Almanac, I heard that before he became one of our most important naturalists and conservationists, John Muir was an inventor. He ingeniously upgraded common items like his desk or his alarm clock in an effort to improve his productivity. An accident left him blind for several weeks. When he was finally able to see again, he stopped inventing and instead dedicated his life to witnessing and preserving the beauty already found in nature but that he had previously taken for granted.
Some might say he downgraded. Would you?