My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM
It can be hard to see the gradual improvement of most goods over time, but I think one way to get a handle on them is to look at their downstream effects: all the small ordinary everyday things which nevertheless depend on obscure innovations and improving cost-performance ratios and gradually dropping costs and new material and… etc. All of these gradually drop the cost, drop the price, improve the quality at the same price, remove irritations or limits not explicitly noticed, or so on. It all adds up. So here is a personal list of small ways in which my ordinary everyday daily life has been getting better since the late ’80s/early ’90s (as far back as I can clearly remember these things—I am sure the list of someone growing up in the 1940s would include many hassles I’ve never known at all).

Progress is usually debated in terms of the big things like lifting the Third World out of poverty, eliminating child mortality1, or science & tech: discovering gravitational waves, creating world champion AIs, turning AIDS into a treatable rather than terminal disease, conquering hepatitis C or, curing deadly cancers with genetically-engineered T-cells. But as cool as those big things are, and matters of life-and-death for many, such achievements tend to be remote from ordinary people, and not your everyday sort of thing (or so one hopes). Small stuff matters too. What about the little things in an ordinary life?


The 1980s Desktop2

The seen and the unseen. When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats. Ordinary life had a lot of hassles too, I remembered once I started thinking about it. (“The past is a third world country”, but America in the 1990s could also have used some improvement.)

These things rarely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life.3

Roughly divided by topic:

With computers, it’s hardly worth trying to enumerate the improvements on every dimension, and it might be easier to list the exceptions instead—if I made a list of a hundred things, someone would chime in with another one I’d forgotten, like easy rental rooms through Airbnb or food delivery apps. But nevertheless, here’s a few:

  • Cheap: electronics prices keep falling.
  • These days, people whine endlessly online if a RAM or semiconductor shortage (something that happens every decade or so, as the industry has notorious boom-and-bust dynamics) means that they have to pay as much as they did a few years ago for something, but the long-term trends are dramatic.

    You can buy things like top-end VR headsets or smartphone, which will cost less in real terms than a Nintendo NES did in 1983 ($3164) or a Sony Walkman cassette player in 1979 ($498). Kids in 2020 can’t even imagine having to pay $117 for a new copy of Super Mario Bros. 35, much less $110.53 for Atari 2600 Centipede—a far cry from paying $5 these days for a great PC game during a Steam sale, or nothing at all for many of the most popular games like Fortnite.

  • the Internet/Human Genetics/AI/VR are now actually things
  • VHS tapes:
    • Not Rewinding VHS tapes before returning to the library or Blockbuster
    • not worrying about Blockbuster or library late Fines
    • Not Watching crummy VHS tapes, period
  • not making a dozen phone calls playing Phone Tag, to set up something as simple as a play date
  • hotels and restaurants provide Public Internet Access by default, without nickel-and-diming customers or travelers; this access is usually via WiFi
  • Satellite Internet & TV are affordable & common for rural people
  • All-You-Can-Eat Broadband:
    • Indefinite: not worrying about running out of AOL hours, liberated from the tyranny of time metering and (mostly) bandwidth metering
    • All Day: because you won’t be yelled at for tying up the (only) phone line
  • Ethernet: not needing to know the difference between PLIP, SLIP, IRQ, TCP/IP, or PPP to get online
  • 20xx is The Year Of the Linux Desktop: no, but seriously, Linux X, WiFi, & laptops now usually work
  • Hygienic Mice: no longer needing to clean computer mice weekly thanks to laser mice
  • Hearing Aids are a small fraction the size, have gone digital with multiple directional microphones (higher-quality, customizable, noise-reduction)6, halved or more in price, become water-resistant, and even do tricks like Bluetooth
  • GPS: not getting lost while frantically driving down a freeway7; or anywhere else, for that matter
  • Universal Cables: USB cables mean that for connecting or recharging, we now only need to figure out ~10 different plugs instead of 1000+ (one for every pairwise device combo)
  • Universal Fulltext: most books and scientific papers can be (perhaps with a little work) downloaded for free—the ‘universal library’ came to pass, despite many peoples’ best efforts
  • Universal Search: search engines typically turn up the desired result in the first page, even if it’s a book or scientific paper; one doesn’t need to resort to ‘meta-search engines’ to cover a dozen search engines which each index a different tiny fraction of the Internet, or gradually building up enormous 20-clause Boolean queries to filter out noise
  • Universal Storage: we no longer need to strategize which emails or photos or documents to delete to save space
  • RAM: programmers able to assume users have 4GB RAM rather than 4MB RAM
  • Microsoft Windows Hacking: consumer computers in the ’90s were a pain because they all ran Windows and if you ever connected them to the Internet, there were so many ways to get hacked or systems degraded. This is far less of an issue now.
  • If you managed to never install a bad IE toolbar (or get hacked by one of the countless IE vulnerabilities) and managed to track down the safe version of every application you installed (there being no kind of package manager-based app store as popularized in the ’90s by Linux distros), you would still get hacked remotely by a worm (this was the golden age of Internet viruses/worms like ILOVEYOU/Code Red/Nimda/SQL Slammer). At MS’s nadir, people were estimating that botnets were so active in portscanning the Internet for vulnerable Windows systems that a new Windows installation would be hacked before it finished downloading security patches!

    In January 2002 Bill Gates issued a memo and MS had its come-to-Jesus moment, making security a priority: switching to Windows NT as a foundation (benefiting from VMS designs), rewriting old code in memory-safe programming languages (especially .NET), investing heavily in static program analysis tools (some developed by MSR), adding free antivirus/firewall programs to Windows, increasing bug bounties, monitoring hacking more actively, releasing more free updates & moving to SaaS models (enabling continuous updates), and in general investing far more money into security.

  • Smartphones: far too much to list… (eg GPS, and careless smartphone photographs are higher-quality than most film cameras from a few decades ago, particularly in niches like dark scenes where smartphone night modes can achieve things few or no non-digital film cameras were capable of)
  • Spaced Repetition has escaped the cognitive psychology labs, and has been a great blessing to foreign-language learners, medical students, and many others
  • Universal Media Availability:
    • Back Catalogue Access: catching the tail end of a cartoon or movie on TV and being able to look it up instead of wondering for the rest of one’s life what it was about. (I’ve looked up some series I watched as a kid, and I had some strange misconceptions about them due to my fragmented watching…)
    • having Fansubs available for all anime (no longer do anime clubs watch raw anime and have to debate afterwards what the plot was! Yes, that’s actually how they’d watch anime back in the 1970s–1990s when fansubs were often unavailable)
    • everything is available Subtitled, not just TV (accelerated by legislation making subtitle decoder chips mandatory in TVs ~1991)
    • most programs have a usable FLOSS equivalent and in some areas FLOSS is taken so for granted that new programmers are unaware they used to have to pay for even text editors/compilers or that Linux is Communism
  • HVAC: houses which are well-insulated & uniformly comfortably warm, and centrally-cooled, rather than leaky and using heaters or wall units running constantly creating drafts and hot/cold spots
  • Showers: hot water heaters increasingly heat water on demand, and do not run out (while sometimes shocking the bather)
  • Stoves which are increasingly safe and clean, because inductionbased (rather than the perpetually dirty fire hazards of burners/gas stoves)
  • Power Tools (such as drills, leaf blowers, or lawn mowers) are increasingly rechargeable-battery-powered, making them more reliable & quieter & less air-polluting
    • speaking of Batteries: batteries last long enough that they are increasingly built-in—remember how advertisements always had to say “no batteries included”?—so no more mad scrambles at Christmas for AA or AAA batteries9 to power all the presents (which could easily add $12–$23 to the immediate total cost, and would have to be replaced in a year).
    • Given the exponential progress in battery costs & density, and wireless recharging becoming a consumer reality, it would not surprise me if within decades, small replaceable batteries become relegated to niches like extremely cheap disposable goods or specialty uses (eg dollar-store toys, smoke alarms, flashlights), and young people start being confused what the difference between AA/AAA is or why one battery is rechargeable but another isn’t in much the same way that young people no longer know how to write a check. (In 2019, a bursar, whose college doesn’t take credit cards, showed me the giant sweepstakes-style novelty check she had to use as a prop to teach freshmen how a check is supposed to be filled out.)

  • Cars:
    • all cars have electrified Power Windows; I don’t remember the last time I had to physically crank down a car window.11
    • Electric Cars are feasible choices rather than follies, and will be ordinary things in 5–10 years
    • Self-Driving Cars not long after that
  • Air Travel Democratized: airplane flights no longer cost an appreciable fraction of your annual income12, and people can afford multiple trips a year.
  • Laser Pointers are no longer exotic executive toys or for planetariums, they’re things you buy off eBay for $1 for your cat. (Go crazy and buy three, to get colors beyond red; I suggest blue or purple.)
  • LED lights are more energy-efficient, cooler & safer, smaller, turn on faster, last longer, and are brighter than incandescents or fluorescents
    • a particular boon for Flashlights (which have become their own online subculture, perhaps as smartphones replace many minor flashlight uses)
  • Movie Theater Seats have become far more comfortable as movie theaters, forced to compete with DVDs/home-theaters & Internet & video games, upgraded:
  • In particular, they upgraded their uncomfortable school-style stadium seats to real seats; and concession prices seem like they’ve increased less than inflation, making them less of a total ripoff; going is more convenient, as I remember having to call the movie theater for times or check the newspaper to see which of several theaters might have a screening at the right time (crazy, I know); nor am I particularly nostalgic for film rather than digital projection, where damage to the film might be noticeable, and one had to wait on the projectionist (and is that where dirty film booth windows kept coming from…?).

  • EU: the European Union & single Euro currency make the EU easier to understand & travel in it much less tricky and expensive
  • Car Security:
    • Car Theft is rarer, and in particular, we no longer have to worry about our car windows being smashed to steal our car radios13, or our GPSes
    • car Security Alarms no longer go off endlessly in parking lots. (It wouldn’t’ve been a normal day in the suburbs in the 1990s without hearing at least one. I don’t know if the car manufacturers fixed car alarms, or if everyone mutually agreed that this was not working out & stopped buying them. It seems to be a mixture of activism, consumer backlash, & improved physical security/reduced theft leading to alarm sensitivity being pared way back.)
  • Radios have minimal static
  • TVs no longer have rabbit ears that require regular adjustment
  • LASIK surgery has gone from an expensive questionable novelty to a cheap, routine, safe cosmetic surgery
  • Clothing has become almost “too cheap to meter”, as the Industrial Revolution in textiles never stopped; employment in the US textile industry has cratered while garment per man-hour & per capita GDP in new textile-heavy economies like Bangladesh soars as textile automation continues.
    1. In the USA, this delivered huge benefits as people are no longer wasted on tasks machines can do better and reducing environmental pollution thanks to de-industrialization & eliminating things like dye contaminant waste (see the environmental Kuznets curve & general improvement in US environmental quality)—eg the idea of, say, darning socks is completely alien14, and clothing companies routinely discard millions of pounds of clothes because it’s cheaper than wasting scarce human labor reprocessing & selling them for a song, flooding Africa with discards.

    2. materials science has produced constant visible-yet-invisible improvements in textiles yielding, among other things like plusher plushies, far better insulated (and cheaper) winter coats: instead of choosing between winter coats which make you look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man or freezing (and if you get wet, freezing anyway) or exotic ultra-expensive garments aimed at mountain climbers, you can now buy ordinary (and much cheaper) winter coats which are amazingly thin and work even better to keep you warm—so much so that you have to be careful to not buy too well-insulated a coat, lest you swelter at the slightest exertion and be placed between the Scylla of overheating & the Charybdis of opening your coat to the freezing air to cool.
  • Wheeled Luggage no longer expensive or rare, but cheap & ubiquitous
  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • urban life: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).
  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/rehabilitative framework
  • War On Smoking Won: somewhere in the late 1990s, the decline of smoking accelerated and it largely disappeared from public life—restaurants have gone from smoking, to smoking sections, to non-smoking entirely; and smoking in public outdoors has become rare. Aside from any health benefits, this makes everywhere smell and look nicer. (And to the extent smoking is stimulating and pleasant—see next point about nicotine!)
  • Nicotine gum & patches no longer require, absurdly, a doctor’s prescription to buy, benefiting quitters and stimulant users alike (although moral panics & deeply irresponsible reporting about adulterated black-market marijuana products have produced severe retrogression on vaping)
  • Environment: air quality in most places has continued to improve (and considering the growing evidence on the harms of air pollution, this may well be the single most important item on this whole page), forest area has increased, and more rivers are safe to fish in
  • Intellectual Property Maximalism rollback: copyright terms have not and probably will not be indefinitely extended again to eternity to protect Mickey Mouse, and in 2019, for the first time since 1998, works entered the public domain
  • Board Games have been revolutionized by the influx of German / European-style games, liberating us from the monopoly of the Amerigame Monopoly
  • Logistics has become cheaper, faster, more reliable, and more convenient in every way:
    • Advances In Internet & Computers of course have superseded many logistical problems—the best-solved problem is the one you don’t have in the first place
    • USPS introduced self-adhesive stamps in the early 1990s, and by 2010, licking postage stamps was almost nonexistent (and not a moment too soon to guard against SF extortion plots!)
    • No More Coupon Scams: most people recognize rebates/coupons are scams, and the rise of discounters/warehouse stores/Internet shopping has largely obviated them
    • No More Mattress Scams: you can avoid ripoff mattress stores (typically owned by an exploitative oligopoly of mattress companies with massive margins) by ordering online, thanks to compact vacuum-compressed foam mattresses which can be shipped easily
    • the Shipping Cost of goods has plummeted
    • the Shipping Speeds have dramatically improved, especially for low-cost tiers: consider Christmas shopping from a mail-order company or website in 1999 vs 2019—you used to have to order in early December to hope to get something by Christmas (25 December) without spending $53 extra on fast shipping, but now you can get free shipping as late as 19 December! (“‘Same-day delivery’—what the hell is that?”)
    • the shipped Packages are also nicer: initiatives like Amazon’s “Frustration-Free Packages” have led to a trend of fewer clamshell plastic packages which can’t be opened without risk of slicing your figures

The quality of the average person’s diet historically appears to be greatly overrated by nostalgia and ignorance15, and, for all the moral panics, we have things pretty good now. Bright spots include:

  • Beverages, particularly Tea/Alcohol/Coffee:
    • high-quality loose-leaf tea widely available & popularized by chains like Teavana
    • microbrews/craft beers have revolutionized beer varieties & availability (similar things could be said of wine, cider, and mead)
    • safe McDonald’s coffee which doesn’t explode in one’s lap while trapped in a car & causing disfiguring third-degree burns requiring skin grafts
    • mass market coffee in general (McDonald’s & Dunkin Donuts coffee in particular) no longer taste like ‘instant char-fee’ (similar to Starbucks popularizing relatively high quality coffee)
    • Keurig & other Single-Serve coffee machines which heat the water separately from the coffee-making are increasingly common, especially in hotels; this means that tea drinkers (like myself) can make tea which doesn’t taste hopelessly like coffee due to ineradicable coffee contamination
  • Fast Food in general has gotten much better: much tastier (compare McDonald’s post-2003 chicken sandwiches with before), and safer, as we no longer worry about getting salmonella or E. coli from our burgers16
  • even Mass-Market Grocery Stores like Walmart increasingly routinely stock an enormous variety of foods, from sushi to goat cheese to kefir; and if you don’t like those, you can probably find a more upscale one like Whole Foods, which behind the egregious (like shelves of homeopathy) host the exotic
  • ‘meat’ is a fad diet—since most nutrition research is BS and most fad diets don’t work either, it’s good to have one which is at least delicious
  • Sous-Vide cookers have gone from devices bought only by professional European chefs for thousands of dollars to a popular $70 kitchen gadget
  • Fresh Guacamole can be easily bought due to pressure pasteurization (“Pascalization”), avoiding the inexorable spoilage of regular guacamole (and buying fresh avocados from the supermarket only to forget about it for a day and discovering it’s ruined)
  • Resealable Packaging on many foodstuffs reduces spoilage waste while also increasing convenience
  • Better Apples (not the computer kind): the tasteless mealy bitter-skinned so-called “Red Delicious” apples are still dismayingly common, but now one can buy (in most supermarkets) far superior varieties of apples, such as Honeycrisp apples (>1991) or SweeTango apples (>2009), with fascinating new varieties like Cosmic Crisp (ultra-long shelf life) or Autumn Glory (caramel/cinnamon flavor) coming out every year17 (thanks both to improvements in breeding technology and innovations in the “club” business model eliminating free-riding & the Red Delicious’s fatal race-to-the-bottom)
    • Seedless Fruit: Russ Roberts suggests 2 fruit examples: seedless grapes & watermelons.
    • I am not entirely sure about this one’s timing or quality: seedless grapes apparently go back centuries in Turkey and elsewhere, and were sold commercially in the USA well before the 1990s, with red / black grapes in the 1950s, and taste less strong than seeded grapes. And seedless (or triploid hybrids) watermelon go back to 1939 in Japan (according to Andrus 1971, citing Kihara & Nishiyama 1947/Kihara 1951, which are inaccessible), but commercialized perhaps around the 1970s–1980s in the USA.

  • Better Sausages: you no longer need to cook sausages to death, because trichinosis is now rare.
  • “Ideas of India: The History of Textiles: Shruti Rajagopalan and Virginia Postrel discuss the development of textiles and their economic relevance in India and throughout the world”; “How Much Did a Shirt Really Cost in the Middle Ages?”
  1. My grandmother casually horrified us a few years ago by going through the list of her dead siblings: 2 died on the farm of ‘summer diarrhea’ (bovine tuberculosis from unpasteurized milk) as infants, an unremarkable fate in the area, and then 3 died in their teens–20s after moving to the city to work in textile factories. The rest died later. For comparison, she lost 1 child out of 5 (stillbirth), and 0% of her >12 grandchildren/great-grandchildren.↩︎
  2. Incidentally, there was a little-noted sequel to the original video: “Evolution of the City”.↩︎
  3. Now, imagine if I could have extended this back another decade. Then another decade. Then another few decades… For broader metrics of increase in global well-being such as political freedoms, life expectancy, income, pollution, slavery, poverty etc, see Our World in Data, the Performance Curve Database, the work of Hans Rosling like Gapminder, Human etc.↩︎
  4. Note on price formatting: I suspect that one of the challenges in understanding improvements over time is negligence in using inflation-adjusted prices. People tend to greatly underestimate cumulative inflation, and thus do not understand how many real prices have declined over time. Prices here are presented using my Inflation.hs plugin with the current year real price first, and the misleading nominal price suffixed.↩︎
  5. Part of why I never got an SNES or Super Mario Bros 3, despite enjoying it a lot whenever I could play it with my friends. (The specific reason was that we had spent several years collecting soda cans to recycle for the deposit, and when we’d finally saved up enough quarters to purchase something as expensive as a video game console, I somehow lost the big jar at our church, and no good Samaritan turned it in.)↩︎
  6. I expect even greater things as more advanced signal processing technology becomes possible within battery life constraints, with deep learning, and I find it intriguing how many hearing people eagerly took up Apple AirPods, which could do on-iPhone processing (benefiting from specialized ASICs & large phone batteries). Could hearing aids/earphones in the next decade become better than natural hearing, even among the young?↩︎
  7. People like to harp on cases of GPSes giving bad routes, but I wonder how much GPSes contribute to long-term improvements in car safety? It seems like GPSes must contribute to lower accident rates: I recall people arguing over maps or making insanely reckless last minute swerves as they suddenly realize that they are about to blow past the turn, or just driving around distractedly going “where am I‽”↩︎
  8. Given our acreage, I’m not sure when, if ever, robotic lawn mowers will be an option, as much as I would love to stop mowing. For people with small lawns, I understand they work well, and have since at least the early 2000s.↩︎
  9. Incidentally, I was shocked to learn that AA/AAA batteries were introduced in 1907/1911, respectively. Hunting for a fresh battery of the right size is an old problem!↩︎
  10. This sort of reliability gain seems like it might be widespread. People love to complain that “they don’t build them like they used to”, but I am suspicious because most such comparisons appear to reflect survivorship bias or are selective, and ignore improvements such as pollution or safety or variety—assuming they don’t ignore inflation entirely. I understand this applies to other things like mowers and tractors and boats; I would swear my uncle spent more time maintaining the boat & tractor than we ever did using them.↩︎
  11. Tim notes the many other improvements to the creature comforts & safety of using a car, gradually trickling down from luxury markets: remote keys, heated seats, motorized doors, backup cameras/proximity alerts, automatic headlights (even with GPS)… Reading about how much car safety has improved over the past 20 years is cheering, but also makes me anxious—apparently my beater car from 2000 is much more dangerous than I realized!↩︎
  12. Where do you think all the money came from for those pretty stewardesses & elaborate meals in those glamorous Pan Am flights? Even much more recently, that $676 average airfare in 1990 is not such a bargain when you inflation-adjust it to today.↩︎
  13. Remember when physically detaching your car radio to avoid leaving it in the car was considered a 100% normal thing to do?↩︎
  14. Have you ever noticed how much time even ‘middle class’ mothers used to spend sewing up pants or darning socks or organizing family clothes banks as recently as the 1970s or 1980s? Somewhere around then, mothers stopped teaching their daughters how to sew or make clothes—I think less because of any feminism and more because it no longer seems like a particularly worthwhile skill to learn, especially given pressure from other uses of time like sports or homework. My grandmother in the 1950s routinely made whole outfits—dresses and pants and socks—for her family, while my mother only sewed under considerable duress, and my sisters couldn’t use a sewing machine at all (until one of them took up jewelry as a hobby as an adult). When I’ve asked about other families, this has been a common pattern.↩︎
  15. Historical height time-series reflect poor nutrition, and things like dental records and iodization shocks are difficult to reconcile with the idea that the pre-1950 USA or UK were some prelapsarian paradise of delicious foodstuffs stuffed with micronutrients & eaten only in moderation; the scrawny, rickety, moronic 1915 American, for example, could look forward to a diet of lots and lots of lard & canned food, little fresh fruit/vegetables or meat, and all at the low low price of twice as much what a 2016 American would pay for more & better.↩︎
  16. Consider how you no longer see deaths from regular E. coli outbreaks. As far as I can tell from US statistics, the total number of fast food-related E. coli deaths in the 26 years since the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak still do not exceed the number of deaths from that single Jack in the Box incident. In particular, despite the enormous amount of attention paid to Chipotle’s food safety, there appear to have been 0 fatalities. Fast food is pretty safe.↩︎
  17. The rate at which new apple varieties come out is absurd. It seems every other time I do my grocery shopping at Walmart/Aldi, I find a new variety on the shelves due to new varieties, staggered seasonality, and spreading availability. At one point, bemused, I went around to every grocery store I could find just to check their apple selection: at the 6th store, I was still finding a variety the others did not have! (In 2021 alone, I found “Cosmic Crisp”, “WildTwist”, “Ruby Frost”, and “Rock-It”.)
  18. The availability means I can’t easily do blinded comparisons like I did for mineral water, but as of August 2021, I rank the eating apples I’ve tried thus far as (in descending order): SweeTango, Honeycrisp, WildTwist, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Juici, Ruby Frost, Cosmic Crisp, Pazazz, Braeburn, Smitten, Kanzi, Jazz, Fuji, Kiku, SnapDragon, Ambrosia, Cripps Pink, Envy Rck-It, Lady Alice, SugarBee, McIntosh, Cameo, Paula Red, Ginger Gold, Red Delicious.↩︎

After two decades of research and development, WA 38 lands this fall. It could disrupt an entire industry.

On a hot morning in Bloom, a time period that those who don’t work with tree fruit might call early May, the subject of this profile was in the midst of a busy couple of weeks, bursting into fuzzy green being somewhere on the order of tens of millions of times over.

The leap from flower to fruit is a subtle one: By the time the bees have stopped by and the corolla of petals and pollen has dropped away, the ovary beneath the flower begins to swell into appledom. Bloom wore on, and the long rows of trees that march endlessly across the hillsides and river valleys of central Washington slowly lost their blanket of blossoms. The great hope of the state’s apple industry was born, and born, and born.

In this particular orchard, high above a bend in the Columbia River, the baby apples owed their place in the sun to Scott McDougall, the fourth generation of his family to grow the fruit for market near Wenatchee, a town built right where the buck and roll of the Cascade Range give way to the arid central Washington steppe that, thanks to heavy irrigation, has become the nation’s most productive apple-growing region. When he started his own company in 1976, Scott was the Son part of McDougall & Sons; nowadays, he is the McDougall, and the company is a large, vertically integrated grower-packer-shipper. In those early days, the company, just like almost everybody else in Washington, primarily produced Red Delicious apples, plus a few Goldens and Grannies — familiar workhorse varieties that anybody was allowed to grow. Back then, the state apple commission advertised its wares with a poster of a stoplight: one apple each in red, green, and yellow. Today, across more than 4,000 acres of McDougall apple trees, you won’t find a single Red; every year, you’ll also find fewer acres of the apples that McDougall calls “core varieties,” the more modern open-access standards such as Gala and Fuji. Instead, McDougall is betting on what he calls “value-added apples”: Ambrosias, whose rights he licensed from a Canadian company; Envy, Jazz, and Pacific Rose, whose intellectual properties are owned by the New Zealand giant Enzafruit; and a brand-new variety, commercially available for the first time this year and available only to Washington-state growers: the Cosmic Crisp.

Like Clark Kent or the Scarlet Pimpernel, the apple has two identities. One is its biological self, which currently exists in the form of a mother tree on the edge of a weedy orchard by the Columbia River — you wouldn’t give it a second glance as an ornamental in front of a newish McMansion — and millions and millions of that tree’s perfect clones, lined up acre after acre like spindly little factories. These trees are protected under a patent as WA 38, and that is what people on the breeding and growing side of things tend to call both them and their fruit. But the rest of us will know the apple by its other, more public identity, a name that I am supposed to write with a ™ after it. You might, like I did, think this distinction to be basically academic, but you would begin to learn otherwise when the first person told you that she is able to answer only WA 38 questions, and not Cosmic Crisp ones.

The Cosmic Crisp is debuting on grocery stores after this fall’s harvest, and in the nervous lead-up to the launch, everyone from nursery operators to marketers wanted me to understand the crazy scope of the thing: the scale of the plantings, the speed with which mountains of commercially untested fruit would be arriving on the market, the size of the capital risk. People kept saying things like “unprecedented,” “on steroids,” “off the friggin’ charts,” and “the largest launch of a single produce item in American history.”

McDougall took me to the highest part of his orchard, where we could look down at all its hundreds of very expensively trellised and irrigated acres (he estimated the costs to plant each individual acre at $60,000 to $65,000, plus another $12,000 in operating costs each year), their neat, thin lines of trees like the stitching over so many quilt squares. “If you’re a farmer, you’re a riverboat gambler anyway,” McDougall said. “But Cosmic Crisp — woo!” I thought of the warning of one former fruit-industry journalist that, with so much on the line, the enormous launch would have to go flawlessly: “It’s gotta be like the new iPhone.”

The Cosmic Crisp (right) is the result of crossbreeding two varieties: the Honeycrisp (left), which growers find finicky but which gives the Cosmic Crisp its texture and juiciness, and Enterprise, a late-ripening, long-storing apple.

Bruce Barritt, the human father of the Cosmic Crisp, doesn’t remember the moment he first tried one. The apple came from one of perhaps a hundred trees that he had selected for further study from an annual cohort of some 10,000 crossbreeds, each and every one of them genetically unique. The lucky hundred distinguished themselves by their appearance and taste, and then were winnowed down based on how well their apples survived storage, how prone they were to bitter pit or browning, how well they produced when planted in a range of Washington microclimates. Picking a winning apple, Barritt told me, is less about inspiration and more about the slow accumulation of data. “It’s from all that variability that we look for the needle in the haystack,” he said. “There’s no eureka moment.”

Barritt, then the head of the apple-breeding program at Washington State University, made the cross that led to Cosmic Crisp in 1997. (Because of how long it takes test trees to mature and produce fruit, 22 years from cross to launch is fairly quick when it comes to bringing a new product to market. “Biology is just a real problem here,” said Barritt.) Its parents were Enterprise, a robust, late-ripening, long-storing apple, and a relatively new player called Honeycrisp — much despised by growers, who found it finicky and frustrating, with at least a quarter of its fruit never making it into grocery stores. Still, the latter’s large cells gave it a texture, juicy and explosive, unlike any other apple on the market; before long, consumers’ demand, and the prices they were willing to pay, was so high that growers were planting the damn thing all over the place in spite of themselves — and also starting to think differently about apples in general. (McDougall called Honeycrisp “the 8-billion-pound gorilla in our industry.”) The experience of an apple is really five things, Barritt explained. Only two of them, sugar and acidity, are actually about flavor, and there’s a natural divide between people who like sweet and those who prefer tang. It’s the three measures of texture that unite us all: “Everyone likes crisp, everyone likes juicy, and nobody likes soft.”

Over years of testing, the new cross reliably produced round fruit with dark red skin, the color of wine. The Cosmic Crisp has flesh that’s creamy white, is so dense that the apple feels heavy in your hand, and has a flavor that is pleasant, a bit more sweet than zing. Most important, it cleaves cleanly in your mouth — a crunch that lasts a long time in controlled-atmosphere storage, all the way around the calendar and into the next harvest season. From people in the industry, I heard the phrase “excellent eating experience” so often I began to imagine it in capital letters, with its own ™. When I enlisted some regular-world people to taste the apple, one crunched into an approximately seven-month-old specimen and said, with appreciation, “I can feel the structure of its insides.”

Like all apples, this one breathes oxygen through what the consumer might think of as spots or freckles, but which are really tiny pores in its skin, called lenticels. A similarly porous membrane exists between the natural and the branded product: WA 38’s lenticels look exceptionally bright against its inky skin, and this reminded someone in a focus group of the stars in the night sky, an observation that became trademarked as Cosmic Crisp. “It’s the first apple that’s ever been named by consumers,” said Kathryn Grandy, the marketing director for Proprietary Variety Management, the company overseeing the national launch of the Cosmic Crisp. The apple’s taglines, to be paired with images of starry skies, are Imagine the Possibilities and The Apple of Big Dreams. Launch activities include branding partnerships with a nationally touring children’s theater production of Johnny Appleseed and with a group of what Grandy assured me were important social media influencers, including someone called “The Produce Mom.” Actually shooting an apple into space has already been done as a marketing stunt for an apple called Autumn Glory, which is marketed, accurately, as tasting like cinnamon and caramel.

Though Washington State University owns the WA 38 patent, the breeding program has received funding from the apple industry, so it was agreed, over some objections by people who worried that quality would be diluted, that the variety should be universally and exclusively available to Washington growers. (Growers of Cosmic Crisp pay royalties both on every tree they buy and on every box they sell, money that will fund future breeding projects as well as the shared marketing campaign.) The apple tested so well that WSU, in collaboration with commercial nurseries, began producing apple saplings as fast as possible; the plan was to start with 300,000 trees, but growers requested 4 million, leading to a lottery for divvying up the first available trees. Within three years, the industry had sunk 13 million of them, plus more than half a billion dollars, into the ground. Proprietary Variety Management expects that the number of Cosmic Crisp apples on the market will grow by millions of boxes every year, outpacing Pink Lady and Honeycrisp within about five years of its launch.

Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. Barritt described the orchards of Washington when he first came to WSU in 1981: There were huge trees, planted far apart, growing almost exclusively Red and Golden Delicious — apples that, following 20th-century trends of mass marketing and standardization, became globally ubiquitous, the Platonic image of what an apple is. (Central Washington, with its hot, dry summers, doesn’t have to worry about many forms of fungi and diseases that plague East Coast orchards, so the arrival of irrigation turned the region into the closest thing the country has to an apple factory, reliable at huge scales.) The highest-grade, most expensive apples were those that were the reddest and most uniform in size and shape. But as the industry increasingly bred for the appearance of perfection, the flesh of the apple beneath became more mushy and mealy.

The plan was to start with 300,000 trees, but growers requested 4 million, leading to a lottery for divvying up the first available trees. Within three years, the industry had sunk 13 million of them, plus about half a billion dollars, into the ground.

To Barritt, the growing methods were inefficient and the marketing plans short-sighted. He began suggesting that growers intensify their orchard systems, tearing out the big, old trees and replacing them with many smaller trees grafted onto the roots of dwarf varieties, a system that would be easier to pick and prune and more productive per acre but would require expensive trellising. This change also helped speed the consolidation of the industry, as small-scale growers without deep pockets struggled to compete. Soon, the old orchards were transformed: Instead of a few hundred branching trees, a single acre held as many as 1,800 thin, elaborately pruned sticks and no longer looked very much like an orchard at all.

But Barritt’s other suggestion — that the industry was depending too much on a single flagship apple, particularly one that was subpar in both texture and taste, and needed to start developing new varieties — was harder for most growers to hear. “They were still making money with Red Delicious,” explained Barritt. “They always said, ‘We grow Red Delicious because we grow Red Delicious better than anyone else’ ” — a deference to horticultural realities instead of marketing ones. (A few growers I spoke to told me about putting in small, experimental plots of Gala or Fuji in the 1980s and being treated like heretics — “Frankly, people thought I was crazy!”) “They were not thinking 20 years ahead,” said Barritt.

For years, the industry resisted Barritt’s efforts to even start a breeding program. When he stood up at the annual meeting of the state horticultural association and announced that Red Delicious was an obsolete apple, the crowd booed.

Three decades later, as snow fell on their orchards in December 2018, the tree-fruit growers of Washington state assembled for another annual meeting. It was still a gathering full of work boots and baseball caps, but in other ways, it was a different world. Other than jokes related to intra-Washington football rivalries, the quickest and most common way to get a laugh was at the expense of the industry’s fallen king. (“And then there’s Red Delicious. Need I say more?”) Its 50-year reign as America’s most-grown apple had officially come to an end that very harvest season. But though the industry was adapting, with fields of newer, market-tested apples going in every year, much of the old confidence was gone. Everything was different now, more uncertain. When a panel of growers took questions from the audience, I asked how they make decisions about which varieties they will grow. A man named Tye Fleming leaned into the microphone, deadpanned, “Dartboard,” and leaned back again. Pressed by the rest of the panel, he added, “You have to go to the marketer. If they don’t want it, you shouldn’t put it in the ground.”

There were a lot of items on the agenda, from an export-blocking trade war (the head of the U.S. Apple Association announced that the group was putting a pro–free trade apple ad “on the TV shows that the president says he watches”) to the latest rootstocks and pruning methods and efforts to mechanize apples’ intensive labor requirements, since immigration restrictions mean workers are in short supply. But the speakers at the opening plenary introduced a theme that ran through the next few days, especially whenever variety selection came up: a fear that apples, the nation’s bestselling fruit, the most essential, most natural, most American food out there, were playing defense in the grocery store.

“I’m sure you’ve all seen the Halos that are everywhere,” sighed Brian Focht, the manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association. And all those table grapes, from a bumper crop that brought retail prices down to 98 cents a pound? “Tough competition,” said Focht, shaking his head. Mandarins and avocados, he added, are even “targeting apples negatively in their ads!” Meanwhile, Honeycrisp, whose premium cost has buoyed the industry, is now so widely grown that it’s experiencing price deflation. “Retailers are looking for that new $2.49, $2.99, $3.49 apple,” said Focht. But when an audience member asked which varieties growers ought to be investing in, Focht said, “I’d rather not get into that. We could be here for hours.”

The next speaker was Hailey Peyron, of Nielsen, the consumer-behavior tracking company. In a talk peppered with food puns (“ ‘Fresh’ as an industry buzzword is feeling a bit stale”; “Make your market potential the apple of your eye”), she described a perilous environment in which “center store” — the processed foods in boxes and bags and cans that line grocery shelves and which are increasingly labeled as natural and healthy and convenient, everything that an apple is and more — “is encroaching on our produce department!” At most risk were the fruits and vegetables that were sold loose from bins instead of in fixed-weight containers, that were not branded, that consumers could see as commodities: just a banana; or a boring, standard potato, not even wrapped in microwaveable plastic; anything that felt more agriculture than product. The only way for apples to avoid this fate was to “reinvigorate the category” with new varieties, which could be branded and marketed and thereby redeemed in relevance. “In closing,” Peyron said, “I hope you’ve ingested these details.”

As breeders jockey for premium positions, apples have names that tend to sound less like the farmer down the street: Rave and SnapDragon, Ludacrisp and Frostbite, KIKU and Pazazz, Juici and Envy.

Everybody knew that the usurper of the Red Delicious throne, Gala, wouldn’t be on top forever. Gala spread widely because the New Zealanders who developed the apple had, following longstanding industry practice, released it to anyone who wanted to grow it. But when, suddenly, everyone did grow it, undercutting the price the original growers had once received, “the New Zealanders said, well, this is ridiculous,” Desmond O’Rourke, a marketing economist, explained to me later. Since then, he said, as breeders jockey for premium positions, apples have tended to follow what he calls the “Jazz model,” after one of the next big New Zealand apples to come on the market.

Like Jazz, the latest apples have names that tend to sound less like the farmer down the street: Rave and SnapDragon, Ludacrisp and Frostbite, KIKU and Pazazz, Juici and Envy. They occupy a world of trademarks and proprietary varieties, heavily branded products whose market scarcity and intellectual property are carefully controlled by management companies and growers clubs and international consortiums, and which often have to be licensed at significant costs. (In fact, the first branded apple wasn’t Jazz but Pink Lady, an Australian variety that has become, according to Grandy, “probably the most branded piece of produce in the world,” as well as an exemplar of the grand confusion of it all. Pink Lady is a trademark name for the variety whose generic version is called Cripps Pink. The Cripps Pink patent has expired, which means that anybody can grow it, but “Pink Lady” is still trademarked, which means it’s illegal for farmers without a license to sell their Cripps Pinks as Pink Ladies; they must use the generic name. However, if you go to the store and buy a Pink Lady, it may not actually be that variety at all, since the management company in charge of the trademark — which happens to be overseeing the launch of the Cosmic Crisp — has allowed it to be applied to newer varieties that color better or harvest sooner. Your legal Pink Lady may, biologically, be a Barnsby or a Ruby Pink.)

About an hour outside Wenatchee, a man named Dale Goldy, who was once in charge of scouting new varieties for the apple giant Stemilt, gave me a tour of his nursery: thousands of young trees growing in long, straight lines; stacks of new saplings waiting in the dark, frigid warehouse where he keeps three-quarters of a million mostly custom-ordered young trees of various kinds. Some were labeled with their variety and rootstock, but others were identified only in code. “So when people like you walk through the tree storage, you don’t know what you’re looking at!” laughed Goldy. It was a scary, competitive world out there, he explained: “We can’t relax for a second. If we don’t have something new to offer and create customer excitement, we’ll be run over by the other stuff.”

That was the simple explanation for why growers were going so nuts for Cosmic Crisp, which, because of the WSU partnership, is the rare big-brand apple that’s available to any Washington grower, even the remaining small-scale ones trying to stay relevant and make a profit despite not having their own marketing departments or packing houses or the ability to mechanize their orchards (these days, I heard frequently, the industry’s watchword is “replacing labor with capital”). “There was high demand for new varieties, and this was one everybody could participate in,” said Goldy.

One of the growers I met was a shy, fourth-generation Washington farmer named Conor Kilian, who grew up in a primarily juice-grape family. He was just 14 when he and his siblings pooled their money to plant some Honeycrisp and 19 when he was drawn in the Cosmic Crisp lottery. “Somebody told me you want to be on the cutting edge,” he said — not too far ahead and not too far behind. “Cosmic was pretty hyped up fairly decently.” He was putting in long days doing most of the manual labor himself and was extremely eager to finally sell some apples to the packing company he’s contracting with so that he could start making some of his money back.

“I’m glad I got drawn,” he said. There was a long pause. “I hope!” When I mentioned his 6-acre investment to an employee of one of the big vertically integrated companies, which keeps ten different packing warehouses busy year-round, she replied, “Aw!”

The apple-breeding program at WSU is one of only three public programs in the U.S. It’s also the youngest. Before Cosmic Crisp, it had commercially released only one other apple, known as WA 2. A cross between Gala and Splendour, it doesn’t have the extreme crunch of Cosmic Crisp, but it’s a tasty apple. (Many of the apple people I interviewed would only tell me their personal favorite varieties if we went off the record, so I’ll just say that WA 2 has fans.) But when it was released, it flopped for a simple reason: It had only one identity to work with.

Though some people pushed for WA 2 to be named and branded, others wanted to keep control of their own marketing and to release the apple the old way, letting it succeed on its own merits. “Growers like to sell the steak, not the sizzle,” explained Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. WA 2 was launched, if you could really call it a launch, as a nameless apple. But how do you sell something without a name? A company called Apple King grew WA 2 and sold it as Crimson Delight; later, when WA 2 was officially re-released and re-branded as Sunrise Magic, Apple King sued.

I asked Barritt what he saw as the lessons of the WA 2 debacle. “That the era of just making things and letting them go was over,” he said. “That’s not the way the world is anymore.”

Cosmic Crisp is being launched not just with a name and a $10.5 million marketing budget, but with a detailed database that will track apple production down to the orchard. Packers, for the first time, will leave their own logos off the boxes to further the primacy of the overall Cosmic Crisp brand. And as aware as Cosmic Crisp’s promoters are about the risk that accompanies the massive scale of the launch — all that fruit that might not be sold — they also know that it could be an important advantage. One of the hardest parts of building a brand for a natural product, many people told me, is the natural part: things like seasonality of supply. Even though apples store well, premium, smaller-volume varieties struggle to achieve year-round availability, and how do you effectively market a product that isn’t on the shelf every time a shopper returns to look for it? “We call it critical mass,” said Grandy: The Cosmic Crisp goal is to grow enough fruit to create the impression that the apple is as reliable and consistent a product as a granola bar.

“We can’t relax for a second. If we don’t have something new to offer and create customer excitement, we’ll be run over by the other stuff.”

Produce not conforming to what the market requires is a long-standing problem. Amazing pear varieties — I’m looking at you, Comice, but Anjou also suffers — go unappreciated because people don’t know they’re supposed to wait until a pear is ripe, or they wait too long, expecting a green variety to turn yellow. (The pear industry is doing active outreach, trying to teach consumers how to eat pears.) The need for year-round product placement creates a stumbling block for fruits that don’t store as well as apples. If you buy red cherries all summer long, for example, you might actually be purchasing a dozen or more different varieties that ripen at different times, but they’ll all be labeled as Dark Sweets — it’s not considered worthwhile to try to educate consumers about so many varieties that are available so briefly. Strawberries, too, cycle invisibly through a range of varieties. In an effort to achieve consistent, year-round availability, and the branding potential that results from transcending biological constraints, the U.S. strawberry industry has been diversifying into growing regions around the world.

At the Washington Apple Commission, which markets Washington apples internationally, I met Toni Lynn Adams, who told me about a recent marketing campaign meant to educate consumers in Mexico about Galas: People weren’t buying them because they thought the apples, less red than the familiar Red Delicious, were unripe. Red Delicious is still by far the bestseller in international markets, but Adams was excited to talk about Cosmic Crisp, which they will begin marketing in Canada next season. “Growers believe in this apple,” she said. “They know it’s going to be the next big thing.” Next Big Thing also happens to be the name of the cooperative of growers that markets a popular proprietary variety called SweeTango. In 2014, the group’s president told Minnesota Public Radio that the apple industry of the future “is going to be a world of managed brands, just like the soup aisle or the potato chip aisle or any other aisle.”

People in the apple industry are worried, understandably, that the ballooning variety will create consumer confusion, not to mention overwhelm the amount of shelf space that supermarkets are willing to devote to a single fruit, especially at a time when they’re expected to stock kiwis and Ruby Red grapefruits and mangoes and Romanesco cauliflower and so many other once-novel items. But everyone’s also worried about being left out, or left, as one grower put it, “stuck growing an Imperial Gala” — even within a variety, there are variations that come and go from fashion — “or a Red Delicious.”

“People always ask me which apple is the new Red Delicious?” DeVaney told the crowd at the annual meeting. The question strikes him as a complete misunderstanding of where the produce department is headed. “I always say, ‘Which car is the new Model T?’”

In the 1904 edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s yearbook, in a section titled “Consumers’ Fancies,” a statistician named George K. Holmes lamented again and again the confused way that urban shoppers, increasingly alienated from the actual production of food, tended to evaluate their purchases. Why did they pay so much less attention to taste and quality than they did, say, to butter’s texture, or to how conveniently a nut’s shell cracks, or to what a cut of meat is called? Apples merited a particularly long complaint. What a tragedy that “this ‘king of fruits’ ” should be judged by the foolish whims of a consumer who mistakenly prefers a fruit both red and shiny, even if that simply means it’s been overbred and recently spit-shined by the streetside apple seller: “One of the weaknesses of consumers is an admiration for foods that are polished or have a gloss, and this nickel-plate fancy plays some queer pranks with foods.”

Holmes went on: “The common notion that, apart from the necessity of consuming food to sustain life, taste gratifications constitute the principal attractions that food offers, proves upon analysis and introspection to be poorly founded.” Consumer choices “are becoming questions of art and psychology … fancies which need not be and often are not either sensible or reasonable.”

One wonders what he would think of today’s grocery stores. “Food has become such a dream world, really,” O’Rourke, the marketing economist, told me recently. He was ruminating on so-called superfoods and on the way food marketing tends to focus on “extrinsic qualities” — a brand, a logo, a story — more than the food itself. We want what we eat to save our lives; to reflect our worldliness, the uniqueness of our identities; to fulfill our desire for the new and interesting. One result is that some of the most staple of staples — things like bread or milk or apples — are having a hard time competing. Though DeVaney laughed that people will balk at a $5 price on a 10-pound bag of potatoes, but not on a pint of specialty ice cream, he knew which side of the divide he wanted apples to be on. “We really don’t want consumers buying their food the way they buy gasoline: assuming that everything is identical and they’re just buying on price,” he told me. “Apples need to offer the same kind of novelty within the apple category as consumers can get when they buy…” he trailed off, thinking. “Dragon fruit!”

Barritt’s successor in the apple-breeding program is a woman named Kate Evans. Every fall, she makes weekly trips to the experimental orchard, walking through the latest rows of ripening trees in hopes of finding the next star apple. One of her grad students told me that, by necessity, these visits are less a countryside amble than a power-walking mission to make it through 10,000 possible varieties. Only the apples that happen to catch the eye even get tasted. (Evans told me that it would be nice if whatever apple she brings out next looks substantially different from the Cosmic Crisp to keep from confusing the market.) Most of those, unimpressive or genuinely bad, are spit out and quickly forgotten. The select few get put through the paces, with tests of their starch, quality, and storability.

I asked Evans, as I would later ask Barritt and the grad student, whether it is at all melancholy to move on from all the biological potential that gets rejected every year — whether it feels sad to consign all those unique varieties to the compost heap of history. They all politely made clear that this was the sort of romantic but deeply dumb question that only an industry neophyte would ask. There are already so many apples, so much competition, so many varieties beloved by their growers that never managed to excite the consumer. “It’s a numbers game, right?” said the student. “No, you don’t get sad.”

Brooke Jarvis lives in Seattle. She is a contributing writer to the magazine.

Aysia Stieb is a photographer from Northern California. She graduated from California College of the Arts in 2016.