Last year the awe-mazing writer Benjamin Rosenbaum said something great about first-world problems, and specifically the #firstworldproblems tag, used on Twitter attached to complaints about dumb little things that bug us:

This whole #firstworldproblems meme, you know that one? It’s supposedly an exercise in humility and perspective, but in fact it’s an exercise in arrogance. You know, like “my underwear is itchy #firstworldproblems” or “there’s too much goat cheese in my salad #firstworldproblems” or “I can’t get my favorite show on my cell phone #firstworldproblems”. You think people in Bangladesh don’t complain if their underwear is itchy? You think people in the dystopian industrial sprawl of China don’t bitch about their cell phones?

And this is what I love about Sarah Jones’ new performance. The big idea is, her characters come from T*H*E*F*UT*U*R*E, and they’ll answer our questions about it. But in the future, we’re still pretty much the same kinds of people. Our tools haven’t really changed who we are. This tension is what makes good science fiction so much fun to read (and makes terrible science fiction also fun) — that our future tools and tech may offer a new playing field, but we’re the same old players. Sure, we may wear robotic fighting exoskeletons — but we’re still going to war and falling in love and arguing with our moms and dads. Future parents will say, as Sarah does: “I have slaved over a hot 3D printer all day so that you can have this meal.”

The important point that Jones brings out — in this completely off-the-cuff performance, mind you — is what does change us, and that’s, just to call it something, reason plus empathy. You can hear it in Joseph Mancuso, her tough, old-school borough cop with a tolerant attitude: “It’s a modern world, do whatever you want to do, I don’t have any problem with anybody, enjoy yourself, LGBTQLMNOP, all right?” How’d he get to be so cool? There’s no app that makes you tolerant — it happens person by person. Maybe it was from meeting someone who opened his mind, or maybe one morning he reasoned that it was easier to tolerate people than be grumpy. Technology might have helped him encounter new ideas — but empathy brought it home. Jones’ final character sums it up: “I have me a home. You do too. Find it and try to find yourself in there. Make sure you know, it’s not just about virtual reality in space. That’s wonderful, but it’s also about the actual reality here on Earth.”

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TED Talks in context

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