On walkabout in life and technology


We all seem to spend a lot of time looking for better things, writing about them and arguing that our choices are better than others' choices of things. These jeans are better than those jeans, this laptop is better that that laptop, this app is better than that app, this coffee is better than that one.

We’re all wrong, what is better for one is not better for all, because we all have different utility functions. We do not need to stop looking and discussing better, the discussion often does help find it, but we need to understand that that what we think is better may not even be on the care-radar of others.

The Theory

In economics, utility is a representation of preferences over some set of goods and services.

In economic terms, individuals act to find and acquire that set of goods and services that maximizes their satisfaction. The perfect set differs from person to person because the things they derive satisfaction from varies, based on what they care about. Utility functions can be compared by how much real money a person is prepared to spend to achieve that satisfaction.

Which means that anytime someone tells you something is better, all they are doing is expressing their personal utility function on something they care about and are prepared to spend real money on. And even if you do care about the same thing, you probably derive satisfaction in a different way. In which case the product that fits your utility function in the same space will differ and so will the amount of money you’ll be prepared to spend.

Real Life Examples

I happily spend over $3000 every few years on a laptop computer. Nope, not crazy. I buy the best 15" laptop on the market and maximize its CPU, memory and disk. I do this because I care about the amount of time I spend in front of a computer (all day, every day), the productivity I get from it and the long usable life of the device. Top of the line 15" laptops satisfy my utility function.

I’ll bet they do not satisfy yours. Most people purchase sub-$1000 laptops with the MacBook Airs at the top end for people who’s utility functions include cool, sleek and very light; and cheap Best Buy crapware filled boxes for those who just need a bloody computer and don’t care which one they get. Those horrible computers suit their utility functions because they do not care about computers. Nor should they.

I am also happy to spend $100 on a Text Editor, and have purchased all I can. Why? Because I spend all day working with text, either writing or programming, and I care about the tools I use. I gain satisfaction from using a Text Editor that looks great, works the way I need it to work, shows me what I need to see in context and speeds up my ability to achieve what I want with that text. So I am happy to buy and try them all. As a result, I have found my current “satisfaction guaranteed” set of editors for short form writing, long form writing, programming, note taking and text manipulation. And the set will change as new Text Editors come out.

There are others, lets call them VIM users, who also care the same as I do about Text Editors, but derive satisfaction in a different way, maybe its hands on keyboard time or the lack of distractions or the cross platform features. VIM is better for them, and they are not prepared to spend money on other Text Editors because their utility function has been satisfied by the free product. Yet under my personal utility function, I can’t stand VIM as text editor. And for most folks, this discussion is moot, the default TextEdit on Mac or MS Word is fine, because they have different utility functions and do not care about text editors at all.

On the other hand, I really don’t care much about my appearance and clothing in general. To satisfy my utility function in clothing, an article has to fit and serve its purpose. A coat has to keep me warm and dry, trousers need to hide my legs and shoes need to keep my toes from touching the bare ground. So, for example, I usually purchase cheap jeans that I wear until my wife tells me the holes in them are too large and replace them. I purchase coats that last me many years because I don’t derive satisfaction from coat shopping or from wearing fashionable coats. I really don’t care that my coat is so out of fashion I look practically Victorian. It does not fit my utility function.

But other folks do care about their appearance and the clothing they wear. They purchase clothing that is fashionable and will not wear anything out of date. Under their utility function, a fashionable pair of designer jeans is worth $200 for a single season’s use. Under my utility function, $30 jeans look the same and I can get more Text Editors with the change.

And then there is coffee. Under my utility function, the Aussie Flat White is the form of the coffee beverage that maximizes my satisfaction. I don’t get the plain black coffee movement, the AeroPress movement, the hatred of NescafĂ© instant or the popularity of Starbucks. Because my utility function for coffee is best satisfied by an Aussie Flat White, and I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that it is the best. And you will argue until you are just as blue in the face that your preferred coffee is the best. They are both best, we just have different utility functions.

So Better?

My point is this, is a $200 pair of jeans better that an $30 pair of jeans? If you care about quality, your appearance and fashion, sure; if you care about merely having pants to wear, then no, it’s not better. Is a $3000 top-of-the-line laptop better than a $500 netbook? If you care about productivity and performance, then yes; if you just need to look at Facebook pages, then no.

I’m still going to use this blog to showcase tools and processes that I care about and seek satisfaction from. And I’m going to argue that the tools and processes I use are better, and why I think it is so. But all I am really doing is showcasing the preferred set of goods and services that fit my utility function.

They are better for me and me alone.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter and @hiltmon on App.Net. Mute #xpost on one.