First World Problems

January 25, 2013 | By Felicity Cull


There are many memes that can easily make me spit my coffee on to the screen of my computerGrumpy Cat, Socially Awkward Penguin, OCD Otter, Forever Alone, Ermahgerd, etc. But none perturbs me like #firstworldproblems.

Tagging posts with #firstworldproblems is supposed to be a way that people catalogue their annoyance at trivial problems experienced by People Like Us. That is, educated, middle class, upwardly mobile people. The Privileged. The Bourgeoisie, even (probably not quite.) It’s supposed to be a form of self awareness, a way of communicating to friends and social media followers that you understand that your iPhone’s software update going awry is not a real problem when compared to not having clean drinking water. It’s a well known hashtag and a well worn response to Internet whinging, and it’s spawned lots of websites, in particular. WhiteWhine allows people to capture instances of first world problems on social media. Lots of the problems people talk about are to do with technology failing them or not doing what it’s supposed to (i.e. make their lives easier).

I’m a fan of anything that makes people more likely to be self aware of their own privilege, if only because I think it makes us more grateful people. It’s a strange meme though. The source of its humour switches between what pop cultural commentator Mel Campbell articulates as the ‘pleasures of disavowal’ of texts like Stuff Bogans Like to the more palatable, less nasty self mockery of the original text Stuff White People Like. Sometimes #firstworldproblems is funny because we are taking the piss out of ourselves, sometimes it’s funny because it’s easy to hate people who have more stuff than us.

Writer Teju Cole wrote about how the meme reinforces negative ideas about the third world. He responded to the meme in a series of tweets, saying;

“I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems’. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles… here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”

Certainly the meme paints ‘Third World Problems’ as being completely divorced from technology, which isn’t necessarily true. In 2011, this research showed that 24% of residents in Mogadishu accessed the Internet at least once a week. The ‘First World’ does not own technology—this is not to say that there is not a digital divide, but I think we have a skewed view of the technologies that are important to people who do not live in Western-ized cities.

Technology is something that reinforces luxury. When researching this blog, I daily find technological advances that could be described as metaphorical ivory back scratchers. For example, the service Uber has just become available in Melbourne. This service basically means you have a driver—you register as a user and download an app to your smartphone and when you want to get picked up you use the app to set your pickup location. A text is sent to you when the car arrives and payment is automatically deducted from the credit card used when you registered. Convenient and luxurious but yellow taxis work just as well, they just occasionally smell of vomit. There’s also this website that helps you find technology that will solve lots of different First World Problems, such as ‘I can’t be fucked to wait in line for the new iPhone5’ and ‘not all of my friends know what I think about everything all the time.’ ’Need a First World problem solved?’ asks the website, ‘Silicon Valley has got you covered.’

Surely technology and the resources used to develop it could go towards solving more important problems than these? After all, technological advances have literally saved lives.

The most famous example of technology that saved lives is Dr Norman Borlaug’s development of a dwarf wheat that increased food productivity, effectively saving billions from a death from hunger. Borlaug was an American who used his innovation in other countries, but there is plenty of technological development going on within countries that people would term as members of the Third World.’

For example, Arunachalam Muruganantham developed a cheap way of making sanitary napkins in India, where 88% of women use rags and many young women drop out of school upon the onset of their periods. Then there’s Dr Moses Kizza Musaazi from Uganda, who has invented myriad dual use problem solving technologies, like rainwater-harvesting tanks and solar water heaters, hybrid cook stoves and an incinerator that gets rid of medical waste and keeps flies away.

Technology is supposed to make people’s lives better. Around the world we have different kinds of lives, so this idea means many different things to many different people. This is why I have mixed feelings about #firstworldproblems. At best, it allows people to be ironic about how good they have it, at worst; it reinforces ‘archaic distinction[s] between the first world and third world.’

I don’t know, I think I might stick to Socially Awkward Penguin from now on. You?