The term ‘better’ has become such an ambiguous declaration that it has now come to mean pretty much anything - from a little less bad (mostly), to a genuine commitment of working towards equality and utopia (rarely). As such we need to remain mindful of the every utterance of better.
TLDR: The term better is too often used as a performative proxy for the virtue of altruism and aspiration towards a positive future, with little consideration or accountability for what it actually means to be better.
Imagine the start of the next New York Marathon. The firing guns shoots and a single runner breaks free from the pack within seconds. Sprinting at break neck speed they quickly catch the eye of both the crowd and media commentators. Within 10–15 seconds they slow and stop, hands raised proclaiming their victory, that they’d won, that they’d done better than everyone else. This of course would in no way decide the winner of the New York Marathon, we know that the marathon is a 26 mile race and not a 100 meter sprint. The definition of doing better than everyone else in a marathon is to finish first after 26 miles, not 100 meters. The exact definition of what a marathon is gives us the ability to collectively discern what classes as better.
The analogy of the misplaced New York Marathon runner highlights the current issue with the broader use of better. Because we have no collective definition of what better means, or of what it means to do better, a hypothetical runner can proclaim to have won a metaphorical marathon after just 100 meters. And so we’ve come to accept the immediate promise and spectacle of better as it’s proxy definition.
The absence of a shared definition of better has now led us to become beset by an industrialised level misappropriation of better.
Everyone, and everything, is seemingly promising us something better, and yet the true realisation of better has never felt further from our grasps.
Part of the problem with better is that it can essentially be used by just about anyone to describe just about anything.
From a heartfelt call for a better future found in Pope Francis’s latest book, to the life dependent challenges of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And from Mark Zuckerberg’s looping-promise to “do better”, to Uber’s back-peddling that loosing a workers rights legal case in the UK was a better that they had always intended for their drivers — better is an extremely complex idea and ideal.
One person’s better future is another person’s worse future. One generations better future is another generations worse future. One species better future is another species worse future.
All the while the true nature of ‘better’ is becoming an ambition that can all too easily be entirely coopted or misappropriated.
Better, better, better, better, better…
Our appetite for better times, for better products, and for better lives hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world of consumer brands. The above found examples of dream of better, collected by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, illustrate the current sheer breadth of better’s reach and applications.
Visions of better are now ubiquitous. Everyone is selling us better. Better water, better e-cigarettes, better energy, better financial services, better entertainment channels, and even better worlds. Better, better, better.
These versions of better actually help us to uncover a key issue of our times. Our interpretation of better is simply ‘less bad’ than what came before it. Water in a cardboard carton is simply less bad that water in a plastic bottle — but that doesn’t make it ‘good’, it’s just less bad.
In most current cases of the use of better we’re starting from such a low base that actually achieving better is often just a case of achieving something less bad.
So what is driving the explosion in better? The above short list by George Monbiot, originally posted to twitter in early 2021, surfaces a key reason for why better is so widely referenced. Humans are very good at, and mostly in solidarity upon, wanting a better world — whether solely for ourselves, or for ourselves and all those around us. The problem lays in what we are not so good at, however, and that is knowing when we are being lied to or not.
And so it becomes an easy task for cynically motivated others (politicians, businesses, organisations, or individuals) to sell us pretty much anything as being ‘better’ knowing that not only will it be wanted, but by their very nature declarations of better are often protected from claims of scepticism and critique.
Who are we to deny anyone the ambitions of wanting something better or a means to achieve it? A party pooper, a cynic, a pessimist, an anti-capitalist? Who are we to answer back?
Case Study: What could be better?
In 2015 the multi-billionaire Larry Page published an open letter to the internet euphorically heralding a revised future vision for Alphabet + Google. After outlining numerous, but mostly hollow, ideological benefits the letter ended with Larry asking the entirely rhetorical question: What could be better?The question was answering itself — blindly assuming that every reader would agree that indeed NOTHING could be better than the totalitarian monopoly that Larry and Sergey are determined will continue to govern the structure of the internets. And by proxy our collective potentials, futures, and imaginations.
This could be better.
Even though multi-billionaire Larry Page didn’t really want an answer to his rhetorical question — in 2019 / 2020 myself and the Internet Age Media family set about giving him one. The most pragmatic answer to the question of what could be better would be “this”. This is what could be better Larry.
We should all strive to continually ask of our technologies, and ourselves, what could be better? And further still we can answer. We can actively shift the rhetorical to the hypothetical. We can turn questions into answers. We can each create our own answer to the question what could be better? And we can all say This. This could be better.
Being better vs. Becoming better.
The question remains where does all this talk of better leave us, and what can we actually change in order to do better than better. We can’t simply give up hope on improving our situations, on striving for equality, on the choosing the preferable over the inferior, or on unpacking an authentic definition of better. I would argue that we simply need to start to see better as a process rather than a badge. We need to get better at bettering and betterment. And to do that we first need to admit, and then accept, that what we consider as better right now still has a lot of room for improvement.
To help us achieve an acceptance of the need for continual bettering and betterment I have devised the short above quiz — enlisting some of our best better brands. Feel free to give it a go, and see if you think we do indeed need to start doing a lot better than ‘better’. I guess it depends upon your interpretation of what fuc*ed looks like for humanity, but lets say it refers to going over the critical level of 2 degree of global temperature change, and that ALL refers to the current global rate of consumption in each of the examples.
This quiz isn’t intended to shame or #cancel any of the example brands, but to merely illustrate that what we currently class as the high-water mark of ethical and ecological business is still only getting us to a less fuc*ed position. Given that a tipping point of 2 degrees of climate change isn’t going to let us off the hook for just trying to be better, we need to actually do better. We need to get these brands to not only continue doing what they’ve achieved so far, but to do much much more. We need to build on their successes and carry on their momentum. And we need them to bring everyone else with them. We need to get the whole class up to an exceptional level of performance (in ecological productivity rather than economic productivity) pretty quickly, and that’s not going to be easy. We still have a LONG way to go in the world of better.
Our current claims of better are far from the benchmark of all that we can achieve, they are mostly the very first step of coming home from school without an F grade. Those selling us these versions of better need to start working their way up the grades table before they can proclaim, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they are the very exemplification of an exceptional A* student.
I know that I’m pretty far from where better needs to be, but I know I should know better, and do better.
We should get to know better, better.
I’ll leave you with the words and thoughts of Maya Angelou.
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
- Maya Angelou
Ted Hunt is a London based independent speculative and critical designer. His research and development into time and temporality has recently been realised in the crowdfunded projects Circa Solar and Circa Lunar, along with the fourth-dimensional thinking consultancy x-AXIS. He is a graduate of The Royal College of Art and currently a fellow of the School of Critical Design .