Surprise and Delight

12 May 2024 • PersonalWeblogPoMo

I remember when I was about 5 or 6, my parents and I went to our normal pizza place; we lived in a college town, and this place was on “the hill”, right next to campus. My parents had actually met there years earlier when my dad was working there. We arrived, and I did my usual routine; sit still until I couldn’t any longer, and then ask if I can go “play pinball”. By that, I mean I’d drag one of the nearby bar stools over to the machine, sit/kneel on it, and press the buttons or pull the plunger while the machine made noises. It was the coolest thing in the universe. Nothing could top it.

Until that day. Because that day, one of the waitresses (some college girl) walked over and went “do you want a quarter to play?” I had no idea what she was actually asking, but she took some of her tip money out and dropped it in the machine.


I lost all 3 balls relatively quickly, as one is prone to do the very first time they play a game. And then it went back to the way it used to be. Still making sounds. Still letting me push buttons. But nothing moved. There was no more action; it had been robbed of me.

That quarter unlocked surprise and delight for me.

The first iPod was a revolution. You could carry music with you. And recharge it. And you didn’t need any CDs or cassettes. What a delight.

The first MacBook Air was a revolution. Jobs pulled out a goddamn manilla envelope and pulled a fully functional laptop out of it. And it was light. And silent. And had good battery life. Holy smokes, what a delight.

The term “Surprise and Delight” has been around for a long time, but I learned of it from Apple’s presentations, specifically the ones run by Steve Jobs. The entire experience of their keynotes wasn’t just about showing off a new product; to him, it was about shocking the world with what Apple had created, and delighting them with the results it could produce.

Nowadays, things just don’t hit the same. Every iPhone is just a slightly different looking version than what came before. Every enhancement leaks weeks in advance. Oh boy, they got FASTER and LIGHTER and MORE NITS and BETTER BATTERY, just like every other device that came before it. Even the Vision Pro, as cool as it seems, didn’t manage to delight its users enough to prevent many of them from being returned. And yet, practically every podcaster and tech blogger who got to do the demos seemed to be absolutely delighted by it… but were they surprised?

One huge bummer about modern society is the sheer lack of surprise and delight coupled together any longer. In a world where we have every news source at our fingertips, the race to be “FIRST” or grab a scoop leads to spoilers and wild speculation. Gone are the days where people just sit on scoops; information is currency when it comes to ad-driven revenue. There’s a flash of surprise (“wow, can’t believe so and so are gonna do X”) and sometimes delight (“hallelujah, the iPhone is getting USB C!”), but never paired together in a package that you can touch and feel. It’s ephemeral. It’s vapor. It’s gone, and when you finally get your hands on whatever it is, it doesn’t come back.

To beat a video game back in the day took a lot of trial and error. Sure, you could spend your hard earned money on a strategy guide, but the trial and error method worked too. And then… wait, what’s this? A website filled with game guides? EVERY collectible listed? Holy cow, this is awesome! And then you approach every challenge of a game with “ugh, alright, lemme find a walkthrough or YouTube video showing me how to do the thing” (which, fair - sometimes things are a massive PITA… but maybe they’re a PITA because the developer no longer has to craft a scenario with as much care as they once did, since they know you’re just going to look up how to do it anyway).

I really miss those days. Days when I could be surprised AND delighted, AND get to experience it all first-hand in real time.

On vacation, V and I took a walk down the hill during lunch, and stumbled across a pet store. They had a vending machine with dog treats out front, and a basket for people to drop the containers the treats came in for re-use. Naturally, V wanted to play with those containers, so we stood there for a minute.

The woman running the register saw us, and called out, “would you like a quarter for the machine?”

I smiled. “No thank you. Not today.” V’s only 2. Every new experience she has right now triggers joy for her. Showing her something like this, only to snatch it away with a “come one, we have to go eat” seems like asking for trouble.

But one day… one day, I’ll hand her that quarter, and prepare to witness the surprise and delight.