Mediocratopia: 6

This entry is part 6 of 13 in the series Mediocratopia

My philosophy of mediocrity really started coming together last week, in the form of two tweets. First, a graph attributed to artist Marc Dalessio floated by my feed and I tweeted this modified and annotated version:

Second, a passing tweet by me seemed helpful enough to people that I did a double-take myself to see if I’d accidentally said something deeper than I’d thought:

A very compact way to explain mediocrity philosophy is this: non-attachment to finite games (5 words). Unfortunately those who can’t process the Carse reference will almost certainly misunderstand it.

Non-attachment to finite games. There’s a lot packed into those 5 words if you have the context to unpack them. It sounds similar to “don’t get stuck in local optima,” but is actually a statement about openness of domains and unconstrained evolution in notions of utility (I did a short explainer on optimization versus mediocritization 2 episodes ago in this blogchain).

The reference is to finite and infinite games in the sense of James Carse. A finite game is when you play to win. An infinite game is when you play to continue the game. Non-attachment to a finite game means being free to reject both winning and losing. This generally happens when you are able to see and choose ways to keep the infinite game going that are orthogonal to the win/loss logic of a particular finite game. This posture can look like betrayal, cowardice, or choking to those who are attached to a particular finite game, which is why the connotations of mediocrity are invariably negative for finite gamers.

The idea of non-attachment here is critical, and is where subjectivity reshapes the meaning of “objective” cost or utility without an alternative notion of value necessarily ready at hand. Mediocrity is a leap of faith that there’s more to life than whatever is going on right now. Whatever the hill, odds are, it’s not the one you want to die on.

Taken together, the two provide a usable map and compass for a praxis of mediocrity. A map of the territory (emotional roller coaster of open-ended growth), with a depiction of a subjective path through it (modes of humor that work as coping mechanisms for each regime), and a compass to guide you through it (non-attachment to particular peaks or troughs, which are the wins and losses you must look past to continue the game).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. romeostevens says

    This is my new favorite graph of yours. One of those slap forehead moments where I go ‘why didn’t I think of elaborating on developmental psychology punctuated equilibrium at all?’ I wonder how tendency towards type 1 and 2 errors would play into it.

  2. Eldho kuriakose says

    To be truly mediocre is no easy feat. It takes courage and poise to not only see, but accept the banality of forced purpose. The world is starving for people who aspire to being mediocre – in fact, the survival of our species may depend on a sudden onset of good quality mediocrity.

  3. Two concepts that I feel are related are the strategy/tactics dichotomy, and the wisdom/(raw) intelligence one.
    Tactics is all about performing little local tricks with your limited fighting resources to win the battle of the day, and being better at it than your enemy. Raw intelligence is all about getting in a room and outperforming other intelligent people at some sort of measurable performance (Rubik’s cube timing, chess moves, SAT test, etc.).
    By contrast, strategy is about how or whether you even get into a battle in the first place. It is about ensuring you do not get into battles with a superior enemy, or get into it with the perfect counter to your enemy’s weapon, and it is arguably orders of magnitudes more important to winning a war. If you’ve got the strategy down right, you can even afford to suck at tactics. It gets you in the ballpark of winning at all, then tactics round it up or down. Penny-wise, pound-silly.

    Similarly, raw intelligence tells you the optimal shape for your Uranium 235 charge, but wisdom tells you whether you should be doing that in the first place.

    Arguably some or all of the examples above are still finite games (someone wins the war eventually, someone ends up with the most pennies and pounds overall then dies, etc.), or could reasonably be said to be a simple long-horizon/short-horizon distinction instead.

    Yet I still feel like they capture part of the mediocrity/winner distinction. After all, mediocrity isn’t *really* about an infinite game either ; we all die at some point, and you could argue that the eat-healthy/don’t-get-cancer/sign-up-for-cryogenics crowd is already trying hard to optimise for duration of life.
    They picked a hill (duration of life) and chose to die on it (i.e. sacrifice other quality of life aspects for it). They technically optimise for playing the game the longest (hence are playing an infinite game), yet I hardly think they would qualify as following a mediocrity philosophy.

    If anything, nation states would be a better fit ; don’t try to be the best country at making toasters or at conquering, just make sure the state isn’t under any immediate existential threat, that the economy is in good enough shape, that there aren’t too many extreme things happening within your borders, and try to defend your interests on the global stage. Keeps you going for one more century where other states went all-in and failed catastrophically. Is truly open-ended as there are no built-in expiration dates on power structures.

    But mediocrity for individuals is a finite game played with an horizon of one lifetime, even if it may feel like an infinite play for the people inside it.

    If you assign meaning and value to things after you’re dead (your legacy, the world being a better place, etc.), then you only have a finite amount of time to affect it, and you can’t escape the fact that you need to optimise for it during your lifetime. Your objectives might be more open ended than “be the fastest at Rubik’s cube”, and so may not look straight away like a finite play, yet you’re not truly avoiding hills.

    In fact the opposite perspective is that mediocrity is indeed a finite social optimisation game. The social signalling take on mediocrity is that trying to “get ahead” rarely actually gets you ahead, but signals to everyone that you are a petty self-interested try-hard. Better to explicitly try to *not* get ahead, which also isn’t going to get you ahead, but will at least maintain your moral high ground. Being the best at being mediocre maintains the most moral high ground for yourself. Which at this point is pretty much a restatement of Jacob Falkovitch’s “Winning is for Losers“.

  4. Here’s a point on Carse; I think he’s fundamentally wrong on finite games, even in his own terms; he says that the terminal move kills the opponent as a player. This is not true, it kills the person who played the move.

    This is essential for the theory to make any sense beyond simple contexts derived from immediate sports matches; the person sets a goal, and having achieved it, leaves the game.

    Champions explicitly retire in a blaze of glory, people lower on the tournament scale just go home, and assess in a fuzzy outside contextual sense whether it is worth continuing.

    When Carse says that the terminal move establishes victory beyond the point of challenge, I think he’s right, but he is wrong to say that transforming an opponent into being no longer an opponent to you resolves their capacity to play the game at all.

    There are so many games that operate according to a progressive elimination of players as the game approaches a complete ordering, and many of those, particularly in my experience card games spread by aural culture, are those that operate by eliminating the first, second, third player and so on, leaving only the players at a lower place.

    The winner goes out, then hovers like a ghost over the scene, having space to exult in victory as the loosing players play more and more hurriedly to finish the game, and establish their final position.

    Conflating finitude with zero sum, and zero sum with being binary/ 2 dimensional means that he never completes the connection he makes between finite games and titles:

    Finite games are stagings of apotheosis, the transformation of living human processes into iconic property holders of “achievement”.

    To be a champion, still present within the broader context of the game, but not “playing”, is to shift towards a symbolic mode, with associated expectations, you are now fit to be a judge, a kilogram, and a vehicle for disappointment of others and ennui for yourself. In Carse’s terminology, you have achieved “life in death” but you are still alive.

    In games with less vibrant attached social systems, winning the game means discarding it, having nothing more to learn from it, maybe writing up some quick notes in the notepad about what you learned from this book you finished, but generally moving on and past while continuing to live.

    Whereas the person who wrestles with an unfinished book, an unfinished project, places themselves in the position of constantly assessing the worth of the process, the nearness of the goal, and the degree to which they believe themselves incomplete without attaining it.

    Carse argues that winning a game stops people from further challenging you, forces them to accept the title you have won from them. I think this is false, winning a game stops you from accepting further challenges, having completed that which was incomplete when originally entering play.

    Obviously we have to do some work to translate this modification to the broader conflicts that he applies it to, where he suggests real conflicts of power can be characterised as finite games. If my model is true, then truly winning a finite game in the context of a real context is to find a way to extricate your win from that domain of conflict, to “cash out”, or literally retire with an annuity.

    Winning a finite game based on conflict is to render some beneficial transformation irreversible, fully secured for you. It does not mean the death of other players, or their removal from a domain of conflict, it is your own removal, behind your castle wall or gated community or within the far history of the blockchain. Your achievement is now stabilised as energetically difficult to revert, or as able to be utilised without returning to the domain within which it is constructed. The process of winning a finite game is to kill your own need to play it (At least for this year), and to do so within the terms of the game.

    There’s lots of weird connections here to Nietzsche’s philosophy here too, seen as he makes distinctions between exhaustion and the repose of strength, and the exultation of the finite game, the domain of power, as the primary model of the universe, though he also thought that those who had achieved things and developed power would inevitably break down those societies from which they had been born, break the games they had beaten and in fact should. I think this is because he associated an enthusiasm for deconstruction and agnosticism not with the dissociative hangover and growing tensions and hypocrisy of the post-achievement afterlife, but with people who wanted to opt out of the game, take a more cautious attitude to achievement etc.

    In other words, my understanding of his philosophy, the unusual move that he made that made his work so creative was to assert that the feeling of ambiguity and loss at the end of large periods of progress was not due to the inherent nature of finite game success; that the models and patterns of life required to attain victory in some task are utterly unsuited to appreciating it, (which I would class as the inherent self-imposed discontinuity-costs of success, the extent to which winning is always killing some part of your old process of life) but was instead due to people who had achieved such successes being limited in their ability to appreciate it by models of understanding of achievement created by those “loser philosophers” who had chosen to opt out of the game and made a virtue of it.

    In other words, those epicureans, buddhists etc. (and of course this blog) who advised people to gain their pleasures but not get sucked in by particular models of achievement were cowards, and those christians (and I would say maybe sartrean existentialists but definitely many other duty ethics types) who advised people to deprioritise pleasures in favour of abstract duties or universal duties were monsters. and their joint influence was to stop people reaching the moments of achievement from realising their destiny as champions by being totally self-absorbed assholes, because in their despotism and protracted gloating pushed into new action, they would rawly express pure power in ways that reflected the fundamental ergodic self-dissolving structure of the universe. They should seek to achieve positions where no-one can beat them, then seek to carry those victories forward into new games of their own design based around their abilities, in which random other people are induced to stop them but are unable, successfully achieving new locally irreversible transformations, until eventually they are overthrown by someone else. In short, the Nietzschian “tragic” model ties closely to the concept of disruption, on finite games characterised by the overturning of previous social structures, in order to produce unassailable positions of power from which you can launch further disruptive actions, what he calls “the right to attack”.

    But if Nietzsche is associated with the finite game, and with disruption, and his flaws come in not recognising how death oriented his will to power secretly is, does that mean that intentional mediocrity is also opposed to disruption, and the ideal of the early retiring entrepreneur?

  5. The Verbiage Ecstatic says

    Have you all read Homestuck? Having this conversation about mediocrity without having read it is like discussing the American dream without having read the Great Gatsby. It’s the only major work of art I know that addresses exactly these questions, from a multitude of angles. Homestuck has a lot of themes, but a major one is the glorification of mediocrity. It connects up on a lot of levels:

    – The overall plot of the work is a great, cosmic game that all the characters are swept up in, and a big piece of the story is their evolving relationships towards playing the game, “winning”, rejecting or embracing it, etc
    – On a micro level, it follows the trajectory of a number of aspiring artists across a couple different mediums (drawing, rap, magic), all of whom are deeply mediocre and their creations are all the more magical for it, and often acquire cosmic significance. I’m thinking especially of the “homosuck” sequence, “sweet and bro and hella jeff”, and Dave and Tavros’s rapping, but there are tons of other examples.

    One of the interesting things that Homestuck plays with is the interplay between commitment and mediocrity. Mediocrity doesn’t necessarily imply laziness or lack of effort. For example, sweet bro and hella jeff started as a parody of bad amateur web comics by Penny Arcade fans, but developed into an elaborate creation process requiring hours of highly-specialized Photoshop work to create exactly the right texture of glitchy, JPEG-artifact-esque garbage.

    The author explains its importance to the overall story as follows:

    “SBaHJ is absolutely inseparable from HS, and has been almost from the start. If you don’t understand this, then you don’t understand HS very well. SBaHJ is like the mentally handicapped step brother of MSPA, requiring special attention, but no less cherished as a part of the family. It was originally intended as the chief source of in-house memes for dialogue, but this is ultimately a superficial purpose. Though it only has 20+ strips, it contains a pretty dense and internally consistent language of recurring symbols and typo-driven grammars, applicable as a rich sub-cognitive lexicon for highlighting elusive elements woven into the mythology of the story which tend to be shrouded in the unconscious.”

    Ie, some EXTREMELY high-grade bullshit. It’s not a coincidence that @dril collaborated on the Kickstarter for the 2nd book:

    Ridiculous amounts of effort being put into something that’s a complete — and importantly, self-awarely complete — failure against every conventional standard of quality is an indicator of deep mediocrity.

  6. i think i might be attached to infinite games.

  7. Mediocrity as a strategy fits nicely with a psychoanalytic concept I’ve been reading about recently.

    In “The Burnout Society,” Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han proposes (among many other intriguing things) that we are no longer have a “Superego” as Freud described, a psychological force that controls the Ego like a moralistic, judgemental parent. Instead, we have an “Ego Ideal.”

    The Ego Ideal is that “better version of ourselves,” the version that is healthier, safer, richer, more confident, more successful, more attractive, more powerful, more loved, (and/or feared,) and most importantly, happy. The Ego Ideal is attainable if only we would WORK harder to earn more money and attain higher status, allowing us to Enjoy a range of products that will give us what we ultimately want: pleasure, meaning, social connection, and the feeling of having “won.”

    The “Ego Ideal” of course is unattainable. We are forever left with a feeling of LACK. And so we become caught in cycles of self-exploitation and self-abuse chasing this ideal. Capitalism is the system in which this gap between our ego and ego-ideal provokes us to endless cycles of over-work and over-consumption… resulting in Burnout.

    My favorite example of the Ego Ideal at work is the policy of some major companies to give employees “unlimited vacation.” Of course, most of these employees never take ANY vacation because they are working so hard to rise above mediocrity and reach their optimal performance, which is to say their “Ego Ideal.” No oppressive Superego-like boss has to tell them that they are only allowed two weeks of vacation. An inner voice whispers that in order to really be the “best version of themselves” they can’t afford to take any vacation at all.

    By embracing mediocrity we take ourselves out of games that are ultimately both unwinnable and not in our best interests to play in the first place.

  8. I’ve just read all the mediocritia posts, and I admire your line of thinking (although some of your readers/commenters seem to misunderstand it. I had a couple of thoughts yesterday about the subject in general:

    1. Nature is mediocre – I did a series of drawings of trees and plants, and I watched several animals from afar, mostly birds, rodents, and lizards. Organisms do not strive to “optimize performance.” Survival depends on a continual flow of the mediocre and ordinary – always maintaining slack and conserving energy. I believe you referenced the analogy of a river’s winding path down the side of a mountain. Water doesn’t optimize; it just flows to the next easy place. The outlying short-term optimizers of any species are precisely the individuals that are most likely to be weeded out by evolution. (In other words, the individual who is most highly optimized for a particular e eco-system is also the most vulnerable when that ecosystem inevitably changes.)

    There is an argument to be made that mankind’s mania towards optimization and competition – whether killing woolly mammoths, cutting down trees or pumping oil – is precisely what is driving climate change and in general, The Anthropocene.

    2. “…If we stop hustling so damn much.” Looking at individual humans, we are trained since high school to strive and to hustle, but whom does all that hustle benefit? I’d argue that optimization benefits the short-term bottom line of corporations, and benefits short term economic growth (in terms of production and consumption,) but optimization is almost always exploitative and pathological for the individual. No one is actually serving one’s self-interest by optimizing (if one’s self-interest is long-term health, thriving, and abundance.)

    3. Optimization is fragile. Mediocrity is “Anti-fragile.” (I know Venkat is not a Taleb fan, but I think there’s something to the notion of mediocrity-as-anti-fragile.

    4. Those who are celebrated as excellent/optimized are simply hiding their slack, and/or simply exploiting a group of harried, optimized underlings.

    5. Mediocrity is not a luxury item. Those most like to benefit from mediocrity are those struggling in the hyper-optimized, over-worked middle.

    Anyway… looking forward to future blogs on the subject.

    • Thanks for the comments across the series Sean. We should get together and chat about this over coffee or drinks soon!

  9. I have bad news for you. You achieved perfection in this post. Now what the hell do you do. (-: