Mediocratopia: 12

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Mediocratopia

A key insight recently struck me, and it is one that I should have worked out and written up earlier, but I didn’t think of — one of the biggest reasons mediocrity gets a bad rap is conflation with what I call Somebody Else’s Optimality, or SEO (the rest of this post is just me attempting to manufacture justification for this joke 😆).

Situations and conditions that suck, and attract the label “mediocre” (as in “why is service so mediocre?”) usually aren’t mediocre at all, but designed to optimize Something Else for Someone Else; some aspect that is less visible than whatever aspect you’re responding to.

It’s usually not even particularly disguised or denied. You just have to stop to think for a second. Quite often, the “something else” is cost to owners of the assets involved. Aggressively driving cost efficiency by cutting corners in services is obviously not mediocritization, it is optimization of something other than service quality for somebody other than customers. Actual mediocritization creates slack and mediocrity along all dimensions. The point of mediocrity is slack and reserves for dealing with uncertainty, as I’ve argued elsewhere in this series several times.

SEO is an important phenomenon in its own right, but in this post, I mainly want to untangle it from mediocrity.

A sophisticated person will usually have a second-order objection to the idea of Somebody Else’s Optimality: “but that is long-term suboptimal; you’ll lose customers with poor service” (or equivalent with other situations). This is the Mutuality Objection: the uncritical presumption that long-term tit-for-tat cooperation is equally desirable for all in all circumstances.

This Mutuality Objection is almost never valid. Usually one of two things is going on: rational finite-horizon optimization or some source of endless exploitability that makes your needs a less important consideration than you assume.

Rational finite-horizon (or with some tweaking, sufficiently discounted, like exponentially discounted infinite horizon) situations arise when there are strong reasons to devalue distant payoffs, often down to zero or even negative levels. If you’re selling a faddish product that will likely be forgotten in a season, it pays to pump it hard, cut corners everywhere except top line sales, and then get out. If you’re end-of-lifing a product where most customers have moved on to newer versions and only some old resistant types are left, it may be rational to simply abandon them. These are not mediocrity strategies. They’re alt-optimal strategies that drive SEO.

Something like this accounts for the supply chain problems of automotive consumers of chips. Automotive chips, it turns out, are mostly made on old semiconductor process nodes like 28nm for which there is limited capacity in the US. Both the most advanced (the current leading edge for things like phones is 5nm, about 6-7 nodesmore advanced) and oldest nodes happen to be in Asia at the moment, so the extremes of the market are most affected.

The other case is when there is endless exploitability. As one customer wises up and exits the product, another gullible customer can be found to buy it. Markets where a “sucker is born every minute” as P. T. Barnum put it, and products move faster than wisdom. So there’s no point investing in high lifetime-value through good service. Solve for high turnover.

Business examples are clearest, but similar examples can be found everywhere. In housework, when couples fight over chores, often it is because each is solving for a different thing. Like one partner may prioritize tidiness, and the other prioritize cleanliness. The two are close enough to be conflated, far enough apart to cause SEO confusion.

A more extreme version of this effect can be found in the complaint that a system is “broken.” The general situation is nearly always that the system is working as designed. It was just never designed to work for you at all. It is Somebody Else’s Functionality, SEF. Actually broken systems tend to be broken for all stakeholders, not mysteriously broken only for one sadsack low-agency stakeholder class.

If participating in such a system is unsustainable for you, chances are, the system, far from being broken, was actively designed to break you and eventually eliminate you from consideration altogether. You’re disposable. The contribution from your LTV from far future times is zero to negative.

So that’s somebody else’s optimality, SEO. Systems designed for, and optimized for, less visible, but more important considerations by one agent, and misunderstood as mediocre from the point of view of more visible, but less important considerations by another agent.

Mitch McConnell is a walking example of SEO in US politics. Most lay observers of politics prize consistency in positions and actions. No politician prizes this, but most are willing to promise it and at least pay lip service to it. McConnell doesn’t bother with even lip service. His own Senate seat is absolutely secure, and he has no good reason to weight the broader public optics at all.

One of my favorite reads on SEO is Paul Ford’s classic post The Web is a Customer Service Medium, where he argues that the primary message of the web as a medium is the complaint “why wasn’t I consulted?” He’s right. Go look at your Twitter feed. I predict half of what you see will be reducible to a WWIC complaint. This response reflects a classic misunderstanding of SEO as mediocrity. You weren’t consulted because you’re not as important as you think you are, not because the counterparty is mediocre or incompetent. The counterparty is solving for something else, likely near-optimally. Your needs have been SEOed out.

A generalization of the WWIC effect is misguided jokes about efficient markets. As in, “if the market is efficient why is it producing this clearly inefficient outcome?”

Often the critic is not even right about the inefficiency because they haven’t modeled the situation completely. Ironically, their thinking has externalities.

But even when they are kinda right, usually a little poking around reveals that the market is in fact efficiently solving for something else that matters to someone else, and that that someone else is willing to pay more than you are. Only when you’ve eliminated these possibilities does it become likely that the market has actually failed to price some important-to-all externality and is inefficient in some usefully general sense.

For example, pollution is often treated as an unpriced externality that requires regulation to price-in. True from a whole-population perspective. But often, pollution is actually positively priced by people interested in producing it and willing to pay surprisingly high prices for the right to pollute, because it’s still less than what regulation might enforce. So is the market really inefficient or SEO for the polluter’s willingness to bid higher for dirty air (while of course, living in a mansion in a cleaner location)? This is partly semantics, but not really. “Inefficiency” is a powerful label, and should, in my opinion, be used sparingly and only in situations when nobody with a stake is being served well, due to stupidity or incompetence of primary actors. I prefer the term distortion to inefficiency for describing most kinds of market failure. Distortion is unwanted SEO. Inefficiency is missing unpriced information.

Mediocrity isn’t inefficiency so much as enlightened acceptance of inefficiency because efficiency is not worth it, rather than beyond capabilities.

A good sign of actually mediocrity at work is when some consideration is clearly the top legible consideration for the most powerful agent in a situation, and is still mediocrely handled. An example is individuals “leaving money on the table” in navigating their economic/financial conditions in relation to jobs, shopping, and so on, when clearly they are smart enough to think it through, and have reserve time, money, and cognitive surpluses to do so.

When challenged, they will often be unable to provide satisfactory answers to why they’re leaving money on the table. They’re usually mediocritizing. Getting to good enough financial outcomes and saving reserves for indeterminate future opportunities and challenges. Keeping whole-life resources unused as fat rather than spending it.

I’ve repeatedly pointed to fat as the essence of mediocrity. You could think of fat as “optimizing for indeterminate future needs,” but that’s abusing the idea of optimality to uselessness.

But there is a definite correlation to something legible people do like solving for: longevity.

Mediocrity seems to somehow promote longevity of systems, projects, activities, and organizations. If you want to live longer, lower your standards. If you want a thing to last longer, lower your standards. Of course the “lowering” has to be done in a thoughtful way. Mediocritization isn’t cognitively free. It takes effort and imagination. The effort just goes in the opposite direction of optimization (it is what Humphrey Appleby called “creative inertia”).

The Lindy effect I think is indirectly a statement about mediocrity. Lindy things tend to be mediocre in ways that excite and anger people determined to optimize them. But they are typically not SEO. If you poke and try to find an SEO angle, you typically won’t find a satisfying answer. This is one reason Chesterton’s Fence is such a powerful allegory. Tradition (represented by the fence) isn’t SEO in the sense of Dead Ancestor’s Optimality (DAO 🤣🤣).

Digging through ancient records isn’t likely to reveal a good answer to “what were they thinking when they built the fence?”

Nor is it merely an illegible, emergent objective function of many murky variables.

It’s most likely just fat in a system that’s weathered a lot of change over time, and replenished the fat continually. When you trace the history of a typical tradition, you’ll often find such gradual creeping evolution. Just never an aggressive and final “modernization.” More like half-assed, grudging, minimal accommodation of newer considerations.

The corporate version of this idea can be found in Arie de Geus’ book The Living Company, about long-lived companies. Tldr: long-lived companies tend to stay fat and open-minded.

Mediocritization is neither traditionally biased, nor progressively biased.

It does not try to idealize and optimize systems in a reactionary mode, attempting to return a situation to a pure condition that never was.

Nor does it try to strive for a utopian aspirational ideal that never can be.

It accepts some change grudgingly, dragging its feet every step of the way, and grumbling enough to take the edge of the fervid energy of both reactionary and progressive idealists, preserving enough fat to fight another day.

Mediocritization is curmudgeonly but not entirely cynical about the future. It is skeptical, but not entirely hostile to the past.

It is a bet that there’s always more to any story than whatever various evangelists are going on about, and holding back reserves to deal with it when it comes around.

Mediocrity is the belief that getting fully invested in anything is going full retard. And you never go full retard.

There is an interesting line that captures a special case of this philosophy perfectly: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Mutuality (the lively predisposition towards tit-for-tat cooperativeness) is a kind of social fatness.

But you don’t solve for it not by maximizing the LTV of “customers” by catalyzing “loyalty.” You solve for it by simply being together. A carrier-bag rather than heroic attitude to social presence.

You deliberately muddy and confuse your own objectives by entangling them with those of others, making them impossible to “optimize” in a meaningful way. Mutuality creates systems that are not about anybody’s optimality. Not yours, not mine. You want to go north, I want to go south, and we compromise and go east, but end up being able to go much farther east than either of us alone would have been able to go north or south alone.

A generalization: If you want to go fast, go lean. If you want to go far, go fat.

It’s been mildly satisfying to observe that this blogchain actually illustrates this principle. Of all my themed blogchains, this one has been the easiest to keep going through my rather drastic pivot in blogging style and the drastic sociocultural environment I find myself writing in these days. The only blogchain that’s been even easier to keep going is one that has no theme at all (so arguably, no optimality criterion at all): the Captain’s Log blogchain featuring no-name entries with no theme restrictions at all. So even the act of naming “mediocrity” kinda vitiates the essence of it. True mediocrity is the ethos with no name. The Way that is called the Way is not the Way.

Series Navigation<< Mediocratopia: 11

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Another great post, Venkat. Here’s some second-level WWIC from me :)

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, I think getting SEO’d explains quite a few interesting problems of “inefficiency” one can run in a modern society.

    >”“Inefficiency” is a powerful label, and should, in my opinion, be used sparingly and only in situations when nobody with a stake is being served well, due to stupidity or incompetence of primary actors.”

    I was wondering, how do you see this compared to Pareto Efficiency (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_efficiency )? I think this kind of “Inefficiency” is basically just something being pareto-inefficient, eg. things are so badly run, that there are potential changes that would be non-zero-sum positive for the participants.

    But I am also wondering, if there can really be a “true” pareto-efficiency improvement in many scenarios, especially if there are competing agents involved. Any improvement that brings value to to competitor has a potential to be net negative for others. At least with naive analysis. I think at least in some cases there can be surprising synergies with competing agents, for example, gazelle and a predator have a common interest to credibly signal health of the gazelle, because engaging in a hunt is dangerous and energy intensive for both (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stotting#Possible_explanations 5.)

  3. Enjoyed this post – thanks Venkat!

    A few thoughts it raised:

    – ““Inefficiency” is a powerful label, and should, in my opinion, be used sparingly and only in situations when nobody with a stake is being served well, due to stupidity or incompetence of primary actors. I prefer the term distortion to inefficiency for describing most kinds of market failure. Distortion is unwanted SEO. Inefficiency is missing unpriced information.”

    Agreed. Pausing on the choice of words, ‘inefficiency’ also fails to capture role of strategic intention contributing to what’s been incorrectly labelled as a flaw or limitation of a system or service. From the POV of trying to accurately determine why someone’s not service a certain stakeholder, it’s flabby language that crops out an important dimension. However, at times, perhaps ‘inefficiency’ is the preferred way to describe something in a way that avoids ascribing blame.

    It accepts some change grudgingly, dragging its feet every step of the way, and grumbling enough to take the edge of the fervid energy of both reactionary and progressive idealists, preserving enough fat to fight another day.

    As a public servant, this sounds a lot like the default character of government bureaucracy. Slow, cynical, behind the eight ball but self-aware of the fact.

  4. Thank you for sharing ,

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