Mediocratopia: 13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Mediocratopia

Meant to blog this earlier but forgot. A couple of months ago, Eric Platon shared an image of a couple of French books (not available in translation) on mediocrity with this comment:

Just discovering that the meaning of mediocrity changed with Renaissance in Europe (don’t know which one yet). Mediocrity was apparently not pejorative before!…The back cover is rich: Mediocrity used to mean anything “median”, finding compromise , perplexity, mood balance, notion of androgyny, intermediary positioning in politics and religion. Very different from post-Renaissance apparently.

This tracks for me. Mediocrity used to mean something closer to the Buddhist middle path doctrine. It got recoded somehow to mean low quality, apathy, sloppiness and so on.

The point about being on the middle of various spectra rather than at an extreme is that it forces you to acknowledge it as a spectrum. Being at 0 or 1 on an (normalized) parameter allows you to essentially drop a dimension and build in a degeneracy. Being at 0.534 forces you to model the dimension thoughtfully. I’ve said before that mediocrity is about fatness — reserve resources. Now we can add — it’s also about fullness. Full rank. Max dimensionality. No unnecessary reduction to binaries or absolutes. Everything in the nature of the thing is also in the tradeoff space of dealing with the thing. This also means there is something tentative about a mediocre thing. All options are open. None have been foreclosed.

“Excellence” is also about optimization, and to the extent optima occur at boundary extrema rather than interior points, you get a similar degeneracy from the mere fact of using optimization frames. If you’re on a boundary you don’t need to model the interior. This is why mediocritization is the opposite of optimization. The Taoist fable, Maybe so, maybe not, we’ll see captures the spirit of this idea.

The drive to excellence is often a pathological drive towards degeneracy and legibility via a leaning-out of fatness and fullness. And false determinacy. Converting maybes into yeses and noes by fiat, and not waiting to see. It is high modernism — an aesthetic pretending to be an ethic.

I want to connect up one more thought I might elaborate on later. Mediocrity is often more thorough in its consideration of things in all their fullness. Excellence often has a focus on some notion of efficiency. Every notion of optimality is also a notion of efficiency that sacrifices thoroughness to some degree. By the efficiency thoroughness tradeoff (ETTO) principle, you can’t have both at once.

Thoroughness is often associated with craft where efficiency is associated with industry. Craftsmanship does not manifest excellence in the sense a quality industrial product can. It is a not-even-wrong standard to apply. But a well-crafted thing often expresses the fullest nature of a thing. A beautiful wabi-sabi bowl may look rough butcaptures the nature of the bowl, including its transience and mortality, in the fullest way. But it seems strange to think of it as excellent.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. What if we distinguish two kinds of optimization strategies: (a) maximizing a certain parameter (leading to excellence on that dimension), and balancing a multitude of parameters (leading to fitness across these dimensions)? Then mediocrity could be considered a kind of optimization, just a different strategy that tries to find a balance between multiple parameters, often parameters that are in pairwise opposing relationships.

    That I think would be compatible with the Buddhist Middle Path. It would also respect the full spectrum of one dimension, even several dimensions at once.
    Maximization of one parameter needs to reduce to binaries or absolutes, or is incentivized to make it look like that’s a good idea, because the model needs to be simple enough to make picking a priority parameter viable. Balance accepts the always more complex reality and tries to do the best it can to adapt to it, using the various maximizing approaches of each extreme as a kind of “shaking out” contest landing somewhere in between. (Opponent processing, as in

    I may even go as far and consider maximization a kind of faux optimization, which only works with an oversimplified model (ignoring certain dimensions, or declaring them less important) to achieve excellence on the desired parameter, causing all kinds of issues with “externalities”.
    That puts me in opposition to your “mediocritization is the opposite of optimization” basically stating the opposite that “mediocritization is the only true form of optimization”. Perhaps this opposition can “shake out” some new ideas about mediocrity?

  2. please extend the scale. you have craft and you have industry, now add art please.

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