Epistemic Status: Mediocre Premium
Response To (Rao / Ribbonfarm) : The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial
Leads To: Expanding Premium Mediocrity
Good Other Commentary (Jacob / Put a Num On It): Escaping the Premium Mediocre
A few days ago I read this very good sentence by Venkatesh Rao:
Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden.
Exactly, my brain thought. Say no more! Long have I waited for a name to put to this concept! Somewhere Plato was smiling.
Then Rao continued, and I wondered if he was pondering something different than what I was pondering:
Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.
As Elanor of The Good Place observed when given a list of supposedly sexy things, well, some of those are right. In particular, froyo, “truffle” oil, extra-leg-room seats in Economy and cruise ships are clearly right. Artisan pizza at first struck me as wrong but now strikes me as right, because the ones that are wrong don’t call themselves ‘artisan.’ Cupcakes are Actually Good, but kind of by coincidence, which is a strange gray area. Then there were two clear errors: The Bellagio is a terrible example given the casino options, and Game of Thrones, which is both Actually Good and outside the pattern entirely (or rather, it wasn’t until some point in the past two seasons, which is a clue).
Something was amiss.
Then he came back with a sentence that, while not quite as high Quality as the first, sums it all up perfectly:
Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.
More examples follow:
Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.
Premium mediocre is Cost Plus World Market, one of my favorite stores, purveyor of fine imported potato chips in weird flavors and interesting cheap candy from convenience stores around the world.
The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich.
Premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre, premium mediocre.
Heavy on the food examples, but quite good! I suspect he’s wrong about the best banana and quite possibly dragon fruit, but I’m unable to eat either without physically gagging, so I don’t have enough information to tell.
A more focused attempt at a definition is then offered:
Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.
This isn’t quite right, but it’s close. Then the two of us completely disagreed and I knew we were going in different directions:
Yes, ribbonfarm is totally premium mediocre. We are a cut above the new media mediocrityfests that are Vox and Buzzfeed, and we eschew low-class memeing and listicles. But face it: actually enlightened elite blog readers read Tyler Cowen and Slatestarcodex.
I do read Tyler Cowen and Slatestarcodex (and only selectively read ribbonfarm)! I still call out this false humility, for it reflects a deep error on the part of Rao. Ribbonfarm does not fit the above example set at all. Or if it is, that fact is why it can’t take its place in that top tier. Ribbonfarm is doing an original, valuable thing with its own internal logic, for the joy of exploring concepts wherever they lead. That should be the opposite of the list being created above.
I will post the rest of the example list now:
Premium mediocre is international. My buddy Visakan Veerasamy (a name Indian-origin people will recognize as a fantastic premium mediocre name, suitable for a Tamil movie star, unlike mine which is merely mediocre, and suitable for a side character) reports that Singaporeans can enjoy the fine premium mediocre experience of the McDonald’s Signature Collection.
Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.
Much of the manufactured cool of K-Pop (though not the subtly subversive Gangnam Style, whose sly commentary on Korean life takes some digging for non-Koreans to grok) is premium mediocre. Carlos Bueno argues that Johnny Walker Black is premium mediocre in the Caribbean. In Bollywood, the movies of Karan Johar are premium mediocre portrayals of premium mediocre modern urban Indian life.
The entire idea of the country that is France is kinda premium mediocre (K-Pop is a big hit there, not coincidentally). The fact that Americans equate “French” with “classy” is proof of its premium mediocrity (Switzerland is the actually elite European country).
At its broad, fuzzy edges, premium mediocre is an expansive concept; a global, cosmopolitan and nationalist cultural Big Tent: it is arguably both suburban and neourban, Red and Blue, containing Boomers and X’ers. It includes bluetooth headsets favored by Red State farmers and the tiki torches — designed for premium mediocre backyard barbecues — favored by your friendly neighborhood Nazis. It includes everything Trump-branded. It covers McMansions, insecure suburbia-dwelling Dodge Stratus owners and Bed, Bath, and Beyond shoppers. It includes gentrifying neighborhoods and ghost-town malls. It includes Netflix and chill. It includes Blue Apron meals.
At some level, civilization itself is at a transitional premium mediocre state somewhere between industrial modernity in a shitty end-of-life phase, and digital post-scarcity in a shitty early-beta phase. Premium mediocrity is a stand-in for the classy kind of post-scarcity digital utopia some of us like to pretend is already here, only unevenly distributed. The kind where everybody gets a mansion, is a millionaire, and drives a Tesla.
After that point, Rao goes on to associate the concept with an entire generation and lifestyle, and wraps it up in a classic Rao-style theory that asks the question ‘what if the whole world, or at least some people’s worlds, revolved around this idea?’
His answer is ambitious, far-wielding, interesting in its own right and further proof of his own lack of premium mediocrity.
I’ll get to that.
First, we need to break down the small definition. The one that’s about small things, that explains what the above list has in common.
Something is Premium Mediocre if and only if it is primarily optimized* to superficially appear to be, or sound like it is, to at least some people, the convenient or premium** version of a thing.
*: The extreme cases are where it is solely optimized in this way; you get premium mediocrity to the extent that this is being optimized for. I think using primarily here is the right compromise.
**: You can also appear to be any of superior, high-class, glamorous, fancy, etc, but I think simply saying premium here is sufficient. Convenient is an interesting case but seems intuitively right to me.
Premium Mediocre is the set of things created in easy mode.
As Rao says, premium mediocre is intentional. It is about aiming for the symbolic representation of the (higher-level version of the) thing, rather than the thing.
You can tell yourself that you’re not doing that. Doesn’t matter. It is impossible to accidentally create something in this class. You chose to do that.
You can also tell yourself that you’re creating something premium mediocre, and even explicitly claim to be premium mediocre, and be wrong because you are actually optimizing for a real thing. This describes Rao. Rao does authentic things, but is surrounded by a world that is so lost in a meta-signaling trap that he is terrified of anyone finding that out, so he disavows it every chance he gets, even to himself.
To go Full Rao (Never go full Rao? Always go full Rao? Hard to say) the 2×2 would have the X-axis be Actual Easy Mode vs. Actual Hard Mode and the Y-axis be Self-Identified Easy Mode vs. Self-Identified Hard Mode.
Figure 1: Easy and Hard Modes, 2×2
(Easy, Easy) is Sociopath. They know what they want and they get it. They don’t care about anything else.
(Easy, Hard) is Clueless. They enforce the rules of the system, thinking they are fighting for something that matters, but instead are being tricked, either the tools of others or fighting for lost purposes.
(Hard, Hard) is Loser. They care about things that matter to them, even if that means they’ll work harder for less. They know the game and choose not to play.
(Hard, Easy) is Hero. The Hero thinks they are in Easy Mode, but their Easy Mode goal is to actually accomplish or create the thing. The Hero focuses on cutting the enemy. The Hero doesn’t think they’re a hero. The hero often doesn’t even want to be a hero. The hero simply wants something you can’t cheat on.
It isn’t a choice. The hero is a hero despite themselves.
Rao is a hero. He would be the first to say, he isn’t one, and also, don’t be one. Doesn’t matter. He is one anyway.
Meanwhile, as corporations create more and more of the things, and/or those things are built to hit explicit optimization targets, those things are built or ‘improved’ by Sociopaths directing the Clueless. Which all means, of course, Premium Mediocre.
How does this relate to things that are Actually Good?
It is common for Premium Mediocre things to in some aspect be Actually Good. The catch is that they are, whether in terms of money, time, or something else, expensive. Often, the easy path to making something superficially premium is to make the thing actually premium! You can then get the delicious high-grade mediocrity you crave, but you pay for it.
As Rao points out, Cupcakes are Actually Good. I love me a cupcake, but they are still Premium Mediocre, whereas cake brings you even more Actually Good at a fraction of the price.
He also claims Avocado Toast is Actually Good, which it might well be. I’ve never had it. What I know for sure is that it is shockingly expensive for a vegetable on a piece of toast.
Same thing with Starbucks Coffee. I don’t drink coffee, but by all accounts it’s good – it’s just shockingly expensive for what it is. I’ve had their hot chocolate, which is both good and shockingly expensive.
The finest wine at Olive Garden is premium mediocrity on top of premium mediocrity, so it’s going to be super expensive for what it is, but it’s still probably better than the median wine at Olive Garden.
This is my resolution of what Rao calls the Avocado Toast Paradox. This is not premium mediocrity deciding to occasionally treat itself, it is simply that Goodhart’s Law is not perfect.
What premium mediocre cannot be, is Perfectly Good or Really Good. And it certainly can’t be Insanely Great.
Things which are superficially flawed, but which do their functional job just fine thank you, are Perfectly Good. Perfectly Good things satisfice on functionality and entirely ignore superficiality. There, I Fixed It is their official website and slogan.
If something is either Actually Good or Perfectly Good, and that is surprising, then it is Not That Bad.
An easy way to end up with a premium mediocre product is to discard the Perfectly Good. We throw out Perfectly Good tomatoes because they don’t have the right shape. This results in premium mediocre produce. We throw out a Perfectly Good old and comfortable sofa, rather than patch it with duck tape. Instead we buy one from premium mediocre IKEA.
My parents would not have dreamt of throwing out something that was Perfectly Good.
Some products and experiences are the best versions of themselves. Given the restraints of their format and budget, they exceeded all your expectations. These are not merely Actually Good, they are Really Good. There’s nothing wrong with the Actually Good, but the Really Good will brighten up your day. You go out of your way for the Really Good.
If something spares no expense, with full attention to every detail, and still blows you away despite that, it is Insanely Great. Insanely Great changes your life.
Things that are some combination of Really Good and Insanely Great are The Real Thing.
Figure 2: Good Things, 2×2
Can’t beat The Real Thing!
Note: Extending this to the left from Not That Bad gets us to That Bad, also known as Not Great, Bob. Paired with Looks Bad we get No Good, and paired with Looks Good we get what some would call Superficially Good but which I prefer to call Not Good. Subtle but important differences.
A while back, I wrote a Restaurant Guide. This shares the best tools I have found for differentiating whether you’re dealing with The Real Thing and getting the highest quality experience and value for your dollar. Some of the tools are things like seeing what percentage of customers have their dishes, which is an impossible-to-fake measure of how fast service is.
Most, however, are about the signals the restaurants are choosing to send, because restaurants tell you who they are. Who are they claiming to be? If a place is The Real Thing, every subtle action they take will inform you of this fact. As Rao points out, the premium mediocre tells you what it is. A lot of my tactics are about identifying and thus avoiding the premium mediocre. Even when it is Actually Good, you’re still overpaying, so you can do better.
Premium mediocre can be a reasonable fallback, but you should almost always be sad about it.
That raises the question at the heart of the rest of Rao’s post. Why would one choose to live premium mediocre? Why would one self-identify that way?
Certainly it is fine to indulge in occasional premium mediocrity. If you like Starbucks Coffee, it can be better to pay $4 for that than go without good coffee. You would want to know about good $2 coffee around the corner, but it might not be there. It might be there but you might not know about or trust it.
Suppose equally good $2 coffee is there. Suppose you know it’s there. What the hell are you doing in line at Starbucks?
Good question. My plan is to address that in part two.