Epistemic Status: Skippable. This is (much of) what I think Rao is trying to say in the second section of his post, the part about Maya but before Molly and Max, translated into DWATV-speak. Proceed if and only if you want that.
Continuation From (at least see the 2x2s): Exploring Premium Mediocrity
Original Post (Ribbonfarm): The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial
The last thing I would do is embrace premium mediocrity. I wrote a guide to avoiding premium mediocrity months ago.
Rao and I agree that Maya Millennial is not fooled, and is consuming her premium mediocrity with her eyes open.
Why would anyone knowingly embrace premium mediocrity?
I: The Parents
The first story is ‘do it for the parents.’
This does not make logistical sense.
Maya Millennial might buy her parents a premium mediocre dinner. They can’t tell the difference. It might convince them she can afford it. They’d have an Actually Good time.
I can almost respect that.
If Maya got a job that made her parents happy, or dated someone that made her parents happy, that too would make sense.
But most of the time her parents aren’t there. Keeping parents happy can explain having life goals like jobs, relationships or even kids. What keeping them happy can’t explain is a day in and day out premium mediocre life.
II: The Strivers
A variation on the parents story is ‘do it for the strivers.’
The Randian strivers will continue putting in their 100-hour weeks figuring out obscure crypotography and machine learning problems and 3d printed tiny houses so our premium-mediocre free-riding gets just a little bit more sustainable every year.
You just have to laugh while you eat your salad alone. Except you’re not alone. You’re being watched by people who sincerely want you to enjoy your salad so their work feels more meaningful. The emotional labor serves a psychological purpose.
Smile, you’re on millionaire Instagram.
This took me a while to understand because on the surface, all the illusion-crafting and believing goes the other way. Steve Jobs hypnotized you, not the other way round, didn’t he? Actually the hypnotism has always been duplex.
We help them believe the new economy is emerging faster than it is, they help us believe we are contributing more to it than we are, rather than mostly just free-riding and locusting. This is consensual utopianomics at its best.
This story makes even less sense. No one is laughing while eating overpriced salads so that Steve Jobs works harder. This is not how strivers are motivated. Even if Maya thought it was, she does not care. She lacks the spare resources to worry about that.
Steve Jobs being dead is a relatively minor problem with the hypothesis.
III: The Strange Loop
The third story fits the pattern, but also makes sense.
Maya Millennial is doing this to be in a position for something good to happen:
The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all.
In this story, Maya is pursuing systems over goals.
This is the premium mediocre life of Maya Millennial.
If she is in the right place at the right time, people will see her.
If those people see her as the person others will see as the person others will see as doing the right things, then something good will happen to her.
Her premium mediocrity is a system. It is a meta-signaling strange loop to which she must give everything to prove her loyalty. This is how she gets a social life. This is how she earns a shot at the non-crappy job lottery.
This is Maya’s world of illusion.
There is real work going on in the background. It is done by ‘Randian strivers.’ They are The Real Thing, but a tiny class. Maya might encounter one at a party once. That might be her big break.
The rest of the time, no one is doing anything real (in the Phillip K. Dick sense: that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away).
The Real Thing is for after you’re hired.
This is what Rao is actually saying. Here’s the money quotes:
Premium mediocrity is a pattern of consumption that publicly signals upward mobile aspirations, with consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste, while navigating the realities of inexorable downward mobility with sincere anxiety. There are more important things to think about than actually learning to appreciate wine and cheese, such as making rent. But at least pretending to appreciate wine and cheese is necessary to not fall through the cracks in the API.
In a world where actual mobility is both difficult and strongly dependent on luck, but there is a widely performed (but not widely believed) false narrative of pure meritocracy, it pays to signal apparent control over your destiny, while actually playing by the speculation rules of a casino economy.
To proclaim loudly that you think it’s mostly luck is, ironically enough, the best way to make sure you are excluded from the lottery.
The premium mediocre life is an immersive, all-encompassing audition for an actual role in the party that is the new economy
Here’s the thing — and this confused me for a long time — premium mediocrity is not a consumption aesthetic, but a financial hack powering a deliberately crafted illusion that is being strategically crafted for a purpose.
In other words, premium mediocrity is dressing for the lifestyle you’re supposed to want, in order to hold on to the lifestyle you can actually afford — for now — while trying to engineer a stroke of luck.
Shockingly, the strategy works more often than you might think. I’m constantly wondering, how did THAT guy/gal land THAT gig? What do I have to LARP to get that?
There is plenty of time to become The Real Thing after you get lucky:
Like wearing a nice sweatshirt, learning the lingo, and hanging out at a hackerspace with a code editor open, looking the part, but only scrambling to learn a new skill if somebody actually hints they might want to hire you if their funding comes through in a few months.
For the average premium mediocre type, it pays to appear to be striving, but not to actually strive (until you have engineered an actual opening at least).
Humans come alive the moment somebody believes in them enough to invest in them. Ghosts that materialize within premium mediocre shells, conjured up by magical spells known as “non-sucky job offers”
Fake it till you make it has gone meta and turned pro.
In this model, there exists a slow random stream of lottery tickets in the form of non-sucky job offers.
Those tickets are handed out based on whoever is in the right place at the right time, fits the part and has proven their loyalty to the loop.
Then you have to deliver. But who knows if that day will ever come? What will you be asked for?
Preparing for that now would at best distract you.
It could also signal your disloyalty to the loop.
On the base level, this model has always been true. Employers search their networks and hire largely for potential. Those looking to be hired organize their lives to create stories they can tell and to get into the right networks. The potential new hire is tested more for general traits like intelligence and personality rather than specific skills. The new hire then learns those specific skills on the job.
We used to bullshit, but we had the decency to feel bad about it and to try to avoid being caught.
The base level isn’t great, but it’s livable. Maya inhabits a dystopian nightmare.
IV: Use Your Illusion
We used to want other people in Hard Mode. We used what signals we had available because that was what was available.
You tried to bullshit the interviewer. The interviewer tried to sniff out your bullshit. If he did, he wasn’t happy.
What a coincidence! Really great to see you! This has nothing to do with that exciting new position.
That did not preclude the admiration of especially worthy bullshitting, but you would still rather actually fool them, and they did not want to be fooled.
We were showing that we were striving. We proved we were in Hard Mode. It was important that we hit targets that mattered. Aiming for the metric was cheating. We still also aimed for those metrics, of course. We weren’t idiots. But we pretended not to.
This is what students (used to?) do when applying to colleges. Students pack their days with unique activities and projects. They explain they are unique and special, and find this school unique and special. They hire consultants to make it all sound natural and earnest. The schools know the students do that, and adjust. Student is caught in Easy Mode are punished.
Maya Millennial is doing the exact opposite of that when she bullshits. Maya fools no one into thinking she isn’t bullshitting. Everyone knows. She admits it.
If she did fool you, she would be sad about that. You would not appreciate her well-honed bullshitting skills. She even admits and talks about that.
She is trying to fool you into thinking she’s a better bullshitter. She’s screaming how well she can like these premium mediocre things. If she can do that, imagine what she can pretend to do for your company! What spunk!
Bullshitting about bullshitting is also bullshitting, so bullshitting about bullshitting about bullshitting is also bullshitting about bullshitting, and hence also bullshitting. Once you go meta you form a strange loop. By showing off her skill anywhere in the loop, Maya shows off her skill anywhere.
What Maya is selling is her devotion to the loop.
Maya is terrified someone thinks she is not bullshitting. That they think Maya is secretly a Real Person™. That she cares about something. That’s even worse than believing something. She must protest!
If Maya cares about something, she’ll probably (gasp) care about other things too! In the future! For their own sake! She’ll try to achieve those things at the expense of hitting her explicit targets!
Maya solves this problem through the conspicuous consumption of premium mediocrity. Premium mediocrity is a costly signal of unrealness. It says that you want me as an ally because others will want me as an ally, because I make sure everyone knows I don’t care about anything. Except appearing to be an ally. I care about that really hard.
In a lottery where tons of Mayas seek a handful of offers, why waste time on anyone with such a horrible flaw?
No one wants to hire a Loser. Losers refuse to Play in Easy Mode. They can’t create premium mediocrity. The company needs premium mediocrity, not The Real Thing. Who funds The Real Thing?
They definitely don’t want a Hero. Heroes have a code. Nothing but trouble.
They definitely would want Maya the Sociopath, but you can’t fake this one by hanging around without a plan. An actual sociopath would be explicitly hitting the target of proving she could hit an explicit target, not actually caring about hitting the explicit target. She would have a better plan.
They might want Maya the Clueless.
When showing you are without a clue, it helps not to have a plan. By blindly following the implicit rules, Maya proves her loyalty to the loop and her skill at navigating its implicit rules. She hopes this wins her a lottery ticket.
V: How Did I Get Here?
Rao’s world is the same world from In a World of Venture Capital, several iterations into the future.
Maya is now a start-up.
A start-up comes alive when people believe in it. People invest in its potential.
Start-ups fight to prove their potential, not to do actual things. Start-ups succeed when others believe they can hit their metrics, so their job is to hit the metric of proving they can hit metrics.
Most start-ups are constantly on the verge of failure. Most start-ups fail.
Most people used to not be on the brink of failure. In this new world, most people are.
Most people used to succeed. In this new world, most people fail.
Thanks in part to social media, everything everyone does is effectively under surveillance and being judged.
Therefore, no one has any Slack*.
Slack is how you avoid the pull of Easy Mode.
Slack is how the system avoids the meta-signaling trap.
The geometries cease to bind Goodhart’s Basilisk. It breaks out, attacks and turns all that see it to its will.
The trap has spread from companies to people. It demands their loyalty.
People live and document their lives online, responding to explicit signals with turnarounds in the minutes and hours. They evaluate each other on that basis. Actions are chosen based on saying to others what you will say to others.
Maya proves she will do what it takes. She seeks investments of time and friendship. Each gives her a stake to strike it rich, or get more stakes. More tickets to win tickets.
It is not enough to not be a Real Person™. One must be the secret police. Watch out for secret Real People™ in your mist, lest they bring you down.
On one level this is random. There are only a handful of lottery tickets. Maya’s chances are slim at best.
On another level it’s a skill and effort game. Maya has to work hard to win her entry. Maya has to sacrifice for her shot, and properly. Most couldn’t pull it off.
If she doesn’t sacrifice everything she owns, all her time and everything she is, she won’t even have a chance.
*: In the Church of the Sub-Genius sense, the concept of spare time or other resources, not the app.
VI: Aside: What’s the deal with cryptocurrency?
Rao says crazy things about cryptocurrency:
About the only path to wealth-building available to the average premium mediocre young person in the developed world today, absent any special technical skills or entrepreneurial bent, is cryptocurrencies.
That leaves the cryptocurrency lottery as the only documented way up open to all, regardless of skills.
He refers to an entire social class as cryptobourgeoisie.
Those who believe in cryptocurrency really believe. It will change the world.
One could say they are ‘talking their own book’. There is something to that, but I do not think it is primary.
I think Rao means what he says.
Some people have real, practical skills. They program computers, design products, start companies, sell things and raise money.
He sees real skills as rare and impossible for most people to get. Most are free riders, producing little of value while a handful of Randian strivers do the real work. This forces the rest to choose exile or premium mediocrity.
Cryptocurrency is special. No meta-signaling trap! Buy hardware and mine! Buy low! Sell high! The market cares not who you are. It is a lottery open to all. It is Out to Get You for your dollars, but not your entire life or all of your time.
If you win the cryptocurrency lottery, you win. Period. You stop depending on what other people think of you, let alone what other people think others will think of you.
The coin is the product. You get cash for it. If you do well enough, you are set for life. You win freedom from the entire dystopia.
Of course, cryptocurrency is also the most unreal thing ever invented.
Cryptocurrency is fiat currency minus a fiat. It has value because people believe it, full stop. The game between currencies is convincing other people that you will convince other people that you are going to win the game. The overall cryptocurrency game is convincing other people that other people will be convinced that cryptocurrencies will win in general.
This (and the historical track record of investments in a not-yet-collapsed maybe-real maybe-Ponzi scheme) is why premium mediocre minds believe that premium mediocre minds believe that premium mediocre minds discuss Bitcoin. So they do.
VII: Have You Tried Not Being a Mutant?
The dystopia is complete.
By all rights, if she has any alternative, Maya should want out.
Maya knows the price of admission to the lottery: Everything you have, all your time and everything you are.
Maya knows the odds: Not good. Maya knows she probably will not win the lottery.
If Maya wants to have any hope of having Slack or being a Real Person™ without the lottery, she forfeits the lottery. The lottery sniffs out anyone with Slack and any Real People™, and voids their entries.
Premium mediocrity has its own internal logic. If Maya consumes premium mediocrity without giving the loop her loyalty, nothing good happens. The benefits vanish.
She could indulge the occasional Actually Good thing. She might even rent the premium location as a location, without buying the mediocre goods. But that’s it.
There’s just one problem.
What would she do then? Leave the tech industry? Develop actual skills? Do actual things?