Jason Treit
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Liisa, 26

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“Today my clothing was inspired by my stairway with light orange and light green walls. Actually this color mixture reminds me of puke. I am an active user of colors and I don't feel myself cozy in black. My forever sources of inspiration: monochromatism, retrofuturism, sex and fairytales.”

25 July 2017, Mannerheimintie

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4 days ago
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When Pixels Collide

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Last weekend, a fascinating act in the history of humanity played out on Reddit.

For April Fool's Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:

Each pixel you see was placed by hand. Each icon, each flag, each meme created painstakingly by millions of people who had nothing in common except an Internet connection. Somehow, someway, what happened in Reddit over those 72 hours was the birth of Art.

How did this happen?

While I followed Place closely, I cannot do justice to the story behind it in the few words here. There were countless dramas -- countless ideas, and fights, and battles, and wars -- that I don't even know about. They happened in small forums and private Discord chats, with too much happening at once, all the time, to keep track of everything. And, of course, I had to sleep.

But at its core, the story of Place is an eternal story, about the three forces that humanity needs to make art, creation, and technology possible.

The Creators

First came the Creators. They were the artists to whom the blank canvas was an irresistible opportunity.

When Place was launched, with no warning, the first users started placing pixels willy-nilly, just to see what they could do. Within minutes, the first sketches appeared on Place. Crude and immature, they resembled cavemen paintings, the work of artists just stretching their wings.

Even from that humble beginning, the Creators quickly saw that the pixels held power, and lots of potential. But working alone, they could only place one pixel every 5 or 10 minutes. Making anything more meaningful would take forever -- if someone didn't mess up their work as they were doing it. To make something bigger, they would have to work together.

That's when someone hit on the brilliant notion of a gridmap. They took a simple idea -- a drawing overlaid on a grid, that showed where each of the pixels should go -- and combined it with an image that resonated with the adolescent humor of Redditors. They proposed drawing Dickbutt.

The Placetions (denizens of r/place) quickly got to work. It didn't take long -- Dickbutt materialized within minutes in the lower left part of the canvas. The Place had its first collaborative Art.

But Creators didn't stop there. They added more appendages to the creature, they added colors, and then they attempted to metamorphize their creation into Dickbutterfly. Behind its silliness was the hint of a creative tsunami about to come.

But it didn't happen all at once. Creators started to get a little drunk on their power. Across the canvas from Dickbutt, a small Charmander came to life. But once the Pokemon character was brought to life, it started growing a large male member where once had been a leg. Then came two more.

This was not by design. Some Creators frantically tried to remove the offending additions, putting out calls to "purify" the art, but others kept the additions going.

Suddenly, it looked like Place would be a short-lived experiment that took the path of least surprise. Left to their own devices, Creators threatened to turn the Place into a phallic fantasy. Of course.

The problem was less one of immaturity, and more of the fundamental complexity of the creative process. What the Creators were starting to face was something that would become the defining theme of Place: too much freedom leads to chaos. Creativity needs constraint as much as it needs freedom.

When anyone could put any pixel anywhere, how does it not lead immediately to mayhem?

The Protectors

Another set of users emerged, who would soon address this very problem.

But like the primitive Creators, they weren't yet self-aware of their purpose on the great white canvas. Instead, they began by simplifying the experiment into a single goal: world conquest.

They formed Factions around colors, that they used to take over the Place with. The Blue Corner was among the first, and by far the largest. It began in the bottom right corner and spread like a plague. Its followers self-identified with the color, claiming that its manifest destiny was to take over Place. Pixel by pixel, they started turning it into reality, in a mad land grab over the wide open space.

The Blue Corner wasn't alone. Another group started a Red Corner on the other side of the canvas. Their users claimed a leftist political leaning. Yet another started the Green Lattice, which went for a polka-dot design with interspersing green pixels and white. They championed their superior efficiency, since they only had to color half as many pixels as the other Factions.

It wasn't long before the Factions ran head-on into the Creators. Charmander was among the first battle sites. As the Blue Corner began to overwrite the Pokemon with blue pixels, the Creators turned from their internecine phallic wars to the bigger threat now on their doorstep.

They fought back, replacing each blue pixel with their own. But the numbers were against them. With its single-minded focus on expansion, the Blue Corner commanded a much larger army than the Creators could muster. So they did the only thing they could do. They pled for their lives.

Somehow, it struck a chord. It ignited a debate within the Blue Corner. What was their role in relation to Art? A member asked: "As our tide inevitably covers the world from edge to edge, should we show mercy to other art we come across?"

This was a question each Faction faced in turn. With all the power given to them by their expansionary zeal, what were they to do about the art that stood in their path?

They all decided to save it. One by one, each of the Factions began flowing around the artwork, rather than through them.

Rebel against Bluegoisie all you want, but let's make one thing clear: THESE THREE ARE OFF ABSOLUTELY OFF LIMITS. THEY ARE NOT TO BE HARMED. from place

This was a turning point. The mindless Factions had turned into beneficent Protectors.

Still No Happy Ending

Finally at peace with the ravenous color horde, the Creators turned back to their creations. They started making them more complex, adding one element after another.

They started using 3-pixel fonts to write text. A Star Wars prequel meme that had been sputtering along took a more defined shape, becoming one of the most prominent pieces of art in Place.

Others formed Creator collectives around common projects. Organizing in smaller subreddits that they created just for this purpose, they planned strategies and shared templates.

One of the most successful was a group that added a Windows 95-esque taskbar along the bottom, replete with Start button in the corner.

Another were a block of hearts. They started with only a few, mimicking hearts of life in old bitmap video games, like Zelda, before their collective took off with the idea. By the end they stretched across half the canvas, in a dazzling array of flags and designs.

And of course, there was Van Gogh.

But not all was well. The Protectors who they had once welcomed with relief had become tyrants dictating fashion. They decided what could and couldn't be made. It wasn't long before Creators started chafing under their rule.

Meanwhile, with the issue of artwork resolved, the Factions had turned their sights on each other, forcing followers to choose sides in epic battles. They had little time to pay attention to the pathetic pleas of Creators who wanted approval for ideas of new art.

The fights between the Protectors got nasty. A Twitch live-streamer exhorted his followers to attack the Blue Corner with Purple. There were battle plans. There were appeals to emotion. There were even false-flag attacks, where the followers of one color placed pixels of the opposing side inside their own, just so they could cry foul and attack in return.

But the biggest problem of all was one of the only hard rules of Place -- it couldn't grow. With the Factions engaged in a massive battle among themselves, the Creators started realizing there wasn't space to make new Art.

Country flags had started emerging pretty much from the beginning. But as they grew and grew, they started bumping into each other.

Out in the unclaimed territory of the middle of the canvas, with no Protector to mediate between them, Germany and France engaged in an epic battle that sent shockwaves through Place.

Suddenly, a world that had been saved from its primitive beginnings looked like it would succumb to war. There were frantic attempts at diplomacy between all sides. Leaders form the Protectors and the Creators and met each other in chat rooms, but mostly they just pointed fingers at each other.

What Place needed was a villain that everyone could agree upon.

The Destroyers

Enter the Void.

They started on 4chan, Reddit's mangled, red-headed step-brother. It wasn't long before the pranksters on the Internet's most notorious imageboard took notice of what was happening on Reddit. It was too good an opportunity for them to pass up. And so they turned to the color closest to their heart -- black. They became the Void.

Like a tear spreading slowly across the canvas, black pixels started emerging near the center of Place.

At first, other Factions tried to form an alliance with them, foolishly assuming that diplomacy would work. But they failed, because the Void was different.

The Void was no Protector. Unlike the Factions, it professed no loyalty to Art. Followers of the Void championed its destructive egalitarianism, chanting only that "the Void will consume." They took no sides. They only wanted to paint the world black.

This was exactly the kick in the ass that Place needed. While Creators had been busy fighting each other, and Protectors still measured themselves by the extent of canvas they controlled, a new threat -- a real threat -- had emerged under their nose.

Against the face of extinction, they banded together to fight the Void and save their Art.

But the Void was not easy to vanquish, because the Place needed it. It needed destruction so that new Art, better Art, would emerge from the ashes. Without the Void, there was no force to clean up the old Art.

I used to hate the Void but watching the time-lapses I see they're a vital part of the r/place ecosystem. Like a forest fire making way for new life. from place

And so, by design or not, the Void gave birth to some of the largest Art in the Place.

Take, for example, the part of the canvas right in the center. Almost since the very beginning, it had been one of the most contested areas on the map. Time and again, Creators had tried to claim the territory for their own. First with icons. Then with a coordinated attempt at a prism.

But the Void ate them all. Art after art succumbed to its ravenous appetite for chaos.

And yet, this was exactly what Place needed. By destroying art, the Void forced Placetions to come up with something better. They knew they could overcome the sourge. They just needed an idea good enough, with enough momentum and enough followers, to beat the black monster.

That idea was the American flag.

In the last day of Place, a most unlikely coalition came together to beat back the Void, once and for all.

They were people who otherwise tear each other apart every day -- Trump supporters and Trump resisters, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Europeans. And here they were coming together to build something together, on a little corner of the Internet, proving in an age when such cooperation seems impossible, that they still can.

The Ancients Were Right

Reddit's experiment ended soon after. There are so many more stories hidden deep in the dozens of subreddits and chat rooms that cropped up around Place. For every piece of artwork I mentioned, there are hundreds more on the final canvas. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that on an anonymous, no-holds-barred space on the Internet, there were no hate or racist symbols at all on the final canvas.

It is a beautiful circle of art, life and death. And it isn't the first time in our history that we've seen it.

Many millenia before Place, when humanity itself was still in its infancy (the real one, not the one on Reddit), Hindu philosophers theorized that the Heavens were made of three competing, but necessary, deities that they called the Trimurti. They were Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer.

Without any single one of them, the Universe would not work. For there to be light, there needed to be dark. For there to be life, there needed to be death. For there to be creation and art, there needed to be destruction.

Over the last few days, their vision proved prescient. In the most uncanny way, Reddit proved that human creation requires all three.

The Final Canvas

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8 days ago
Missed r/place when it happened. Kept noticing offhand references to it in the months afterward. Obsessed now.
8 days ago
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By chris24 in "Twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!" on MeFi

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Since Antifa and MLK are coming up, this thread may be of interest. By a history professor at CUNY who focuses on social movements and change.

@studentactivism Retweeted Wonton Pannekoek
If you reflexively oppose antifa today, you probably would have opposed the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.
@forstudentpower: Your regularly-scheduled reminder to not let public opinion dictate how we fight for liberation. From May 1961:
Do you approve of disapprove of what the freedom riders are doing? Approve 22%, Disapprove 61%, No Opinion 18%

Do you think "sit-ins" are lunch counters, freedom buses and other demonstrations by Negroes will hurt or help the Negroes chances of being integrated in the South? Help 28%, Hurt 57%, No Opinion 16%

By far most common rebuttal to my tweet has been some version of the below:
@IAmUnrepentant Replying to @studentactivism: Violent protests vs. Non-violent. Need I say more?

The lunch counter sit-ins were nonviolent, the argument goes, and antifa is not. That's a bright-line distinction. No comparison. There's a few problems with that, though. First of all, not all lunch counter sit-ins were nonviolent. Let's take a look...
- High Point, NC. Feb 15, 1960. Fistfights outside sit-in. Local NAACP leader says protesters will continue to fight back. [screenshot of news story]
- Tampa, March 1, 1960. Fight breaks out between lunch counter sit-in demonstrators and opponents. [screenshot]
- Feb 16, 1960, Portsmouth, VA. Hundreds brawl after scuffle at lunch counter sit-in, wielding razors and hammers. [screenshot]

And this is just a snapshot of a month's coverage of the movement in the New York Times. There was plenty more. Today we see the lunch counter sit-ins as uniformly nonviolent. But they weren't, and they weren't seen that way at the time. So if your view is that any recourse to violence renders a protest movement illegitimate, you would have opposed the lunch counter sit-ins.

"But wait!" I hear you cry. "Those acts of violence took place outside the sit-ins. They didn't represent the values of the organizers." Well, there's some problems with that analysis, too. First, the sit-ins, like antifa, weren't a centrally coordinated, ideologically uniform, movement. Lots of people participated in sit-ins for lots of different reasons, with lots of different attitudes toward nonviolence. There wasn't any one "real" sit-in ideology, and there isn't any one "real" antifa approach. There's wide variation in each. If your view of antifa is "some of it is good, some bad, some makes me nervous," then you probably would have been down with the sit-ins. And here's another thing about the lunch counter sit-ins. A lot of people opposed them because they worried they'd *provoke* violence. Here's the Providence (RI) Journal, quoted in the Times in March 1960: [screenshot] These days we understand violence provoked by protest as the moral burden of those who commit it. But that idea was controversial in 1960.

Which brings us to a larger point. The idea that the line between good/bad protest is violence is, as a matter of conventional wisdom, NEW. In 1960, a lot of good, antiracist liberals hated the idea of protests that violated the law, or that put protesters at risk of harm. And beyond their moral objections, many saw such tactics as deeply counterproductive, likely to make things worse, not better. Here's Gov. LeRoy Collins of Florida, a critic of segregation, in 1960: [screenshot] Why did so many liberals see sit-ins as wrong in 1960? And why do their heirs see them as the apotheosis of productive protest now? Because their tactics worked. Because they won.

Okay. Let's go back to the tweet I started all this off with, and let me say a bit more about what I meant by it. Actually, let me start by saying what I DIDN'T mean by it, and what I didn't say, then or later. My position is not that all antifa tactics are good, or that antifa and the lunch counter sit-ins are morally indistinguishable. Antifa has a different center of gravity than the lunch counter sit-ins when it comes to violence. That difference is morally relevant. It is ABSOLUTELY possible to articulate a coherent moral position in favor of the sit-ins and in opposition to antifa. That is indisputable. But look at what I said in the first tweet: If you're REFLEXIVELY opposed to antifa now, you probably would have opposed the sit-ins then. Most Americans—most antiracist Americans, even—opposed the sit-ins in 1960. Why? Because sit-ins were a radical, confrontational tactic. If you REFLEXIVELY—that is, without study, without disaggregation, without weighing opposing views—oppose antifa now? Well, guess what? You're a person who, LIKE MOST PEOPLE, responds instinctively negatively to novel, radical tactics for achieving social change. And people who responded instinctively negatively to novel, radical tactics for achieving social change in 1960? Didn't support the sit-ins.

So what do I think about antifa? What's my position as a scholar of social movements and a supporter of radical action? Man, I don't know. I mean, I do know, sort of. I support putting your body on the line in defense of the defenseless, as antifa often does. I support responding emphatically to fascist violence and threats of violence. I believe in making bullies fear for their safety. Do I believe that sometimes it's necessary to punch a fascist before they punch someone else? Yeah. Am I wholly comfortable with that? No. Do I entirely trust what happens when you give someone a mask and a club and a sense of moral rectitude? Nope nope nope. Hell no. So where do I stand on antifa? Here: I'm working on it. I'm chewing on it. I'm learning and thinking. Do I support antifa? Tell me which antifa you mean. Tell me what they're doing. And then I'll tell you.
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9 days ago
Well argued. Most of my fine grained critiques of radical resistance as it is actually practiced are subordinate to more coarse grained conservative reflexes I've developed in the last decade: it's hard for me to resist the professor's conclusion that I would have found plausible sounding reasons to oppose the radical protest movements of the 1960s were I in my mid thirties then.

There's also Tyler Cowen's complacency thesis about how the scope of possible resistance has been boxed in by rising expectations of omnipresent comfort. Or: America could use more riots.

I'll just be sitting here at my computer.
21 days ago
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The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial


A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

It is not hard to learn to pattern-match premium mediocre. In my sample of several dozen people I roped into the game, only one had serious trouble getting the idea. Most of the examples below, and all the really good ones, came from others.

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. 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.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

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. Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.

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.

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.

But the demographic at the very heart of the phenomenon, the sine qua non of premium mediocrity, is the young, gentrifier class of Blue Bicoastal Millennials. The rent-over-own, everything-as-a-service class of precarious young professionals auditioning for a shot at the neourban American dream, sans condo ownership somewhere at a reasonable distance from both the nearest meth lab and minority ghetto.

It is a class for which I have profound affection, and one whose eventual success I am sincerely rooting for. In a generally devastated global human condition, the Blue Bicoastal Millennials of the US represent The Little Demographic That Could.

Premium mediocrity is the story of Maya Millennial, laughing alone with her salad. She’s just not a millionaire…yet. She just doesn’t have a mansion…yet. She just doesn’t drive a Tesla…yet.

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.

As a result, as another buddy Rob Salkowitz put it in our Facebook discussion, premium mediocrity is creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone.

On the production side, “democratization” of anything previously considered actually premium, through disintermediation of pompous but knowledgeable experts, in the name of “consumer choice,” generally creates a premium mediocre economic sector, with a decent selection available at Costco.

Reach Up, Don’t Crash

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.

As practiced by its core class of Bernie voters, premium mediocrity is ultimately a rational adaptive response to the challenge of scoring a middle-class life lottery ticket in the new economy. It is an economic and cultural rearguard action by young people launched into life from the old middle class, but not quite equipped to stay there, and trying to engineer a face-saving soft landing…somewhere.

Not all who participate in the culture of premium mediocrity share in the precarity that defines its core, trend-setting, thingness-defining sub-class, but precarity is the source of the grammar and visual aesthetic — and it is primarily visual — of premium mediocrity.

How big is the premium mediocre class? My scientific #TrueNews twitter poll reveals that at least in my neck of the online woods, 58% identify as premium mediocre gentry (N=127).

At a more macro-sociological level, as my opening graphic illustrates, premium mediocre is a kind of modern proto middle class, born of a vanishing old middle class, and attempting to fake it while waiting for a replacement to appear under their feet while they tread water. It is a class sandwiched between the crypotobourgeoisie above and the API below.

Why this particular class sandwich? It has to do with mobility options.

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.

The traditional wealth-building strategy in the US, home ownership, has turned into a mix of a mug’s game and unassailable NIMBY rentierism.

The public markets are no longer reliable wealth builders, while the private markets exclude almost everybody who isn’t already wealthy.

And the tech-startup options lottery and media-celebrity games are not open to those who can’t program at world-eating levels or shitpost at election-winning levels.

That leaves the cryptocurrency lottery as the only documented way up open to all, regardless of skills. Like many other denizens of the premium mediocre class, I too am aspiring cryptobourgeoisie, awaiting The Flippening.

To be fair, the actual cryptobourgeoisie, comprising bitcoin and ether cryptomillionaires, is a tiny class; a representative narrative placeholder rather than a social reality. The name is synecdoche; the cryptobourgeoisie includes anyone who’s made it through any kind of mostly-dumb-luck Internet get-rich-quick scheme anytime in the last couple of decades.

For the most part, even as the too-big-to-fail 1% class and the tech-nouveau-riche consolidate a new nobility, there is no real equivalent to a haute bourgeoisie class today. The cryptobourgeoisie is a sign that one might emerge though.

This thought led me to my most premium mediocre tweet of the year so far:

And below? There lies the terrifying structural boundary of our times — the API. Today, you’re either above the API or below the API. You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do. To crash through the API, and into what I previously termed the Jeffersonian middle class, is to go from being predator to prey in the locust economy.

To live a premium mediocre life is to live this pattern of potential social mobility. Many of my friends — the fraction who inhabit the tech scene but aren’t actual #entitledtechies pulling down #DeepLearning money — are from this class. The more fortunate ones occasionally break into the cryptobourgeoisie for days to weeks at a time, depending on the current value of bitcoin and ether.

The less fortunate ones have to occasionally patch over lean months with a stint of Uber or Lyft driving on the DL, under the API.

People like me, old enough and lucky enough to have earned some freebie institutional capital, socked away some 401k dollars, and earned something of a professional career rep before the shit hit the fan around 2008, are somewhere in between.

Like Molly Millennial, I’m not a millionaire…yet. But I also haven’t had to drive a Lyft…yet. As a Gen X’er with lots of free college under my belt, the momentum of my decade in the paycheck economy has created a certain amount of stability in my life that people a decade younger than me usually lack.

This is the tense, fragile, calm of a social order pretending furiously that it is not unraveling, even as a new breed of zero-sum political opportunist is gaining power by pointing out its necessary hypocrisies.

That’s what the Trumpenproletariat don’t get. The apparent hypocrisy of the bicoastal “elites” (really, the premium mediocre) isn’t weakness or low moral fiber. It is a necessary fiction that’s critical to the bootstrapping logic of the new economy.

The question is, why? Who is served by the pretense? To what end is it maintained? Is it a useful hypocrisy that leads to better things, or a toxic one? How can you too, be premium mediocre? Where should you get your premium mediocre lunch?

Before we can address these questions, we have to understand what premium mediocrity is not.

What Premium Mediocre is Not

Here’s the thing that distinguishes premium mediocrity from related concepts like middle-class fancy, nouveau riche, arriviste, and petit bourgeoisie. Though it is a social response to similar forces (a high-inequality gilded age marking an economy in radical transition from one kind of middle-class wealth-building to another), there are two elements that, I think, distinguish premium mediocrity from its transitional-middle-class cousins through the ages.

First, the consumers of premium mediocre things are generally strongly and acutely self-aware about what they are doing. In the age of Yelp reviews, memes, and Twitter trends, you have to be living under a rock to harbor strong illusions about how what you consume is perceived by your more tasteful peers. It is not a false consciousness in the traditional fish-in-water sense.

So premium mediocrity is not clueless, tasteless consumption of mediocrity under the mistaken impression that it is actual luxury consumption. Maya Millennial is aware that what she is consuming is mediocre at its core, and only “premium” in some peripheral (and importantly, cheap, such as French-for-no-reason branding) ways. But she consumes it anyway. She is aware that her consumption is tasteless, yet she pretends it is tasteful anyway. To quote scholar of taste Gabe Duquette, she consumes pablum knowing it’s pablum.

Sidebar: The Avocado Toast Paradox

There is an exception to the idea that premium mediocre things are always mediocre at the core, which I call the avocado toast paradox. Avocado toast is Actually Good,™ to use another term of art coined by Gabe Duquette, despite being legitimately premium mediocre too. This is not really a paradox. It just seems like one. Here’s why.

Though the typical premium mediocre product is an inferior good in the guise of a Veblen good, there are some things that manage to be premium mediocre by virtue of being higher-quality, but lower-utility substitutes for higher-utility experiences. Avocado toast is a good example. You can get a heartier but more mediocre (and less photogenic) breakfast item for the same price. Cupcakes follow the same logic. So does kale. All these foods might taste Actually Good,™ but might leave you hungry.

This exception exists because premium mediocrity is by and large sanguine rather than melancholic about itself. It does not wallow in brooding despair about its own precarity. It is not joyless. It likes to occasionally actually treat itself, instead of only pretending to, without disturbing the fiction it presents.

At its worst though, the avocado toast exception can lead to really weird trade-off patterns. I know of at least one pretty young woman who forgoes food for expensive Actually Good™ purses, an extreme instance of what is known as trading up. She is neither anorexic, nor particularly narcissistic. She has an entire clever repertoire of canny lifehacker tricks to score free food. Young women seem to be grandmasters at the 8D chess that is the game of premium mediocrity.

Another example that came up for discussion on my Facebook wall was really good grilled-cheese sandwiches. Are they premium mediocre or not? Depends. If they are consumed instead of two cheaper, but more mediocre meals, they are premium mediocre. If they are a substitute for an average grilled cheese sandwich, a rare gouda-over-velveeta treat, then they are a kind of middle-class fancy.

Premium mediocrity then, is a function of context and intentions, rather than absolute taste.

Second the distinguishing feature is that premium mediocrity only signals an appearance of striving upwards. Everybody in the premium mediocre world recognizes that it is not a reliable indicator of actual upward striving, such as number of code commits on github, or non-bot retweets achieved by on a tweet.

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.

New Economy Social Hitchhikers

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.

Premium mediocrity is the idea of the towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide. A show put on to serve as an attractor of a certain kind of social serendipity, such as being picked for one of the scarce non-technical, non-skilled jobs in the tech economy because you’ve been tweeting and exercising right, in the right kind of hoodie or yoga pants. As Douglas Adams observed:

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

I’ll call this towel-based personal branding, TBPB. The strags in this picture are those who’ve actually made it in the new economy and have new wealth available for trickle-down operations.

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). To dress up near-pure gambling as near-pure Horatio-Alger-heroism. That’s towel-based personal branding.

The presence of two features — being aware of one’s own mediocrity, and faking striving — help distinguish premium mediocrity from several related concepts. Middle-class fancy, for example, is simply a sort of low-end luxury (“fancy” by the way, is an official grade designation for peanuts by the USDA) favored by the tasteless but non-precarious suburban middle class.

Premium mediocrity is also not the same as what another buddy, Chris Anderson (no not the one you’re thinking of, this one), in my original Facebook thread, dubbed “mediocre premium, aka aristocratic shabby”, which is simply diminished wealth adjusting to a lower standard of living, but not existentially distressed by financial worries. That would be things like trading a Benz for a Lexus or downsizing to a smaller house by selling a bigger one.

Premium mediocrity combines elements of the brave face-saving resigned downward mobility of a Tennessee Williams heroine, and the sunny optimism of Dickens’ Micawber, but is more complex than either.

Unlike Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the premium mediocre actively conjure up the kindness of strangers with towel-based personal branding rather than relying on unfocused forces of cosmic serendipity. They make their own luck; they clickbait the kindness of the new elite into their lives by laughing over their salads.

And unlike Micawber, who lives a manic-depressive cyclic life between actual optimistic striving and debtors-prison despair, the premium mediocre merely collect Foursquare mayorships (is that still a thing?) rather than actually striving to become Mayor like Micawber.

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?

Because after all, we live in a more complex age than even the most prescient premium mediocre French intellectuals foresaw. One in which an emerging, not-quite-there-yet middle class must put on a show of substance for two other classes that need to believe it already kinda exists: Boomer parents and universe-denting Big Man entrepreneurs.

The Parents Are Alright

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.

Viewed as a voluntarily chosen consumption aesthetic, premium mediocrity does not make sense. Why would anyone knowingly pay too much for obviously inferior products and experiences? Why would anyone pay a premium merely to present a facade of upward striving? Why would anyone participate in maintaining a false consciousness knowing it is false? Why would anyone choose the Blue Pill if it didn’t come with a comforting amnesia?

Why would you give up consumption value for signaling value if none of your in-group peers, among whom you are striving for status, is actually fooled by the signaling?

Who is the illusion for?

Part of the answer, in one word, is parents.

Premium mediocrity is in part a theater put on by Maya Millennial in part to spare the feelings of parents. Inter-generational love, not inter-generational war.

The premium mediocre harbor few illusions about their economic condition. The false consciousness at the heart of it is manufactured for the benefit of a parental generation that is convinced it has set the kids up for success.

In the blame-the-millennials generational war, we sometimes forget that millennials are the children of boomers, and that by and large, broken families aside, there is genuine affection going both ways. It is important for parents to believe that their hard work through the late eighties and nineties was not for nothing. That they succeeded as parents. That they set the kids up for a life better than their own.

That despite everything, their kids are alright; it’s only others’ kids who are all about participation trophies, narcissism, and entitlement.

It is stupid to doubt this. Parents everywhere generally want their kids to do better than they did, and enjoy advantages they did not. To this end, they will eagerly buy into even the flimsiest theater of success put up by the kids, and avoid asking too many pointed questions that might ruin the illusion.

No normal parent actively wishes a lower standard of living on a child coming of age. It’s just that the economy sometimes does not play ball with the best-laid plans of parents and teachers.

Equally, it is stupid to think that average millennials actively want to hurt their parents. The minor skirmishing around entitlement, participation trophies, snowflakiness, and performative narcissism is a sideshow featuring other parent-child relationships, not yours. By and large, most young people I know simply want to spare their parents the pain of facing the fact that despite their best efforts at parenting, they are struggling.

So the false consciousness — the maya at the heart of premium mediocrity — is one manufactured for the benefit of parents who desperately want to believe that they succeeded as parents and that their kids are thriving. And it is manufactured by kids who, almost as desperately, want to spare their parents the pain of knowing that they aren’t thriving.

That’s one half of the story, the backward-looking half, the passing-the-torch half. It is the part that forces a laugh at unfunny Dad jokes when Dad needs validation, and helps him feel useful assembling Ikea furniture. It’s the part that assures Mom that everything is okay and that the job is fun and that they’re going places and that they will land an art-history job with stock options and that the stock options will pay off enough for a downpayment on a house anytime now.

This is the half of the story that’s young people telling their parents they are Perfectly Normal Beasts, not disoriented and punch-drunk creatures from an entirely different economic planet who visit home through a time-space rift on Thanksgiving.

It’s why it’s worth paying that premium dollar to reassure the parents that the kids are alright. Because that’s the only way the kids can know that the parents are alright, and will live out their lives relatively untroubled by futile concerns they can do nothing to address.

Because the harsh reality is that the kids are largely on their own. They are beyond the ability of parents to help.

My parents still think I’m the reliably and steadily occupied suit-and-tie McKinsey-type consultant rather than an opportunistic skirmisher on the edge of that world. They think I am a dead-trees type writer rather than a traffic gambler. They aren’t entirely sure what a blog is. They think it’s my hobby. When I tell them I made a bit of money investing, they think stocks, not blockchains. I’m not even going to try explaining bitcoin to them. They don’t need the aggravation.

That’s the half of the act that is only dropped when parents and other significant elders are either estranged or have passed on, and you don’t have to pretend anymore.

But there’s another half to the story, the part that’s forward-looking and in a weird way, constructive.

Reverse Reality Distortion

What do you do when you find yourself coming of age in a radically unequal society, where the rent is too damn high, success is a serendipitous function of mysterious Internet trends your parents assume you’ve magically mastered in the cradle, and the only skill of unquestionable value —  programming computers well — is relatively hard to acquire and ideally suited only to a minority neurotype?

And just to make things interesting, you are also saddled with debt from a white elephant college education your parents sincerely thought would be your ticket to a good life and you were too young and clueless to avoid. And to make it even more interesting, the entire economic engine of the Brave New Economy requires you to avow belief in the reality of meritocracy and pretend luck plays little to no role.

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.

So you fake it till you make it. Unless you don’t.

If the rear-facing part of the theater of premium mediocre lifestyles is designed to reassure parents that everything is keep-calm-and-carry-on fine, and not falling apart, the front of the house is designed to reassure the captains of new economy that yes, their meritocratic utopia is being constructed on schedule.

That there is a strong deterministic, learnable, and predictable relationship between striving and success; between legible merit and desirable outcomes.

That their playbook for a post-scarcity digital utopia is working as designed.

That the exceptional outcomes they enjoyed can become commonplace.

That there is not just a meritocracy in place, but that it is a broad-based meritocracy, one where most people, not just 10x programmers, can get ahead through cunning plans rather than desperate gambling.

This part of the false consciousness crafting is not so much a bunch of lies as a bunch of helpful, premature exaggerations directed at movers and shakers, a kind of collective visualization exercise. A kind of collective cheerleading to boost the morale of the heroic world-denters.

The wealthy do not actually want to be surrounded by a naked, devastated dystopia. They are not vampires who would enjoy the sight of environments drained of life energy. They like to think they are simply winning the most in a society that’s winning overall.

The things they hope are true are all true. Just not quite as true as the more deluded and tone-deaf among the fortunate like to believe.

It’s like 90% true. We’re 90% of the way towards the brave new world. Utopia is always just 10% away. It just takes the other 90% of the time to get there.

This idea of reverse reality distortion too, took me a while to figure out. Silicon Valley acknowledges the existence of the reality distortion field cast by the conjurers of new wealth. What it does not quite recognize is the reality distortion field that goes the other way: the theater of yes-your-plans-are-succeeding manufactured for the benefit of the leaders, so they continue trying to make the New Economy happen. It’s quite fetch.

Because the New Economy isn’t there yet. And building it is hard work. And signs that the plans aren’t working as smoothly as you think makes it even harder. The work needs cheerleading. Premium mediocre cheerleading suitable for Instagramming.

Because you see, while it is somewhat important that everybody drink some kool-aid, it is absolutely crucial that the leaders drink a lot of their own kool-aid. The geese who lay the golden eggs must not be killed by despair at the slow rate of progress. If they want to believe the wealth being created by the new economy is largely a consequence of their brave, individual, Randian striving, then that illusion must not be disturbed too much.

This little-recognized dynamic is why almost everybody gets the Episode of the Avocado Toast completely wrong. A clueless millionaire-next-door type, fooled by randomness into believing his own success to be a divinely ordained reward for grit rather than a matter of survivorship bias, thinks avocado toast is a substitute for home-ownership savings. This means the premium-mediocre illusion-crafting is working. 

Rejoice fellow-premium-mediocre locusts, our plan worked.

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.

The movers and shakers of the new economy believe sincerely and strongly in their theories of how the world they are creating works. They have to, otherwise they’d be too demotivated to continue building it. They have to believe that merit is rewarded because they sincerely believe in rewarding merit. They have to believe luck isn’t that important. They have to believe a new prosperity is taking root because they genuinely want prosperity for all. They have to believe that more new wealth has been created than is actually in circulation. That the rising tide is raising all boats faster than it actually is. That the new middle-class is bigger than it is. That 8 out of 10 can learn programming and make it rather than 2 out of 10.

That making it to the new world is a matter of grit rather than gambling.

That you’re actually enjoying your premium mediocre salad beneath that method-acted Duchenne smile.

So you see, premium mediocrity is about faking it for them, so they can continue making it for you. 

There are details here. You have to present yourself as an MVP — a minimum viable person. You need lorem ipsum filler in your performed life. Your entire existence is a sort of audition waiting for somebody to replace the stubs of a potential life with the affordances of an actual life. You cannot afford to have the stench of desperation about you, or visible signs of having been defeated by the hollowing-out.

So you must laugh as you eat your salad.

To be picked to thrive, you have to show that you are already thriving and don’t need no stinkin’ luck. You have a towel.

A Naked Call Option on Life Itself

Like all escaped realities, the theater of premium mediocrity that serves as an MVP of post-industrial modernity in our Swedish-styled neourban cores is not actually sustainable in its present form, but it could become sustainable. It is something like a complex stack of individual and collective cultural debt — in the sense of technical debt in software — embodied by what are essentially the wireframes of the new economy and the stick-figures navigating them, rather than a fully functional UI.

This is fine. This is good. This is how agile software development of the new economy should work.

I was puzzled by the economic structure of premium mediocrity until I (re)read this clever refactoring of technical debt as a naked call option. I wouldn’t have understood this as recently as a year ago, but with my newly acquired premium-mediocre cryptoinvesting savvy, and newfound cryptobourgeoisie ambitions, I do.

Unlike a covered call, which is about promising to sell what you actually own, a naked call is about promising to sell what you don’t actually own.

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.

That’s selling a naked call option. Faking it till you make it. Ironically, it calls for careful dressing up.

Like any option, the naked call option that is the premium mediocre life has an expiry date. LARPing a non-role in a meritocracy-by-consensus has a burn-rate to it. At some point you have to drop the pretense, yield your place in the lottery to newer players, and retreat to a cheaper small town and a life of below-the-API subsistence.

But there’s a chance you will win the lottery.

Human beings are odd assets: they acquire the value the moment somebody believes in them. In this they are totally unreal, in the sense of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as that which does not go away when you stop believing in it. 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”.

We shouldn’t be surprised. There is a reason the Hollywood model is the reference for the tech economy. The only difference in the premium mediocre world is that it is the waiting-tables part that’s hidden from view, in the form of aggressive, invisible, price-shopping behaviors. It is the auditions that are in public view.

The premium mediocre life is an immersive, all-encompassing audition for an actual role in the party that is the new economy.

This is necessary of course, to bootstrap an economy built out of larger collective efforts, spanning hundreds or thousands of individuals acting in coordination on increasingly weird new platforms. And there has been progress. Making dollars driving Lyft is better than making pennies selling ads on a blog.

But we’re not there yet. We’re just 90% there, and the other 90% will get done any day now.

But if you don’t want to take your chances in the lottery-locust economy of naked call options that is premium mediocrity, you can try to be a Real Person™ in one of two ways: being a hipster or a lifestyle designer.

How to Be a Real Person™

If we premium mediocre types in the metropolitan neourban cores of the developed world are naked call options, your friendly neighborhood hipster down the street and your friendly online-neighborhood vitamin vendor 12 time zones away are covered call options, but for smaller stakes. They largely only sell what they can already actually deliver. They do not like the high-risk/high-return/short-runway premium mediocre life as a naked human call option in rent-is-too-high places. They tend not to dream too big, like hoping to own an actual house, unless they get unusually lucky.

To understand this, you have to situate premium mediocrity, which is a mainstream ethos, relative to its two marginal subcultural neighbors within the same economic stratum: the hipster class to the left, and the lifestyle-designing Tim Ferriss class to the right.

Unlike Maya Millennial, your friendly neighborhood artisan barista Molly Millennial actually cares enough about taste to log serious hours cultivating itMolly Millennial’s condition is sincerely aestheticized precarity. To forget, if only for a moment, the unsustainability of one’s economic condition by making obsessively high-quality latte art, is to access a temporary retreat from awareness of your false consciousness.

And at the other end of the spectrum you have the hustler, Max Millennial, arbitraging living costs and, with a bit of geo-financial judo, attempting a Boydian flanking maneuver around the collapsing middle-class script.

Four-hour workweek my ass. The Bali-based lifestyle designer people are the second hardest working people I know. Second only to hipsters avariciously collecting and hoarding TasteCoins.

Whether he sells over-the-counter vitamins, high-quality backpacks, or internet marketing services, Max Millennial too is attempting to escape the premium mediocrity that his mainstream cousin has accepted.

Though polar opposites in many ways — Max is mercenary and instrumental-minded, Molly is missionary and appreciation-minded — they are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Both are likely to be young, white (the premium mediocre class is relatively more diverse), and blessed with Boomer parents given to snide remarks about participation trophies and entitlement. Both are throwbacks to an earlier Catcher-in-the-Rye anti-phoniness ethos. Both are likely acutely aware of their privileges even as they navigate their difficulties.

Neither likes the idea of the performed life of a naked call option, of being a shell waiting for a ghost to be conjured up within. Both seek substance. One seeks financial substance within reach of non-exceptional individual striving far from white elephant student loans and high rents. The other seeks cultural substance far from centers of soul-sucking premium-mediocre consumption theaters. Both work hard at acquiring real skills. Max Millennial can actually market on the Internet and make memes happen. Molly Millennial can actually guide you to better coffee than Starbucks offers.

Each has a nemesis. Molly’s nemesis is the basic bitch. Max’s nemesis is the basic bro.

Molly and Max are fundamentally local-optimizing life-hackers, trading the mainstream casino economy for more predictable marginal ones with some substance. Both appreciate excellence and detest mediocrity. One optimizes for taste and aesthetics, the other for effectiveness and financial leverage.

But here’s the fundamental problem with Molly and Max: there is ultimately no guaranteed sustainability on the margins either. Max might retire early, but must then face the void of meaning created by a decade of mercenary arbitraging. Molly might find deep meaning in her knowledge of coffee, but at some point the credit card bills will become overwhelming. Max and Molly sacrifice the small chance of big mainstream wins for a more realistic shot at finding actual meaning or financial sustainability, but never both at once.

That is the tragedy of excellence on the margins; what Bruce Sterling evocatively labeled favela chic. Instead of individuals and specific experiences being premium mediocre, it is a case of entire subcultural milieus being premium mediocre, in ways that are only visible from outside them. Inside, things seem excellent. So long as you avoid asking tough questions too often.

Neither Molly, nor Max, has accepted the bargain at the heart of premium mediocrity that Maya Millennial has, which is to refuse to deny either the need for meaning or the need for financial sustainability. Which is why — and this is definitely my attempt at supplying a redemptive account of Maya Millennial’s choices as being fundamentally the correct ones — she chooses to fake both for a while in the hope of acquiring both for good later.

Because Maya Millennial, you see, is the basic bitch. A risk-taker who wants it all. Meaning and money.

Molly thinks Maya has a taste problem; that she is a beyond-the-pale philistine. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term financial sustainability problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max thinks Maya has a skills problem; that she’s a bullshit artist who cannot deliver the twitter trends she pretends to understand. But Maya knows she actually has a long-term meaning problem and refuses to be in denial about it.

Max and Molly can no more escape awareness of the false consciousness at the heart of Premium Mediocrity than Maya, but they have crafted temporary refuges that make it easier to temporarily escape from whichever flavor of existential dread — lack of meaning and lack of financial sustainability — bothers them more.

Oddly enough, Maya, she of the consciously worn mask and obviously premium mediocre theatrical life, is the most real person in this particular glass menagerie. Molly and Max Millennial, so sure of their own authenticity, are in fact the robots with Real People Personalities,™ products of Sirius Cybernetics. It is their pleasure to serve a fine cup of coffee for you, with artisan pride. Or a finely crafted marketing campaign for your fundamentally shitty product, delivered from Bali at a quarter of your local costs, with stoic grace.

Neourban Elegy

This post is, I suppose, in some sense, a sort of neourban elegy. In the past year, we’ve become so obsessed with hillbilly elegies and elaborate accounts of (and excuses for the Nazi shittiness of) the Lost Boys and Bartlebys of Middle America who seek neither meaning, nor financial sustainability in any meaningful way, that we’ve lost sight of why we so-called bicoastal elites are the way we are.

We’ve almost started believing the hostile gaslighting accounts of our own hypocrisies as some sort of conspiracy of cruelty towards a brave Middle America, where men are Real Men, women are Real Women, and avocado toast is Real Guacamole and Chips made by Real Illegal Mexicans.

Screw that.

At the heart of premium mediocrity, underneath all the hustling and towel-based-personal-branding, behind the luck-making and laughing-salad-eating, there is a deep and essential kindness. Kindness towards parents. Kindness towards the talented who work harder because they have found more meaningful work to do. Kindness towards those unlike you in every way except willingness to play the premium mediocre fake-it-till-you-make-it MVP game. A cheerful willingness to pronounce strange names and try strange foods, in the spirit of learning your part in an emerging theater.

Yes, sometimes it means accidentally buying our own bullshit for a while. Sometimes it means believing our own illusions for a while. That’s not coastal elitism. That’s not hypocrisy. That is the art of the premium mediocre performed life.

Those are the alternative facts of bicoastal life, facts that are part of trying to invent the future, even if large parts of it look like poorly designed Hollywood sets peopled by bad actors.

This story, I think, has a happy ending. The stone soup that is the new economy does create increasing serendipity. Just not as fast, and as painlessly, as the villagefolk — and here I mean techies — earnestly believe.

The premium mediocre gentry are the cultural market makers and stone-soup instigators that the new economy needs to emerge. In the end, this is what the much-valorized hillbillies who want to fearfully retreat from the future don’t get. That inventing the future means showing up to help sustain the fiction while it is being built out. It means taking risks to make money, meaning, or both.

Even if you’re only an extra on the set playing a bit part, and paying high rents for the privilege.

Even if you prefer not to.

It takes an entire gentrified neighborhood to raise a premium mediocre post like this one. Thanks to everybody who played the PM game on Facebook and Twitter with me over the last few weeks. 

Read the whole story
9 days ago
Yeah this one needs some editing but hits some nails right on some heads. Read read read.
Brooklyn, NY
11 days ago
"Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there"
Bend, Oregon
11 days ago
Both this and two other posts ("Uruk Machine"/"Thresher" by samzdat) Slate Star Codex linked last week are a little too cryptic to reach the readership they may deserve—with this Premium Mediocre piece I'd have cut whole sections for clarity—and both tell ugly truths about the costs of modernity I've been pushing to the recesses of my mind for several years. I was lost in LAX with these posts in my head the other day, feeling the coherence drain out things.
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How YouTube perfected the feed

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Sometime late last year, as I was playing a video game named Dishonored 2, I did a routine YouTube search about how to beat a tricky section of the game. As usual, I found a video to answer my question. But on my next YouTube visit, the site offered me even more compelling Dishonored videos to watch: clips of people playing Dishonored without ever being detected by their enemies; clips where players killed each enemy in highly creative ways; interviews with the game’s creators; whip-smart satirical reviews. I had visited YouTube seeking an answer to my question, and it had revealed a universe.

Soon afterward, I found myself visiting YouTube several times a day. For the most part, I visited without having a specific destination — I had become accustomed to the site serving up something I would like, unprompted. In January, I grew obsessed with a folk-rock band named Pinegrove, and within weeks YouTube was serving me video of seemingly every live performance ever uploaded to its servers. I started cooking more once I got a new apartment this spring, and after searching for how to make a panzanella salad, YouTube quickly introduced me to its battalion of in-house chefs: Byron Talbott, and Serious Eats’ J. Kenji López-Alt, and the Tasty crew, among others.

YouTube has always been useful; since its founding in 2005, it has been a pillar of the internet. But over the past year or so, for me anyway, YouTube had started to seem weirdly good. The site had begun to predict with eerie accuracy what clips I might be interested in — much better than it ever had before. So what changed?

Over the course of 12 years, YouTube has transformed itself from a site driven by search to a destination in its own right. Getting there required hundreds of experiments, a handful of redesigns, and some great leaps forward in the field of artificial intelligence. But what really elevated YouTube was its evolution into a feed.

It can be hard to remember now, but at the beginning YouTube was little more than infrastructure: It offered an easy way to embed video onto other websites, which is where you were most likely to encounter it. As the site grew, YouTube became a place to find archival TV clips, catch up on late-night comedy, and watch the latest viral hits. Along with Wikipedia, YouTube is probably the web’s most notorious rabbit hole. Your coworkers mentioned the Harlem Shake at the water cooler, and so you went to YouTube and watched Harlem Shake videos for the rest of the evening.

Meanwhile, Facebook had invented the defining format of our time: the News Feed, an infinite stream of updates personalized to you based on your interests. The feed took over the consumer internet, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram to LinkedIn. YouTube’s early approach to personalization was much more limited: it involved asking users to subscribe to channels. The metaphor was borrowed from television, and had mixed results. A huge subscription push in 2011 had some success, but the average time a person spent watching YouTube stayed flat, according to data from ComScore.

Channels no longer dominate YouTube as they once did. Open YouTube on your phone today and you’ll find them hidden away in a separate tab. Instead, the app opens to a feed featuring a mix of videos tailored to your interests. There are videos from channels you subscribe to, yes, but there are also videos related to ones that you’ve watched before from channels you may not have seen.

This is why, after searching for straightforward Dishonored videos, I started seeing the recommendations for stealth runs through the game and satirical reviews. YouTube developed tools to make its recommendations not only personalized but deadly accurate, and the result has lifted watch time across the site.

“We knew people were coming to YouTube when they knew what they were coming to look for,” says Jim McFadden, the technical lead for YouTube recommendations, who joined the company in 2011. “We also wanted to serve the needs of people when they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to look for.”

I first visited the company in 2011, just a few months after McFadden joined. Getting users to spend more time watching videos was then, as now, YouTube’s primary aim. At the time, it was not going particularly well. “YouTube.com as a homepage was not driving a ton of engagement,” McFadden says. “We said, well, how do we turn this thing into a destination?”

The company tried a little bit of everything: it bought professional camera equipment for top creators. It introduced “leanback,” a feature that queued new videos for you to watch while your current video played. It redesigned its home page to emphasize subscribing to channels over individual videos.

Videos watched per user remained flat, but a change made the following spring finally moved the needle: instead of basing its algorithmic recommendations on how many people had clicked a video, YouTube would instead base them on how long people had spent watching it.

Nearly overnight, creators who had profited from misleading headlines and thumbnails saw their view counts plummet. Higher-quality videos, which are strongly associated with longer watch times, surged. Watch time on YouTube grew 50 percent a year for the next three years.

I subscribed to some channels and counted myself a regular visitor to YouTube. But for it to become a multiple-times-a-day destination, YouTube would need a new set of tools — tools that only became available within the past 18 months.

When I visited the company’s offices this month, McFadden revealed the source of YouTube’s suddenly savvy recommendations: Google Brain, the parent company’s artificial intelligence division, which YouTube began using in 2015. Brain wasn’t YouTube’s first attempt at using AI; the company had applied machine-learning techniques to recommendations before, using a Google-built system known as Sibyl. Brain, however, employs a technique known as unsupervised learning: its algorithms can find relationships between different inputs that software engineers never would have guessed.

“One of the key things it does is it’s able to generalize,” McFadden said. “Whereas before, if I watch this video from a comedian, our recommendations were pretty good at saying, here’s another one just like it. But the Google Brain model figures out other comedians who are similar but not exactly the same — even more adjacent relationships. It’s able to see patterns that are less obvious.”

To name one example: a Brain algorithm began recommending shorter videos for users of the mobile app, and longer videos on YouTube’s TV app. It guessed, correctly, that varying video length by platform would result in higher watch times. YouTube launched 190 changes like this one in 2016, and is on pace to release 300 more this year. “The reality is, it’s a ton of small improvements adding up over time,” said Todd Beaupre, group product manager for YouTube’s discovery team. “For each improvement, you try 10 things and you launch one.”

The Brain algorithms also work faster than YouTube has before. In past years, it might have taken days for a user’s behavior to be incorporated into future recommendations. That made it difficult to identify trending subjects, the company said. “If we wanted to bring users back to find out what’s happening right now, we’ve kind of fixed that problem,” Beaupre said. “The delay, instead of multiple days, is measured in minutes or hours.”

Integrating Brain has had an immense impact: more than 70 percent of the time people spend watching videos on the site is now driven by YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations. Each day, YouTube recommends 200 million different videos to users, in 76 languages. And the aggregate time people spend watching videos on YouTube’s home page has grown 20 times larger than what it was three years ago.

That roughly matches my own behavior. Years ago I started visiting YouTube’s home page regularly on my lunch break, to have something to look at while I ate. But the suggestions were good enough that I started taking more regular YouTube breaks. This week I broke down and signed into YouTube on my PlayStation 4, so that I might watch its recommendations on the largest screen I own.

That’s the power of a truly personalized feed. And yet it’s striking to me how different YouTube’s feels from any of the others that inform my digital life. Facebook’s feed is based on what your friends post, along with posts from pages you like. It’s useful for knowing who’s gotten engaged or had a baby, and yet I find little pleasure in my friends’ posts beyond those milestone events. Twitter has tweets from the people you follow, plus anything those people have chosen to retweet. As a journalist I am all but required to live on Twitter, even though these days the home timeline is little more than an endless, anxious scream.

Each feed still has its strengths, though 2017 has diminished them. On Twitter, politics dominate the discussion no matter whom you follow. Facebook’s momentary enthusiasms for features like events and groups lead the feed to transform week to week in ways that are jarring, and leave me feeling less connected to everyone I’m friends with. (Image-heavy Instagram still feels like an oasis, and it’s little wonder the app is still growing so fast.)

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — it seems notable that all these feeds ask you constantly to perform for them. YouTube is driven by performances, obviously, and yet a tiny fraction of its users ever upload a video — and YouTube never pressures them to. YouTube can be enjoyed passively, like the television channels it has worked so hard to replace. In a frantic age, there’s something calming about not being asked for my reaction to the day’s news.

YouTube’s emphasis on videos related to ones you might like means that its feed consistently seems broader in scope — more curious — than its peers. The further afield YouTube looks for content, the more it feels like an escape from other feeds. In a dark year, I’ll take all the escapism YouTube has to offer.

In 2013, writing in the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal posited that the feed as we know it had peaked. The future, he suggested, would belong to finite experiences: email newsletters, Medium collections, 10-episode Netflix series. Endless streams of content are, after all, exhausting. “When the order of the media cosmos was annihilated, freedom did not rush into the vacuum, but an emergent order with its own logic,” Madrigal wrote. “We discovered that the stream introduced its own kinds of compulsions and controls. Faster! More! Faster! More! Faster! More!

Four years on, YouTube’s approach suggests the feed is only becoming more important. An ever-growing repository of videos, matched with ever-improving personalization technology, will be difficult to resist. YouTube now surveys users about how much they enjoyed the videos that are recommended to them; over time, the results will make YouTube smarter — and lead to more video being consumed.

Beaupre described this process to me as crossing a chasm. “There’s stuff that’s closely related to what you already liked, and stuff that’s trending and popular. But in between, that’s the magic zone.” And if YouTube’s rivals can’t find a way to cross that chasm, they may find it very difficult to compete.

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23 days ago
This timeline tracks so well with my experience of using Youtube. Years ago it wasn't a destination at all: I'd get videos through search results and social media embeds only. The mobile app introduced the temptation to check Youtube out of boredom, and the algorithms surfaced a bunch of creators and subcultures I had no idea would become obsessions. I now check multiple times a day, despite my appetite for other feed-based services falling sharply (even NewsBlur, alas). So this is probably the first example I can point to of machine learning altering my free will. Anyone else?
23 days ago
I keep seeing a link to a video of how rats can get into your house through your toilet. This has traumatized me enough that I deliberately don't look at their suggestions. So there is still some work to do on the AI suggestion front. :-)
23 days ago
Holy shit. That's... different. Humour me if you see it again. Tap the three dots next to the video thumbnail and select "Not Interested", then "Tell Us Why". Sometimes it gives you hints about how it generated the recommendation. Maybe someone with access to your account is into weird sewer stuff? Or maybe the Google Brain is having an aneurysm. ;)
23 days ago
I just checked again and it isn't there. I hadn't checked for a while. I suspect it was a globally trending explainer video and I haven't given the algorithm enough information to suggest anything more personalized. I noticed just now that my feed is a mix of stuff that I recognize as related to videos I've watched and random things like a clip of Chef Ramsay being angry about something.
23 days ago
Maybe he's mad about toilet rat explainer videos. Full circle.
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My IRB Nightmare

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[Epistemic status: Pieced together from memory years after the event. I may have mis-remembered some things or gotten them in the wrong order. Aside from that – and the obvious jokes – this is all true. I’m being deliberately vague in places because I don’t want to get anyone specific in trouble without being able to prove anything.]

September 2014

There’s a screening test for bipolar disorder. You ask patients a bunch of things like “Do you ever feel really happy, then really sad?”. If they ‘yes’ to enough of these questions, you start to worry.

Some psychiatrists love this test. I hate it. Patients will say “Yes, that absolutely describes me!” and someone will diagnose them with bipolar disorder. Then if you ask what they meant, they’d say something like “Once my local football team made it to the Super Bowl and I was really happy, but then they lost and I was really sad.” I don’t even want to tell you how many people get diagnosed bipolar because of stuff like this.

There was a study that supposedly proved this test worked. I looked at it. To my untrained eye, the math appeared nonsensical – they were getting results that were literally impossible given the statistics they were using. Also, it was done on a totally different population that didn’t generalize to hospital inpatients. Also, it said in big letters THIS IS JUST A SCREENING TEST IT IS NOT INTENDED FOR DIAGNOSIS, and everyone was using it for diagnosis.

So I complained to some sympathetic doctors and professors, and they asked “Why not do a study to prove it doesn’t work?”

Why not do a study? Why not join the great tradition of scientists, going back to Galileo and Newton, and make my mark on the world? Why not replace my griping about bipolar screening with an experiment about bipolar screening, an experiment done to the highest standards of the empirical tradition, one that would throw the entire weight of the scientific establishment behind my complaint? I’d been writing about science for so long, even doing my own informal experiments, why not move on to join the big leagues?

For (it would turn out) a whole host of excellent reasons that I was soon to become aware of.

A spring in my step, I journeyed to my hospital’s Research Department, hidden in a corner office just outside the orthopaedic ward. It was locked, as always. After enough knocking, a lady finally opened the door and motioned for me to sit down at a paperwork-filled desk.

“I want to do a study,” I said.

She looked skeptical. “Have you done the Pre-Study Training?”

I had to admit I hadn’t, so off I went. The training was several hours of videos about how the Nazis had done unethical human experiments. Then after World War II, everybody met up and decided to only do ethical human experiments from then on. And the most important part of being ethical was to have all experiments monitored by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) made of important people who could check whether experiments were ethical or not. I dutifully parroted all this back on the post-test (“Blindly trusting authority to make our ethical decisions for us is the best way to separate ourselves from the Nazis!”) and received my Study Investigator Certification.

I went back to the corner office, Study Investigator Certification in hand.

“I want to do a study,” I said.

The lady still looked skeptical. “Do you have a Principal Investigator?”

Mere resident doctors weren’t allowed to do studies on their own. They would probably screw up and start building concentration camps or something. They needed an attending (high-ranking doctor) to sign on as Principal Investigator before the IRB would deign to hear their case.

I knew exactly how to handle this: one by one, I sought out the laziest attendings in the hospital and asked “Hey, would you like to have your name on a study as Principal Investigator for free while I do all the actual work?” But one by one, all of the doctors refused, as if I was offering them some kind of plague basket full of vermin. It was the weirdest thing.

Finally, there was only one doctor left – Dr. W, the hardest-working attending I knew, the one who every psychiatrist in the whole hospital including himself had diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, the one who out of some weird masochistic impulse took on every single project anyone asked of him and micromanaged it to perfection.

“Sure Scott,” he told me. “I’d be happy to serve as your Principal Investigator”.

A feeling of dread in my stomach, I walked back to the tiny corner office.

“I want to do a study,” I said.

The lady still looked skeptical. “Have you completed the New Study Application?” She gestured to one of the stacks of paperwork filling the room.

It started with a section on my research question. Next was a section on my proposed methodology. A section on possible safety risks. A section on recruitment. A section on consent. A section on…wow. Surely this can’t all be the New Study Application? Maybe I accidentally picked up the Found A New Hospital Application?

I asked the lady who worked in the tiny corner office whether, since I was just going to be asking bipolar people whether they ever felt happy and then sad, maybe I could get the short version of the New Study Application?

She told me that was the short version.

“But it’s twenty-two pages!”

“You haven’t done any studies before, have you?”

Rather than confess my naivete, I started filling out the twenty-two pages of paperwork. It started by asking about our study design, which was simple: by happy coincidence, I was assigned to Dr. W’s team for the next three months. When we got patients, I would give them the bipolar screening exam and record the results. Then Dr. W. would conduct a full clinical interview and formally assess them. We’d compare notes and see how often the screening test results matched Dr. W’s expert diagnosis. We usually got about twenty new patients a week; if half of them were willing and able to join our study, we should be able to gather about a hundred data points over the next three months. It was going to be easy-peasy.

That was the first ten pages or so of the Application. The rest was increasingly bizarre questions such as “Will any organs be removed from participants during this study?” (Look, I promise, I’m not a Nazi).

And: “Will prisoners be used in the study?” (COME ON, I ALREADY SAID I WASN’T A NAZI).

And: “What will you do if a participant dies during this research?” (If somebody dies while I’m asking them whether they sometimes feel happy and then sad, I really can’t even promise so much as “not freaking out”, let alone any sort of dignified research procedure).

And more questions, all along the same lines. I double-dog swore to give everybody really, really good consent forms. I tried my best to write a list of the risks participants were taking upon themselves (mostly getting paper cuts on the consent forms). I argued that these compared favorably to the benefits (maybe doctors will stop giving people strong psychiatric medications just because their football team made the Super Bowl).

When I was done, I went back to the corner office and submitted everything to the Institutional Review Board. Then I sat back and hoped for the best. Like an idiot.

October 2014

The big day arrived. The IRB debated the merits of my study, examined the risks, and…sent me a letter pointing out several irregularities in my consent forms.

IRREGULARITY #1: Consent forms traditionally included the name of the study in big letters where the patient could see it before signing. Mine didn’t. Why not?

Well, because in questionnaire-based psychological research, you never tell the patient what you’re looking for before they fill out the questionnaire. That’s like Methods 101. The name of my study was “Validity Of A Screening Instrument For Bipolar Disorder”. Tell the patient it’s a study about bipolar disorder, and the gig is up.

The IRB listened patiently to my explanation, then told me that this was not a legitimate reason not to put the name of the study in big letters on the consent form. Putting the name of the study on the consent form was important. You know who else didn’t put the name of the study on his consent forms? Hitler.

IRREGULARITY #2: Consent forms traditionally included a paragraph about the possible risks of the study and a justification for why we believed that the benefits were worth the risks. Everyone else included a paragraph about this on our consent forms, and read it to their patients before getting their consent. We didn’t have one. Why not?

Well, for one thing, because all we were doing was asking them whether they felt happy and then sad sometimes. This is the sort of thing that goes on every day in a psychiatric hospital. Heck, the other psychiatrists were using this same screening test, except for real, and they never had to worry about whether it had risks. In the grand scheme of things, this just wasn’t a very risky procedure.

Also, psychiatric patients are sometimes…how can I put this nicely?…a little paranoid. Sometimes you can offer them breakfast and they’ll accuse you of trying to poison them. I had no illusions that I would get every single patient to consent to this study, but I felt like I could at least avoid handing them a paper saying “BY THE WAY, THIS STUDY IS FULL OF RISKS”.

The IRB listened patiently to my explanation, then told me that this was not a legitimate reason not to have a paragraph about risks. We should figure out some risks, then write a paragraph explaining how those were definitely the risks and we took them very seriously. The other psychiatrists who used this test every day didn’t have to do that because they weren’t running a study.

IRREGULARITY #3: Signatures are traditionally in pen. But we said our patients would sign in pencil. Why?

Well, because psychiatric patients aren’t allowed to have pens in case they stab themselves with them. I don’t get why stabbing yourself with a pencil is any less of a problem, but the rules are the rules. We asked the hospital administration for a one-time exemption, to let our patients have pens just long enough to sign the consent form. Hospital administration said absolutely not, and they didn’t care if this sabotaged our entire study, it was pencil or nothing.

The IRB listened patiently to all this, then said that it had to be in pen. You know who else had people sign consent forms in pencil…?

I’m definitely not saying that these were the only three issues the IRB sprung on Dr. W and me. I’m saying these are a representative sample. I’m saying I spent several weeks relaying increasingly annoyed emails and memos from myself to Dr. W to the IRB to the lady in the corner office to the IRB again. I began to come home later in the evening. My relationships suffered. I started having dreams about being attacked by giant consent forms filled out in pencil.

I was about ready to give up at this point, but Dr. W insisted on combing through various regulations and talking to various people, until he discovered some arcane rule that certain very safe studies with practically no risk were allowed to use an “expedited consent form”, which was a lot like a normal consent form but didn’t need to have things like the name of the study on it. Faced with someone even more obsessive and bureaucratic than they were, the IRB backed down and gave us preliminary permission to start our study.

The next morning, screening questionnaire in hand, I showed up at the hospital and hoped for the best. Like an idiot.

November 2014

Things progressed slowly. It turns out a lot of psychiatric inpatients are either depressed, agitated, violent, or out of touch with reality, and none of these are really conductive to wanting to participate in studies. A few of them already delusionally thought we were doing experiments on them, and got confused when we suddenly asked them to consent. Several of them made it clear that they hated us and wanted to thwart us in any way possible. After a week, I only had three data points, instead of the ten I’d been banking on.

“Data points” makes it sound abstract. It wasn’t. I had hoped to put the results in the patients’ easily accessible online chart, the same place everyone else put the results of the exact same bipolar screening test when they did it for real. They would put it in a section marked TEST RESULTS, which was there to have a secure place where you could put test results, and where everybody’s secure test results were kept.

The IRB would have none of this. Study data are Confidential and need to be kept Secure. Never mind that all the patients’ other secure test results were on the online chart. Never mind that the online chart contains all sorts of stuff about the patients’ diagnoses, medications, hopes and fears, and even (remember, this is a psych hospital) secret fetishes and sexual perversions. Study data needed to be encrypted, then kept in a Study Binder in a locked drawer in a locked room that nobody except the study investigators had access to.

The first problem was that nobody wanted to give us a locked room that nobody except us had access to. There was a sort of All Purpose Psychiatry Paperwork room, but the janitors went in to clean it out every so often, and apparently this made it unacceptable. Hospitals aren’t exactly drowning in spare rooms that not even janitors can get into. Finally Dr. W grudgingly agreed to keep it in his office. This frequently meant I couldn’t access any of the study material because Dr. W was having important meetings that couldn’t be interrupted by a resident barging into his office to rummage in his locked cabinets.

But whatever. The bigger problem was the encryption. There was a very specific way we had to do it. We would have a Results Log, that said things like “Patient 1 got a score of 11.5 on the test”. And then we’d have a Secret Patient Log, which would say things like “Patient 1 = Bob Johnson from Oakburg.” That way nobody could steal our results and figure out that Bob was sometimes happy, then sad.

(meanwhile, all of Bob’s actual diagnoses, sexual fetishes, etc were in the easily-accessible secure online chart that we were banned from using)

And then – I swear this is true – we had to keep the Results Log and the Secret Patient Log right next to each other in the study binder in the locked drawer in the locked room.

I wasn’t sure I was understanding this part right, so I asked Dr. W whether it made sense, to him, that we put a lot of effort writing our results in code, and then put the key to the code in the same place as the enciphered text. He cheerfully agreed this made no sense, but said we had to do it or else our study would fail an audit and get shut down.

January 2015

I’d planned to get a hundred data points in three months. Thanks to constant bureaucratic hurdles, plus patients being less cooperative than I expected, I had about twenty-five. Now I was finishing my rotation on Dr. W’s team and going to a clinic far away. What now?

A bunch of newbies were going to be working with Dr. W for the next three months. I hunted them down and threatened and begged them until one of them agreed to keep giving patients the bipolar screening test in exchange for being named as a co-author. Disaster averted, I thought. Like an idiot.

Somehow news of this arrangement reached the lady in the corner office, who asked whether the new investigator had completed her Pre-Study Training. I protested that she wasn’t designing the study, she wasn’t conducting any analyses, all she was doing was asking her patients the same questions that she would be asking them anyway as part of her job for the next three months. The only difference was that she was recording them and giving them to me.

The lady in the corner office wasn’t impressed. You know who else hadn’t thought his lackeys needed to take courses in research ethics?

So the poor newbie took a course on how Nazis were bad. Now she could help with the study, right?

Wrong. We needed to submit a New Investigator Form to the IRB and wait for their approval.

Two and a half months later, the IRB returned their response: Newbie was good to go. She collected data for the remaining two weeks of her rotation with Dr. W before being sent off to another clinic just like I was.

July 2015

Dr. W and I planned ahead. We had figured out which newbies would be coming in to work for Dr. W three months ahead of time, and gotten them through the don’t-be-a-Nazi course and the IRB approval process just in time for them to start their rotation. Success!

Unfortunately, we received another communication from the IRB. Apparently we were allowed to use the expedited consent form to get consent for our study, but not to get consent to access protected health information. That one required a whole different consent form, list-of-risks and all. We were right back where we’d started from.

I made my case to the Board. My case was: we’re not looking at any protected health information, f@#k you.

The Board answered that we were accessing the patient’s final diagnosis. It said right in the protocol, we were giving them the screening test, then comparing it to the patient’s final diagnosis. “Psychiatric diagnosis” sure sounds like protected health information.

I said no, you don’t understand, we’re the psychiatrists. Dr. W is the one making the final diagnosis. When I’m on Dr. W’s team, I’m in the room when he does the diagnostic interview, half the time I’m the one who types the final diagnosis into the chart. These are our patients.

The Board said this didn’t matter. We, as the patient’s doctors, would make the diagnosis and write it down on the chart. But we (as study investigators) needed a full signed consent form before we were allowed to access the diagnosis we had just made.

I said wait, you’re telling us we have to do this whole bureaucratic rigamarole with all of these uncooperative patients before we’re allowed to see something we wrote ourselves?

The Board said yes, exactly.

I don’t remember this part very well, except that I think I half-heartedly trained whichever poor newbie we were using that month in how to take a Protected Health Information Consent on special Protected Health Information Consent Forms, and she nodded her head and said she understood. I think I had kind of clocked out at this point. I was going off to work all the way over in a different town for a year, and I was just sort of desperately hoping that Dr. W and various newbies would take care of things on their own and then in a year when I came back to the hospital I would have a beautiful pile of well-sorted data to analyze. Surely trained doctors would be able to ask simple questions from a screening exam on their own without supervision, I thought. Like an idiot.

July 2016

I returned to my base hospital after a year doing outpatient work in another town. I felt energized, well-rested, and optimistic that the bipolar screening study I had founded so long ago had been prospering in my absence.

Obviously nothing remotely resembling this had happened. Dr. W had vaguely hoped that I was taking care of it. I had vaguely hoped that Dr. W was taking care of it. The various newbies whom we had strategically enlisted had either forgotten about it, half-heartedly screened one or two patients before getting bored, or else mixed up the growing pile of consent forms and releases and logs so thoroughly that we would have to throw out all their work. It had been a year and a half since the study had started, and we had 40 good data points.

The good news was that I was back in town and I could go back to screening patients myself again. Also, we had some particularly enthusiastic newbies who seemed really interested in helping out and getting things right. Over the next three months, our sample size shot up, first to 50, then to 60, finally to 70. Our goal of 100 was almost in sight. The worst was finally behind me, I hoped. Like an idiot.

November 2016

I got an email saying our study was going to be audited.

It was nothing personal. Some higher-ups in the nationwide hospital system had decided to audit every study in our hospital. We were to gather all our records, submit them to the auditor, and hope for the best.

Dr. W, who was obsessive-compulsive at the best of times, became unbearable. We got into late-night fights over the number of dividers in the study binder. We hunted down every piece of paper that had ever been associated with anyone involved in the study in any way, and almost came to blows over how to organize it. I started working really late. My girlfriend began to doubt I actually existed.

The worst part was all the stuff the newbies had done. Some of them would have the consent sheets numbered in the upper left-hand-corner instead of the upper-right-hand corner. Others would have written the patient name down on the Results Log instead of the Secret Code Log right next to it. One even wrote something in green pen on a formal study document. It was hopeless. Finally we just decided to throw away all their data and pretend it had never existed.

With that decision made, our work actually started to look pretty good. As bad as it was working for an obsessive-compulsive boss in an insane bureaucracy, at least it had the advantage that – when nitpicking push came to ridiculous shove – you were going to be super-ready to be audited. I hoped. Like an idiot.

December 2016

The auditor found twenty-seven infractions.

She was very apologetic about it. She said that was actually a pretty good number of infractions for a study this size, that we were actually doing pretty well compared to a lot of the studies she’d seen. She said she absolutely wasn’t going to shut us down, she wasn’t even going to censure us. She just wanted us to make twenty-seven changes to our study and get IRB approval for each of them.

I kept the audit report as a souvenier. I have it in front of me now. Here’s an example infraction:

The data and safety monitoring plan consists of ‘the Principal Investigator will randomly check data integrity’. This is a prospective study with a vulnerable group (mental illness, likely to have diminished capacity, likely to be low income) and, as such, would warrant a more rigorous monitoring plan than what is stated above. In addition to the above, a more adequate plan for this study would also include review of the protocol at regular intervals, on-going checking of any participant complaints or difficulties with the study, monitoring that the approved data variables are the only ones being collected, regular study team meetings to discuss progress and any deviations or unexpected problems. Team meetings help to assure participant protections, adherence to the protocol. Having an adequate monitoring plan is a federal requirement for the approval of a study. See Regulation 45 CFR 46.111 Criteria For IRB Approval Of Research. IRB Policy: PI Qualifications And Responsibility In Conducting Research. Please revise the protocol via a protocol revision request form. Recommend that periodic meetings with the research team occur and be documented.

Among my favorite other infractions:

1. The protocol said we would stop giving the screening exam to patients if they became violent, but failed to rigorously define “violent”.

2. We still weren’t educating our patients enough about “Alternatives To Participating In This Study”. The auditor agreed that the only alternative was “not participating in this study”, but said that we had to tell every patient that, then document that we’d done so.

3. The consent forms were still getting signed in pencil. We are never going to live this one down. If I live to be a hundred, representatives from the IRB are going to break into my deathbed room and shout “YOU LET PEOPLE SIGN CONSENT FORMS IN PENCIL, HOW CAN YOU JUSTIFY THAT?!”

4. The woman in the corner office who kept insisting everybody take the Pre-Study Training…hadn’t taken the Pre-Study Training, and was therefore unqualified to be our liaison with the IRB. I swear I am not making this up.

Faced with submitting twenty-seven new pieces of paperwork to correct our twenty-seven infractions, Dr. W and I gave up. We shredded the patient data and the Secret Code Log. We told all the newbies they could give up and go home. We submitted the Project Closure Form to the woman in the corner office (who as far as I know still hasn’t completed her Pre-Study Training). We told the IRB that they had won, fair and square; we surrendered unconditionally.

They didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

August 2017

I’ve been sitting on this story for a year. I thought it was unwise to publish it while I worked for the hospital in question. I still think it’s a great hospital, that it delivers top-notch care, that it has amazing doctors, that it has a really good residency program, and even that the Research Department did everything it could to help me given the legal and regulatory constraints. I don’t want this to reflect badly on them in any way. I just thought it was wise to wait a year.

During that year, Dr. W and I worked together on two less ambitious studies, carefully designed not to require any contact with the IRB. One was a case report, the other used publicly available data.

They won 1st and 2nd prize at a regional research competition. I got some nice certificates for my wall and a little prize money. I went on to present one of them at the national meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, a friend helped me write it up formally, and it was recently accepted for publication by a medium-tier journal.

I say this not to boast, but to protest that I’m not as much of a loser as my story probably makes me sound. I’m capable of doing research, I think I have something to contribute to Science. I still think the bipolar screening test sucks, and I still think that patients are being harmed by people’s reliance on it. I still think somebody should look into it and publish the results.

I’m just saying it’s not going to be me. I am done with research. People keep asking me “You seem really into science, why don’t you become a researcher?” Well…

I feel like a study that realistically could have been done by one person in a couple of hours got dragged out into hundreds of hours of paperwork hell for an entire team of miserable doctors. I think its scientific integrity was screwed up by stupid requirements like the one about breaking blinding, and the patients involved were put through unnecessary trouble by being forced to sign endless consent forms screaming to them about nonexistent risks.

I feel like I was dragged almost to the point of needing to be in a psychiatric hospital myself, while my colleagues who just used the bipolar screening test – without making the mistake of trying to check if it works – continue to do so without anybody questioning them or giving them the slightest bit of aggravation.

I feel like some scientists do amazingly crappy studies that couldn’t possibly prove anything, but get away with it because they have a well-funded team of clerks and secretaries who handle the paperwork for them. And that I, who was trying to do everything right, got ground down with so many pointless security-theater-style regulations that I’m never going to be able to do the research I would need to show they’re wrong.

In the past year or so, I’ve been gratified to learn some other people are thinking along the same lines. Somebody linked me to The Censor’s Hand, a book by an MD/JD medicine/law professor at the University of Michigan. A summary from a review:

Schneider opens by trying to tally the benefits of IRB review. “Surprisingly,” he writes, a careful review of the literature suggests that “research is not especially dangerous. Some biomedical research can be risky, but much of it requires no physical contact with patients and most contact cannot cause serious injury. Ill patients are, if anything, safer in than out of research.” As for social-science research, “its risks are trivial compared with daily risks like going online or on a date.”

Since the upsides of IRB review are likely to be modest, Schneider argues, it’s critical to ask hard questions about the system’s costs. And those costs are serious. To a lawyer’s eyes, IRBs are strangely unaccountable. They don’t have to offer reasons for their decisions, their decisions can’t be appealed, and they’re barely supervised at the federal level. That lack of accountability, combined with the gauzy ethical principles that govern IRB deliberations, is a recipe for capriciousness. Indeed, in Schneider’s estimation, IRBs wield coercive government power—the power to censor university research—without providing due process of law.

And they’re not shy about wielding that power. Over time, IRB review has grown more and more intrusive. Not only do IRBs waste thousands of researcher hours on paperwork and elaborate consent forms that most study participants will never understand. Of greater concern, they also superintend research methods to minimize perceived risks. Yet IRB members often aren’t experts in the fields they oversee. Indeed, some know little or nothing about research methods at all.

IRBs thus delay, distort, and stifle research, especially research on vulnerable subgroups that may benefit most from it. It’s hard to precise about those costs, but they’re high: after canvassing the research, Schneider concludes that “IRB regulation annually costs thousands of lives that could have been saved, unmeasurable suffering that could have been softened, and uncountable social ills that could have been ameliorated.”

This view seems to be growing more popular lately, and has gotten support from high-profile academics like Richard Nisbett and Steven Pinker:

And there’s been some recent reform, maybe. The federal Office for Human Research Protections made a vague statement that perhaps studies that obviously aren’t going to hurt anybody might not need the full IRB treatment. There’s still a lot of debate about how this will be enforced and whether it’s going to lead to any real-life changes. But I’m glad people are starting to think more about these things.

I sometimes worry that people misunderstand the case against bureaucracy. People imagine it’s Big Business complaining about the regulations preventing them from steamrolling over everyone else. That hasn’t been my experience. Big Business – heck, Big Anything – loves bureaucracy. They can hire a team of clerks and secretaries and middle managers to fill out all the necessary forms, and the rest of the company can be on their merry way. It’s everyone else who suffers. The amateurs, the entrepreneurs, the hobbyists, the people doing something as a labor of love. Wal-Mart is going to keep selling groceries no matter how much paperwork and inspections it takes; the poor immigrant family with the backyard vegetable garden might not.

Bureaucracy limits the field to big institutional actors with vested interests. No amount of hassle is going to prevent the Pfizer-Merck-Novartis Corporation from doing any study that will raise their bottom line. But enough hassle will prevent a random psychiatrist at a small Midwestern hospital from pursuing his pet theory about how to improve patient care. The more hurdles we put up, the more the scientific conversation skews in favor of Pfizer-Merck-Novartis. And the less likely we are to hear little stuff, dissenting voices, and things that don’t make anybody any money.

I’m not just talking about IRBs here. I could write a book about this. There are so many privacy and confidentiality restrictions around the most harmless of datasets that research teams won’t share data with one another (let alone with unaffiliated citizen scientists) lest they break some arcane regulation or other. Closed access journals require people to pay thousands of dollars in subscription fees before they’re allowed to read the scientific literature; open-access journals just shift the burden by requiring scientists to pay thousands of dollars to publish their research. Big research institutions have whole departments to deal with these kinds of problems; unaffiiliated people who just want to look into things on their own are out of luck.

And this is happening at a time when big-name research keeps getting debunked again and again, often by random citizen-scientists and science-bloggers. Over half of psychology studies fail replication; my own field of psychiatry is even worse. When bad research is debunked, it’s often by statistics bloggers like Andrew Gelman and Daniel Lakens – both PhDs with institutional affiliations, but both operating outside of their day jobs. When I talk about “citizen science”, I don’t mean random cavemen who don’t understand the field. I mean people like these – smart, highly-qualified, but maybe not going to hire a team of paper-pushers and spend thousands of dollars in fees in order to say what they have to say. Even now these people are doing great work – but I can’t help but feel like more is possible.

IRB overreach is a small part of the problem. But it’s the part which sunk my bipolar study, which I really cared about. I’m excited that there’s finally more of a national conversation about this kind of thing, and hopeful that further changes will make scientific efforts easier and more rewarding for the next generation of doctors.

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23 days ago
"(Blindly trusting authority to make our ethical decisions for us is the best way to separate ourselves from the Nazis!)"

This sounds a lot like the direction bank regulation has taken in the post 9/11 era. Worse, admittedly.
Princeton, NJ or NYC
24 days ago
24 days ago
When ethics kills.
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