Jason Treit
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Diogenes of Sinope, the Publicly-Defecating Philosopher

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Described by Plato as “a Socrates gone mad”, Diogenes of Sinope is considered one of the most controversial figures in the history of philosophy.

Diogenes of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher who, at different points, allegedly lived in a wine barrel (some accounts describe it as a tub), urinated on guests at a banquet, defecated in the theatre, and was one of the few people who openly mocked Alexander the Great and stayed alive.

Although some believed him to be absolutely crazy, Diogenes was also one of the most respected and loved philosophers of the 4th century BCE, and one of the most famous founders of the ancient Greek school of philosophy known as Cynicism.

A lot of speculation surround the life of this controversial philosopher, since he left behind no first-hand accounts of his own life, or if he did, they’ve since been lost. And his larger than life persona probably produced many legends and tales. Nevertheless he is considered a very influential figure in philosophy.

Diogenes was born in Sinope (a city on modern-day Turkey). His father used to work with minting money, and Diogenes joined his father later on and began working with him. But they found themselves later on in a dispute with the law, after Diogenes (or his father, or both of them) began defacing money.

While some historians believe the motivations were purely political, others think the act may have been the result of an incident involving the Oracle of Delphi. Either way, Diogenes then fled Sinope, and headed to Athens.

In Athens, Diogenes took up somewhat of an unconventional way of life, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which he maintained, were simply lies used to hide the true nature of the individual.

Diogenes allegedly met Antisthenes in Athens who at first refused him as a student but, eventually, was worn down by his persistence and accepted him. Like Antisthenes, Diogenes believed in self-control, the importance of personal excellence in one’s behavior (in Greek, arete, usually translated as `virtue’), and the rejection of all which was considered unnecessary in life such as personal possessions and social status.

Diogenes started living in a barrel (some describe it as a jar, others as a wine cask or tub) at the Temple of Cybele. He got rid of his belongings, and maintained a diet of just onions. One day he saw a child cupping his hands to drink water, after that he threw away his own cup, remarking something along the lines of “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.”

The philosophy of Diogenes was more than justvan ascetic movement, he didn’t just renounce possessions; he preached obscenity, broke taboos, viciously attacked customs, and was relentlessly rude. For he considered, honesty to be a key value, and he saw Athenian customs and manners as a form of lie.

Many accounts depict him walking the streets with a lantern and shining it into the faces of passersby, apparently looking for an “honest man” or a “human being”.

Diogenes considered any act considered natural and acceptable in private (like urination and defecation), should also be considered natural and normal in public. he famously ate in the market place, something considered a taboo in that time, and when asked about this act he replied, “I did, for it was in the market-place that I was hungry.”

Diogenes could be considered in the terms of our day as a huge troll, a philosopher who used wit and mockery to challenge tradition, and prominent figures of his time. In one instance, after Plato had given Socrates’ definition of man as a “featherless biped” and was very much praised for that definition. Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into Plato’s Academy, and said, “Behold! I’ve brought you a man.” After that incident, “with broad flat nails” was added to Plato’s definition.

On another occasion, a group of wealthy Athenians at a banquet began throwing bones at Diogenes, insulting him and calling him a dog. Diogenes then responded to this by lifting his leg and urinating on the banqueters.

Diogenes was often associated with dogs. He believed that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’.

Diogenes’ trolling and witty mockery weren’t just targeted at fellow philosophers and public figures. In which we remember one of the most discussed anecdotes in philosophical history, the meeting of Diogenes and Alexander the Great.

Word of Diogenes’ wisdom and peculiar ways reached the greatest military leader at that time, Alexander the Great. As a child, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, and when he became a grown man he was learned man. But wisdom is addictive, and Diogenes intrigued the young commander.

Philosophers, and public figures used to come out to see their king and to offer him praise, gifts, and compliments. But Diogenes preferred to stay in his barrel, far away from this life. So Alexander decided to visit the great philosopher himself.

On that day, Diogenes was laying in the sun, enjoying the sunlight, when he heard movements of a large crowd, and trumpets signaling the arrival of a great man. Diogenes looked up, and saw Alexander with a number of his guards. He raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. Alexander greeted Diogenes, and praised his wisdom, then asked him if he wanted anything, in which Diogenes responded, “Yes, stand a little out of my sun”.

Alexander was shocked, but then laughed and said, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.”

After spending years in Athens, Diogenes ended up in Corinth. According to a story which seems to have originated with Menippus of Gadara, he was captured by pirates during a voyage to Aegina and sold to a wealthy Corinthian named Xeniades. When asked if he had any skills, Diogenes replied, “That of governing men.” Xeniades liked Diogenes’ response and made him the tutor for his sons, and eventually Diogenes became like a member of the family.

Diogenes lived the rest of his days in Corinth, where he continued to live a life of poverty and simplicity. Although most of the accounts of him living in a barrel appear to be in Athens, there are some accounts of him living in a jar near the Craneum gymnasium in Corinth.

Just like his entire life, Diogenes’ death is also riddled with mystery and a matter of debate. He is alleged variously to have become ill from eating raw octopus, holding his breath until he died, or to have suffered an infected dog bite, but it is more likely that he died of old age.

Although Diogenes had requested his remains be thrown to wild beasts, his friends and admirers insisted he should receive a proper burial. A marble pillar and a statue of a dog above his grave.

We could learn a lot from this great peculiar philosopher, especially in a time and society filled with complexities and hardships.

I’m a 100 percent reader-funded writer so if you enjoyed this, and want to support me so I can continue to do what I do, please consider helping me out by sharing it around, following me on Twitter, and becoming a patron on Patreon.

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18 days ago
It's hard to respect modern trolls when they don't live in wine barrels or carry around plucked chickens to drive home a point or tell world leaders to get out of their sunlight.
18 days ago
Alexander was no dummy.
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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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31 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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35 days ago
Missed r/place when it happened. Kept noticing offhand references to it in the months afterward. Obsessed now.
35 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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36 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.
48 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. 

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36 days ago
Yeah this one needs some editing but hits some nails right on some heads. Read read read.
Brooklyn, NY
38 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
38 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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50 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?
50 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. :-)
50 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. ;)
50 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.
50 days ago
Maybe he's mad about toilet rat explainer videos. Full circle.
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