There’s been a slowly-growing list of links in the notes file I keep to remind myself of blog posts I want to write but with which I haven’t yet quite come to terms. This is one of those posts, and I’m not entirely certain I’ve figured how to bring it all together.
In this case, I’ve decided that the only way out of the cognitive mud is to just start going through each link, in the order in which I saved them, and see if we can’t try to find our way to what I meant by collecting them, as we go along.
I’ve returned now and then to bloggers having and marking anniversaries, and while I’d come across this one by Neville Morley I never actually got around to reading it. I did, however, note one thing.
I recognised early on both that the way to build serious viewing figures was through controversy and that I was far too peaceable and conciliatory to pick regular fights with Tom Holland, say, just for the sake of clicks. Instead, I have tried to cultivate that classic motto of mediocrity, ‘I just try to please myself, and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus’.
Emphasis mine, because of course I took to referring to myself as mediocre when I kept running into only two dominant conceptions of autism: savant polymaths, or high support needs. I’ve sort of taken it on more generally since then, because I genuinely do feel it’s sort of where I land as a person.
That said, Neville’s description here essentially reflects the way I look at blogging. I put down what I need to put down for myself, come what may. I don’t really know how to do it in any other way.
At any rate, save this particular idea of mediocrity, because we’re going to come back around to it by the end, I think—although it maybe falls just short of where we really need to go when we talk about mediocrity.
Jamie Ducharme explains the case for mediocity for Time, starting from a flat declarative: “mediocrity is a far better fate than misery”.
To pursue that prosperity in a deeply capitalist society, anyone not born into immense wealth has to work for it. So it’s perhaps no surprise that U.S. culture lionizes hard work and looks down on leisure, that we’re raised to earn and do and achieve as much as we can, to shoot for the moon and settle for landing among the stars. We are taught, from an early age, that we can be anything we want to be, that with enough elbow grease we can accomplish big things. The subtext being that we should accomplish big things, no matter what it takes to get there.
The question, though, if you want to escape such misery—one Ducharme asks—is who, exactly, in such a society even gets to be mediocre?
Checking out of the greatness grind often requires a safety net that millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck or in poverty simply don’t have. It is one thing to tell someone who is already financially comfortable that money can’t buy happiness. But what about someone struggling to pay the rent or put food on the table? How could anyone tell them to be content with less?
We’re surrounded by mediocre men, most of them white, who just sort of naturally seem to fall and fail upward. What about everyone else, who maybe would like just to be the mediocre part, without even bothering with or worrying about the upward part?
Tracy Durnell, spurred by a post about someone closing their LinkedIn account, inveighs against “packaging people for corporate consumption”.
I don’t want to contort or disguise myself because someone might think less of me: a) they need to get over their stereotypes, b) I’ve put others’ priorities above my own for too long, and c) this is fear of a possible future outcome that may never take place, and I’d rather not make my decisions out of fear or an obligation towards compliance. Corporations may want us to be interchangeable cogs, but I reject that premise: my skills and judgment come out of my broad interests. My professional abilities don’t stand apart from my hobbies and interests — they inform the way I think, the connections I make, and the values and sensibilities I have. I’m not me without them, and that includes my professional capabilities. I want clients to work with me because of, not in spite of, my personality.
There’s maybe a little bit here of the Neville Morley, except rather than saying Tracy just tries to please herself it’s that the ways in which she makes for herself a whole self that she finds pleasing, in fact maybe can’t but help the ways in which she contributes to other people and other things.
It’s a kind of mediocrity not in the sense of being lesser or insufficient but in the sense of challenging the normative idea that we’re meant to subsume all of that whole-personhood into and beneath the demands of capital.
Charlie Jane Anders states plainly that “here’s no queer liberation without fighting capitalism”.
[…] Bosses are starting to test the limits of their control over their employees — starting with “return to office” mandates, but it won’t end there. Whenever I read articles insisting that it’s time to return to the office, I’m always struck by the undercurrent of rage: the anger that workers might actually want to have a decent work /life balance, but also that people might not be subjected to the conformist pressures of office life. Bosses don’t feel like bosses unless there’s someone constantly under their thumb. (Just look at the way they’ve embraced the performative viciousness of Elon Musk.) And the fact that return-to-work policies are driving marginalized people, disproportionately, out of the workforce appears to be part of the point here.
Again: capital demands that we suppress our whole-personhood, sacrificing it upon the altar of extractive productivity. Refusal to do this, in its real essence, is perhaps what embracing mediocrity is about. The word is a slur against capital. What if we embraced it and claimed it as our own?
So the goal of capitalism-as-AI is not “safety” or “well-being.” It is the accumulation and multiplication of capital, resulting in varying groups of haves and have-nots. In other words, it is literally designed to support unequal and in some sense “unsafe” outcomes.
To answer, then, my own question that I opened this post with: can we even have safe AI systems under capitalism? I would say, so long as they recreate the often perverse incentives and exclusionary power structures of that super-system within which the AI techno-social assemblage has come into being, the answer is “probably not.”
This requirement brings us to the last ingredient for the “what the fuck am I even doing” salad: corporations are reliant on wage-laborers to maximize their value, but nothing that the wage-laborers do is actually valuable to them, in terms that you and I as laborers might think is important. In order for us to get the wages, we need to do whatever is determined as most important and valuable at any one moment, but the legal requirement for fiduciary value means that the people who run a corporation must never treat the work their employees do—the labor that each person is pursuing in service of the corporation—as having any intrinsic value. It is only ever worthwhile if it is actively creating monetary value for the company. No matter how many years of labor you put towards a thing, it’s only valuable insofar as the company continues to need it for profits. If that’s no longer the case, well, goodbye.
If instead of reclaiming it we want to retain the word “mediocre” as a derisive and a dismissive, what are the forces in our lives that truly qualify?
It’s a bit of a digression but maybe we could use one: Jamie Feldmar for Serious Eats defends eating alone, calling it in no uncertain terms “glorious”.
Or maybe not entirely a digression, because there’s certainly a normative standard suggesting there’s something wrong with you if you eat alone.
Even your downtime is supposed to be performed in a correct way. What leisure time exists itself is meant to be socially productive. Is there no escape?
Last year for Refinery29, Kathleen Newman-Bremang explored why Black women were embracing mediocrity, suggesting that “the burden of Black Excellence and our collective aversion to mediocrity is plaguing us all.”.
Leaning into excellence and away from mediocrity in such extremes has created a “narrative that makes Black humanity contingent on exceptionalism,” wrote Elisabeth Fapuro for Refinery29 UK in 2020. Every time another unarmed Black person is murdered by police, we rattle off their resume as a justification for why they deserved to live. No one should have a stellar CV in order to survive. Our lives should not be measured by how good we are at capitalism. “You are not defined by the work that you put out there. You are an individual person experiencing things. You are not your productivity,” [Fatuma] Adar continued. “I think mediocrity just means to create in comfort, contently. It’s the act of not chasing or pushing or pursuing. Can you just sit and chill?”
Being “an individual person experiencing things” also is what Durnell was talking about. To “create in comfort, contently” also is what Morley was talking about.
Remember that question asked by Ducharme about just who gets to be mediocre? As reported by Newman-Bremang, Amena Agbaje certainly does.
“When I think of the word mediocre, I think of the Chads and the Todds of the tech world, who often come into a meeting with all of the audacity and none of the shame. The word ‘mediocre’ [makes me] think of these people who get by on the bare minimum and not-so-great ideas, but they thrive because of who they are, or who they know.” We all know the Chads and the Todds of the world (and wish we didn’t). I understand associating mediocrity with them, and I promise I’m not suggesting we try to emulate their shameless audacity. I just think getting by on the bare minimum gets a bad rap, especially among Black women.
It’d be easy to just paste whole swaths of Newman-Bremang’s piece, but that’d be labor theft, and really you should just click through and read the whole thing.
As I learned through Maggie Harrison at Futurism, the man behind ChatGPT has a “disconcerting penchant” for using a particular phrase, and seemingly the wider A.I. world does, too.
As writer Elizabeth Weil notes in a new profile of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in New York Magazine, the powerful AI executive has a disconcerting penchant for using the term “median human,” a phrase that seemingly equates to a robotic tech bro version of “Average Joe.”
“Eventually, when we develop an AGI in earnest,” reads a blog post from an AI startup dubbed Skippet, which seems to fall very much in line with Altman’s median theory, “it would display the capabilities of the median human, but retain the potential to become an expert in the field, something we now consider reserved for the narrow AI.”
What is this “median man” but a twisted term of art for the “mediocre” among us who aren’t sufficiently productive? After all, if you truly suppressed your whole-personhood to serve capital, you wouldn’t even be in a job Altman wants to replace with an A.I., right?
How we talk about, define, and view mediocrity is how we talk about capitalism.
Twenty years ago, we could have chosen a different path for tech and maybe we tried to. Maybe we tried to build small communities and boutique software that could employ and provide for the people closest to us. But at some point, we let the capitalist monsters in. And now, instead of a thousands of small apps that do things well for the customers that use them, we build monstrosities and try to sell that shit to everyone. We call it enterprise software. And we let these fucking cancers grow and grow and grow and destroy the lives of so many people. And then we idolized the fucking billionaires that this cancer created. We call them “geniuses” and we make up myths about their benevolence. We hope to they pick us to be billionaires too because we’re so goddamned faithful.
Brian Merchant, in Blood in the Machine:
“There’s a conspiracy on foot to improve and improve,” [George Mellor] said, “till the working man that has nothing but his hands and his craft to feed him and his children will be improved off the face of creation.”
So for the end I want to state something quite clearly. Even if you are not healthy, even if you can not do any job, even if you can not help and care for others and even if you can not help and take care of yourself, you still have value.
Nobody needs to do anything to prove they have value. I think the one that bothers me the most is doing your job. For me job is connected to the work and workplace. And honestly, I don’t think everybody should work.
As a trained economist, I have always been of the opinion, that I want to live in the Keynes future, where the normal working week is 15 hours long. I would also quite happily live in the world, where some people don’t have to work at all, and their basic necessities would still have been covered, without them proving a need.
We’ve ended up on that last not by design but because, as I said at the outset, I surrendered simply to hitting each of the links I’d saved one by one, under the heading: “Mediocrity and capitalism”.
Self-care—true self-care—isn’t productive. It’s literally the opposite of extraction. By capital’s definition self-care is the pursuit of mediocrity because it’s the pursuit of whole-personhood.
What bothers them about whole-personhood, the threat in it, the reason they fear it (next to the reasons, say, of racism and transphobia), is that you can’t have whole-personhood without then recognizing—indeed, yearning for—whole-personhood in everyone else.
In the end, you can’t really be a whole-person without other whole-people. Not really.
The thing about when whole-persons see and recognize other whole-persons, though? (And this is what they really fear.) That’s when solidarity happens—and solidarity is when whole-persons start building the capacity to undo extraction, and capital, and the false need for anything and everything, anyone and everyone, to be productive else be surplus.
Self-care—as with psychology, as with medicine—either can be social work or social control. It’s political.
Go forth and be mediocre.