Changing my mind on mediocrity as resistance to optimization

For awhile now Venkatesh Rao has been writing about the topic of mediocrity as aspiration. Initially I reacted with extreme aversion, finding the philosophy of life he was elaborating on intrinsically abhorrent, then refusing to read anything further from him on the subject.

Then I came across Jacob Falkovich’s post Unstriving, which links to Zvi Mowshowitz’s Something was wrong. Both essays finally primed me to be receptive to Venkat’s thesis, by framing things in terms of Goodhart’s law-style failures arising from illegible benefits “lost in translation”. Suitably primed, I read the the Venkat essay Jacob links to, and realized that I no longer rejected his ideas so vehemently.

The thesis is that mediocrity, construed as resistance to optimization, is a desirable intentional stance because it creates slack, allowing you to keep playing the infinite game of life. It’s not a position on some spectrum of performance, but a stance towards all performance that leads to middling performance on any specific performance spectrum as a side effect.

(Notice how many ideas the thesis builds upon. There’s Goodhart’s law. There’s legibility in the sense of James Scott. There’s Knuth’s premature optimization quote, here generalized. There’s Zvi’s slack. There’s James Carse’s infinite games. There’s Dan Dennett’s intentional stance, although this last one can arguably be omitted.)

Jacob points out the burgeoning pathology of parents overoptimizing their children’s lives for later success in life, to the latter’s emotional/mental detriment:

I’m not the first person to notice that Something is Wrong with Kids These Days (TM) and to tie it to an almost pathological drive by parents to optimize childhood. Helicopter parenting. Snowplow parenting. Tiger moms. Academically tracked selective preschools and elementary schools where 6-year-olds chant “We are college bound!” in unison. Something is wrong, really wrong.

And it’s not just wrong for the kids, it’s wrong for the parents too. Parents are sacrificing every bit of slack they have to give their children one more unasked-for advantage, driving their child to a slightly more prestigious violin teacher who lives half an hour further away. And once a parent has sacrificed money, time, their social life and romantic life, it’s is very hard to accept that your child is, merely a not bad violin player. He may grow up to play bass for the rock band at the local state college! Ma’am, why are you crying? Ma’am?

There’s a lot of evidence that all this optimized child-rearing does not make children any more optimal, only miserable. Mediocre parenting isn’t guaranteed to produce excellent children either, but it should at least be a lot more fun.

The bolded link is Zvi’s essay. It’s a bit hard to replicate the effect of reading it just by quoting specific passages because he uses repetition to great effect, slowly crescendoing throughout the entire article to finally climax in a nameless but overwhelming sense of dread. But I’ll quote anyway:

It was circle time. The kids gathered in a circle.

Our son did not join the circle. We tried to get our son to join the circle.

He did not want to join the circle.

We kept trying. He kept not wanting to.

He wasn’t wrong. The circle was lame. Super lame.

All the other kids were smiling. They liked the circle. Why did they like the circle? Where did they get this level of buy in?

A full four adults, myself included, were trying to get my son to join this circle. He was failing the test. We were failing the test. He needed to join! Or else! Things! His future! The alpha quadrant!

I heard myself talking. I said “Join the circle. Don’t you want to bow to social pressure?”

Out loud. I said that out loud. The other adults did not react. They somehow seemed amused. No funny looks. The other kids didn’t notice. They weren’t listening. No curiosity. There were lots of strange people there and they didn’t notice. In order to sit in a circle.
I kept going. “Don’t you want to conform? Everyone wants you to join the circle.” I had one or two more. It felt right. It fit. I was sure, somehow.

How was I so sure? I didn’t know. I decided I must have picked up on something I hadn’t consciously processed. We went outside, they talked a bit among themselves, then talked to us.  They said they’d think about whether they had a place for him that met his needs.
We asked a bunch of questions. The answer to all of them was “it varies.”

We left and started walking back towards the subway. We would discuss our findings. What did I think?

What did I think? Something is wrong. 

I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. But did I have the right to say that? Isn’t this place doing everything it is supposed to? What could I actually point to? Who was I to say, no, run screaming for your life? 

This was what everyone official said was appropriate. This was what we were supposed to want. If we didn’t do it we would be hurting our son. We would be irresponsible. It would be just awful. We would be just awful. We’d certainly be to blame for what happened. There would be no end to the trouble. The city would try to punish us, deny us other things we needed; not everything they wanted for us was bad. If we just said yes we could be done with it. This is what people do. It must be all right, right?

I didn’t know what I was going to say.

Zvi concludes, and his wife agrees, that “it felt like this is where children’s souls go to die”. I agree.

I wonder what egregore this is. Whatever it is, it’s right there with Moloch, with Azathoth, with Ra. (It’s hard to overstate how powerful these egregores are, and how impactful they’ve been on my view of the world.)

Venkat talks about mediocrity in the context of the rise of AI “taking our jobs”. It’ll be ultimately futile to compete with them — see shell scripts on one end of the spectrum, and AlphaZero on the other. The solution instead is to resist optimization. This is a “meta-trait” independent of all competitive spectra, not a qualifier on a trait like intelligence or whatever.

A toy narrative of how mediocrity-as-optimization-resistance can be evolutionarily adaptive:

Since we’re talking about intelligence, AI, and robots here, the relevant side-effect spectrum here is intelligence, but it could be anything: beauty, height, or ability to hold your breath underwater.

Or to take an interesting one, the ability to fly.

Back in the Cretaceous era, to rule the earth was to be a dinosaur, and to be an excellent dinosaur was to be a large, apex-predator dinosaur capable of starring in Steven Spielberg movies.

Then the asteroid hit, and as we know now, the most excellent and charismatic dinosaurs, such as the T-Rex and the velociraptor, didn’t survive. Maybe things would have been different if the Rock had been around to save these charismatically excellent beasts, but he wasn’t.

What did survive? The mediocre dinosaurs, the crappy, mid-sized gliding-flying ones that would evolve into a thriving group of new creatures: birds.

Notice something about this example: flying dinosaurs were not just mediocre dinosaurs, they were mediocre birds before “be a bird” even existed as a distinct evolutionary finite game.

The primitive ability to fly turned out to be important for survival, but during the dinosaur era, it was neither a superfluous ability, nor a premium one. It was neither a spandrel, nor an evolutionary trump card. It was just there, as a mediocre, somewhat adaptive trait for some dinosaurs, not the defining trait of all of them. What it did do was embody optionality that would become useful in the future: the ability to exist in 3 dimensions rather than 2.

A bit more elaboration on the idea of resistance to optimization:

So middling performance itself is not the essence of mediocrity. What defines mediocrity is the driving negative intention: to resist the lure of excellence.

Mediocrity is the functionally embodied and situated form of what Sarah Perry called deep laziness. To be mediocre at something is to be less than excellent at it in order to conserve energy for the indefinitely long haul.

What does mediocrity conserve energy for? For unknown future contingencies of course. You try not to be the best dinosaur you can be today, because you want to save some evolutionary potential for being the most mediocre bird you can be tomorrow, which is so not even a thing at the moment that you don’t even have a proper finite game built around it.

And this is not foresight. This is latent optionality in mediocre current functionality. Sometimes you can see such nascent adaptive features with hindsight. Other times, even the optionality is not so well defined. The inner ear bones for instance, evolved from the optionality of extra-thick jaw bones. That is a case of much purer reserve evolutionary energy than dinosaur wings.

If excellence is understood as optimal performance in some legible sense, such as winning a finite game of “be the best dinosaur” or “be the best bird” or “be the best avocado toast,” then mediocrity embodies the ethos of resistance to optimization.

So is mediocrity the same as what computer scientists call “satisficing”? No. Satisficing entails playing a finite game, by using a context-dependent way to define “continue playing”. Mediocrity is context independent, and in fact redefines the context, or “performance boundary”, via sloppiness:

The idea of satisficing behavior implicitly assumes legibility, testability, and acceptance of constraints to be satisfied. You need a notion of satisificing behavior any time you want to define the other end of the spectrum from excellence as some sort of consistent, error-free performance. You don’t seek the best answers, merely the first right answer you stumble upon. For some non-fuzzy definition of “right.”

This is just a different way of playing a finite game. Instead of optimizing (playing to win), you minimize effort to stay in the specific finite game. If you can perform consistently without disqualifying errors, you are satisficing. Most automation and quality control is devoted to raising the floor of this kind of performance.
This is a context-dependent way to define “continue playing.”

Mediocrity however, is a context independent trait. The difference is not just a semantic one. To pull your punch is not the same as punching as hard as you can, but neither is it the same as satisficing some technical definition of “punch.” A pulled punch does not find the maximum in punching excellence, but neither does it seek to conscientiously satisfy formal constraints of what constitutes a punch.

Mediocrity in fact tends to redefine the performance boundary itself through sloppiness. It might not satisfy all the constraints, and simply leave some boxes unchecked. Like playing a game of tennis with sloppiness in the enforcement of the rule that the ball can only bounce once before you return it.

Mediocrity has a meta-informational intent driving it: figuring out what constraints are actually being enforced, and then only satisficing those that punish violation. And this is not done through careful testing of boundaries, but simple sloppiness. You do whatever, and happen to satisfy some constraints, violate others. Of the ones you violate, some violations have consequences in the form of negative feedback. That’s where you might refine behavior. You learn which lines matter by being indifferent to all of them and stepping over some of the ones that matter.

You could say mediocrity seeks to satisfice the laws of the territory rather than the laws of the map.

Mediocrity is not about what will satisfy performance requirements, but about what you can get away with.

Mediocrity relates to agency via the notion of situational adequacy:

I grew up with a Hindi phrase, chalta hai, that captures the essence of the ethos of mediocrity. It corresponds loosely to the English it will do, which is subtly different from good enough, but stronger as a norm. For example, the exchange,

Chalega? (will it do?)
Chalega. (yes, it will do)

is a common transactional protocol. A consensus acceptance of improvised adequacy.

Good enough hints at satisficing behavior with reference to a standard, but it will do and chalta hai, get at situational adequacyTo say that something “will do” is to actively and independently judge the current situation and act on that judgment, if necessary overriding prevailing oughts. The chalta hai protocol shares the agency involved in this judgment through negotiation, but it need not be.

Something “will do” when it satisfices constraints that aren’t being ignored, and is indifferent to the rest, which usually means leading to minimum-energy defaults, whether or not they violate constraints.

Mediocrity relates to bullshit:

There is a deep relationship between bullshit and mediocrity. Bullshit is indifference to the truth or falsity of statements. Mediocrity is indifference to the violation and compliance of constraints. Where transgression involves deliberately violating constraints, mediocrity doesn’t care whether it is in violation or compliance. Mediocrity is to satisficing and transgression as bullshit is to truth-telling and lying.

By “bullshit” above I’m referring to the anthropologist David Graeber’s theory of bullshit jobs. Venkat ties mediocrity in with this too:

There is only one way to be a telephone sanitizer, account executive, or TV producer: a mediocre way. You may be wildly successful and make a lot of money in these domains but it has little to do with meeting clear standards of excellence or error-free functioning. You may even pursue some sort of Zen-like ideal of unacknowledged excellence, but that will seem arbitrary and even eccentric. The point of these jobs is mostly optionality. Mediocrity is the rational performance standard in such domains.

These domains do not fundamentally support a native spectrum of performance where excellence is really meaningful, because nobody really cares enough, and because the boundaries are too messy. Because here’s the thing: what creates excellence is not that people are good at something, but because people care enough to be good at something.

Mediocrity and evolution:

One of the biggest sources of misconceptions about evolution is the fact that its most popular lay formulation is in the form of a superlative. Survival of the fittest.This leads to two sorts of errors.

The shallow error is to assume fit has a static definition in a changing landscape, like smart or beautiful. It is the sort of error made by your average ugly idiot on the Internet.

This isn’t actually too bad, since at various times, specific legible fitness functions may be good approximations of the fitness function actually induced by the landscape.

The deep error though is to assume the superlative form of the imperative towards fitness. Fit and fittest are not the same thing. In the gap between the two lies the definition of mediocrity. To pursue mediocrity is to procrastinate on optimizing for the current fitness function because it might change at any time.

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