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Enbracing Mediocrity as a Tool for Survival

“I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.” — Alan Turing

Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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.

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. Mediocrity is the ethos of perpetual beta at work in a domain you’re not sure what the “product” is even for. Functionally unfixed self-perpetuation.

The universe is deeply lazy. The universe is mediocre. The universe is functionally unfixed self-perpetuation, always in optionality-driven perpetual beta.

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.

— from, Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre, Ribbon Farm.

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