Is there a role for mediocrity? and should we protect it? In a recent interview, Malcom Gladwell makes an interesting point:
GLADWELL: I wonder whether making the world safe for mediocrity is not a very worthy goal of teaching, not only because the people who’ll one day be good need to pass through mediocrity on their way to being good, but also that, like I said, it’s the gateway to experimentation.
I have been thinking about this a lot. When friction is removed, gravity starts working. Everything is attracted to the centre, to a few people, institutions, and companies. Their mass increases further and so does their gravitational pull. Tech's "network effects" are one manifestation of gravity.
Take the local college professor. When everybody can access the best content and lectures from the best professors in the world, who will care to listen to the local college professor? Gravity kills "average". This example displays clearly the gravity dilemma: access to the best professor is undeniably a good thing, but what about the local guy? When gravity can work unfettered there can only be a few winners.
Automation is another factor contributing to the "end of mediocrity". Jobs based on simple, repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate, but also the ones people usually start their career with. How many times have you heard about somebody starting out making copies, delivering mail, bringing coffee or arranging boxes in the warehouse? This effect will have a big impact in professions where expertise acquired through time matters. Legal associates, for example, slave on menial tasks for their all-mighty partners while earning a right to sit at the client table and learn the trade. Today, however, clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for law school grads checking spelling mistakes in contracts. And they shouldn't, a machine can do that. Associates jobs are being slashed, but this leaves a question on how firms will train the lawyer of the future (the ones required to do "human-level" jobs).
There is then a pet dilemma of mine: the supermarket self-checkout machine. We all hate it, but that's not the point. We know it is just a step towards an amazon go future. The point is the job it replaces. Every time I go to the supermarket I can't see the social utility in replacing the cashier. It is a simple job that lends perfectly to high school students and people that would find it difficult to do anything else. I might save time (eventually) checking out by myself and the supermarket will save money (probably, and there is surely other places where more waste is allowed) but what about the high school student? what's left for them? A friend of mine pointed, rightly, to the arbitrariness of my rant. After all, how many jobs I am I trying to replace in my work at Founders? Why should the task of saving mediocrity fall on the supermarket chain? It is like reading Bill Gates arguing for a tax on robots. I mean, the man that automated more white collar tasks in the last century and, notably, created way more jobs in the process.
There are no simple answers to these questions. I definitely don't have one. I am left with the thought that there is beauty and utility in mediocrity, and we should at least consider the risk we run but killing it. I am probably sliding into nostalgia, but I cheer my memory of the summer spent licking envelopes for my uncle. It paid my interrail ticket, will basic income provide for that as well?