August 17, 2017 By Venkatesh Rao, editor-in-chief of Ribbonfarm.
A really perspicacious analysis of the new digital economy, exploring the significance of ‘premium mediocre’ products like smashed avocado on toast, or a premium subscription to Spotify, in the context of millennials growing into the precarious middle class.
What is premium mediocre?
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 food that Instagrams better than it tastes… Singaporeans can enjoy the fine premium mediocre experience of the McDonald’s Signature Collection. Anything branded as “signature” is premium mediocre of course.
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).
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.
Premium mediocre as a social class
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.
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. … [P]remium 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.
Venkatesh sees the premium mediocre as sitting below the winners of the cryptocurrency lottery (the only upwardly mobile move available to anyone today, regardless of skills) and above the dreaded API. See his diagram above.
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.
What premium mediocre is NOT
[P]remium 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.
[P]remium 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.
Why do we need premium mediocrity?
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. … 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).
Who is the illusion for? Our parents
[T]he 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.
Who is the illusion for? The tech entrepreneurs of the Brave New World
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. … The wealthy do not actually want to be surrounded by a naked, devastated dystopia. … They like to think they are simply winning the most in a society that’s winning overall.
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.
A naked call on life itself
A naked call is selling something that you don’t yet own.
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.
The premium mediocre life is an immersive, all-encompassing audition for an actual role in the party that is the new economy.
Venkatesh sees this as why premium mediocre consumption is so misunderstood and why it might even be a noble act: one that means everyone can play their part in the building of a better world.