Mediocrity

When I was a small kid I was fascinated by science and technology. I watched the landing on the moon live on TV and it captivated my little brain. It was obvious to me: with the rapid advances in science and technology we would have to work less and enjoy life more. Things would be automated, robots would assist not only at work, but at home too. Advances in medicine will let us grow older and feel younger.

Almost 50 years later, people still work 9 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. People today work as hard as people in a feudal system hundreds of years ago.

Obviously something went wrong – big time! How can it be that modern technology allows us to work faster and more efficiently, and yet we still work 40-50-60 hours a week? Where is this hugely increased production surplus going?

The answer is simple: It’s going to the junk yard. Every day billions of people around the planet produce junk!

sea of junk
A sea of waste (Margaret Bates)

Have a look at this short movie: Story of Stuff

According to their research, 99% of the products purchased in North America are landing in the waste bin within 6 months.

Why does that happen? Because some real bright economy professors have invented an economic system that is based on ever growing consumption. If we stop that consumption, the economy would collapse – so they say.

But how is this consumption sustained? Through mediocrity. We design products that are good enough to attract buyers, but won’t last long. Often the obsolescence – and the need to replace a product – is advertisement driven. The fashion industry is a good example.

What it boils down to is that people design products not to perfection, but to become faulty or obsolete as soon as possible, just short of disgruntling the consumers. We have become so used to living in a junk world using junk ware all around us, that most of us have forgotten to appreciate quality.

In this economy mediocrity is king, perfection is a crime. Is it?

There is some hope for us and our children. Not all of us want to live and be remembered as being mediocrity in person. Seriously, do you?

Let’s envision a different economy, an economy actively thriving for excellence. It’s not utopia, it’s already here. Look at the services industry. In a business where quality translates directly into more customers and perhaps higher pay, there isn’t much place for mediocrity.

Imagine I could lease a car from the manufacturer or its representative, pay for the actual mileage driven, and let them take care of maintenance and all other costs, including energy costs (gas or electricity). In order to stay competitive and increase revenue, the manufacturer would have to build better cars that don’t break down, that are saving fuel, that can be upgraded or enhanced easily, for example via software. Tesla, the Californian car manufacturer, comes to mind.

Looking at Tesla, their technology and their cars are so far ahead of the game that it’s scary to think what will happen very soon with the other, so-far-behind car manufacturers. I am afraid that within the next 10-15 years 10,000s of engineers working at conventional car engines and fuel systems will be out of work. These are highly specialized experts, yet their knowledge has become obsolete. Much like the lead type setters some 30-40 years ago when the printing industry was digitalized.

We are already experiencing a move to the services based economy. Take for example Amazon. They turned their data centers’ extra capacity into a cloud computing business, which has by now become a major revenue stream. Instead of companies buying expensive computing hardware that needs constant maintenance and becomes obsolete faster than it is installed, Amazon and others offer cloud computing services, slashing upfront capital expenses and maintenance costs.

Well designed data centers can provide tremendous cost-savings. Here excellence really pays. Large data center operators like Backblaze run tens of thousands of hard drives that are constantly monitored. Besides the price, the disks’ life span and failure rates are determining factors for future purchases. Energy consumption is another important criteria for data center equipment. The more energy a CPU or other component consumes, the more energy is needed to run it, and worse, the more energy is needed for air conditioning to keep the equipment cool. Modern data centers recover the wasted energy and use it to heat houses or swimming pools – see http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/data-centers-that-recycle-waste-heat/.

With the shift from local PC and server deployment toward cloud computing and storage, large data center operators will influence manufacturers to improve their products’ life span and efficiency. But the computer industry can do much more. They can turn their products into services.

There is a long way to go from our throw-away consumer society towards a services-based economy that values excellence (and reduces waste in the process). Each one of us can contribute toward a better world: By refusing to buy garbage. By remunerating excellence. But most of all, by stop being mediocre!

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