Bill Cutshall’s Weblog

December 5, 2008

Rampant Mediocrity

Filed under: Things I am too Lazy to Categorize — billcutshall @ 11:57 am

I get the feeling that we, as a nation, as a society are lowering our standards of what we find acceptable to such a degree that we are in danger of losing our ability to take pride in ourselves and what we stand for.  We haven’t lost our ability to complain, far from it.  We have, however, lost the resolve to act based on our complaints.  We have become generally accepting of everything no matter the level of quality, innovation, or common sense.  In a time when every newscast is dominated by the financial industry’s collapse we should be especially reflective of the types of decisions we, both as individuals and as a nation, should be willing to support.

I read an article last month about our drift towards  “Beta culture”.  If you aren’t familiar with the term’s meaning or origin, allow me to explain.  In the world of computer software, “beta testing” refers to the process of putting a functionally complete piece of software through a testing and correction process to eliminate glitches and bugs.  The literary equivalent would be proof-reading.  The story is already written but the text needs to be examined for typos before it goes to press.  Since the cost of retrieving and reprinting error-laden texts is exceptionally high, a keen eye is applied during the quality process.  Before the Internet, software was sold using the same type of distribution model as books.  Titles were pressed to media (CDs rather than pages), put in boxes, and sold from store shelves.  The cost of post-press corrections put a premium on getting it right the first time.  When the Internet arrived, corrections could be applied virtually cost-free post-sale and suddenly the cost of errors dropped well below the benefit level created by being first to market.  Suddenly a software title would be more successful by being buggy-but-first rather than being error-free.  Consumers got used to the quality trade-off associated with owning the newest products because they were confident that fixes were forthcoming and thus, beta culture was born.

My perception is that software has since been sold on promises rather than deliverables, that marketing has run ahead of product development, and that the functionality promised on the box (or on the website) may not actually be included in the delivered product.  While I am certain the manufacturer’s intention is to correct the functionality of the delivered product to match the promises made in order to sell it, the reality is that product development cycles don’t often leave the time for that.  In the same way that the new marketplace rewards those first to market over those with better products, it also rewards those first to market with the second version of their product over those that take the time to correct the first version before moving on.  We have become, as consumers, accepting of the minor flaws and quality issues associated with software as long as the product worked “for the most part”.  We have become accepting of the beta mentality.

As the Internet moves the software industry inexorably towards a service provider model where all application software and functionality are housed at the provider and accessed via the web, the traditional concepts of versions, releases, and patches will become more and more irrelevant.  Were beta culture limited to the confines of the software industry we could consider the problem resolved but nothing operates in a vacuum in our society and the influence is spreading.  Manufacturers of hardware products with software components (drivers and control software) accepted the idea that pushing a nearly complete product out the door was preferable to allowing a competitor to beat them to market.  Soon the practice found its way into strictly hardware products and consumer electronics and the beta mentality spread.

Think of it like the story of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Step one was to get the hardware in place in the market.  Step two was to make it work.

In no way do I intend to imply that the computer software or the Internet are in any way entirely responsible for our national tolerance of mediocrity but the evidence that it is spreading is undeniable. News outlets blend news with entertainment in order to increase market share rather than build credibility.  We accept mediocrity in those that inform us.  Professional athletes aren’t held accountable for off-field behavior because it isn’t seen as relevant to their on-field performance.  We forgive anti-social, illegal, and criminal behavior and continue to support the lifestyles of the sports figures that inspire us.  Politicians campaign on promises but are rarely forced to account for what they deliver.  We accept mediocrity in the qualifications, attendance and diligence, and ethics of those that represent and govern us.  Spell-check, text messaging, and the rapid, ephemeral nature of Internet communications has rendered grammar, punctuation, and literacy very nearly irrelevant.  We accept mediocrity in the ways and means we use to express ourselves and communicate with each other.  Our disposable culture teaches us that we don’t have to live with the consequences of our decisions and that mentality is slowly creeping into everything we do.

This month I intend to reflect on everything I spend my money on and if it doesn’t meet my expectations I intend to ask for my money back.  I intend to pay attention when people exceptional in one regard fail to meet average expectations in another and I will withdraw my support and voice my opinions.  I will try to elevate the quality of my communication both in the content and manner of delivery of my ideas.  I will pay attention to the consequences of my presence in and motion through this world and I will make decisions with an eye to the quality of my future and that of my children.

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