Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Above average is the new normal

Please be seated. For today's lesson, let me quote again those old, familar words from chapter 19 of the Gospel According to St Michael, verses 24-26:
And again I say unto you, for a school to be Good, pupil performance must always exceed the national average and all schools must be Good.
When the the Education Select Committee heard this, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, how is this mathematically possible?
But Michael Gove beheld them, and said unto them, With logic this is impossible; but by getting better all the time all things are possible.
But it's not just the current education secretary who sees the very idea of averageness as a dangerous heresy that it must be suppressed, even if we have to undermine the very foundations of reality to root it out. According to Will Davies, lots of people have bought into the dodgy dossier that dragged us into The War On Average:
The challenge is partly an accounting one. The fact that many people view this as gross conformity may be one reason why such reinvention remains unlikely. However, it is no good hoping for socialism, in any traditional sense, without also working on an argument in defence of averageness, in defence of mediocrity and in defence of fairly old-fashioned forms of aggreagtion...

...We claim to dislike inequality, without noticing that when equality appears in the form of Nescafe instant coffee or an 'acceptable' comprehensive school, we turn up our noses at it. 
Accounting? Maybe, but it's also logic (see Michael Gove, above) and language. Take Davies' call to reclaim 'mediocrity', or the qualifier "bog-standard", as all too frequently applied to his 'acceptable' comps.

Put language and logic together and you begin to notice the sheer idiocy of the knee-jerk assumption that average = mediocre. So your life is pretty 'average?' That might mean anything from barely scraping by, if you live in Niger to doing very nicely, thank you, if you're lucky enough to be a bog-standard Norwegian.

Fretting about whether something is 'average' is irrelevant. The important question is, 'is it any good?'

Back in the 1970s, when most watches were still wound up with springs, Seiko marketed its new line of more accurate quartz watches with the slogan 'Some day all watches will be made this way.' Today, almost all of them are.  Those first Seiko watches boasted above average timekeeping, compared with your average hand-wound Timex of the day. Today, nearly all watches are made this way, so a Seiko watch is now functionally more or less average. And that's absolutely fine because, in this context, average is quite good enough for most users' purposes.*

A tiny minority of watches still aren't made this way -  high-end mechanical Swiss watches, which are basically status-enhancing jewellery with a subsidiary timekeeping function, so aren't particularly relevant, except as a metaphor for what I suspect Gove and Co. really mean by words like "excellence" and "rigour" - a hierarchy of ranking and exclusion, as opposed to making things functionally better for most people.

Sometimes, average can be OK and the best really is the enemy of the good.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Of course, no longer being able to charge a premium for being better than the competition must be an enormous bummer for Seiko, which neatly illustrates why the concept of "average" is such a an anathema from a purely capitalist point of view.