[OT] Sturgeon's Observation: reasons for its truth?

By: Paul A. Clayton (paaronclayton.delete@this.gmail.com), July 10, 2022 4:20 am
Room: Moderated Discussions
When science fiction writing was criticized as being 90% crap, Theodore Sturgeon observed that 90% of everything is crap. Previously, I had thought such excessively pessimistic — and if one interpretes "crap" as nauseating and dangerously unhygeinic I doubt one could reasonably claim 90% of everything expressed such negative quality — but I sometimes feel the observation expresses significant truth.

Obviously, some of the perception comes from a common human discontent with current conditions. Advertising (and consumerism in general) tends to encourage this discontent, but humans do not need a consumer culture's help to generate envy and ingratitude. (Thankfully, gratitude and respect are also natural human traits. [Respect is not the best word for happiness in others' success and good fortune, but the feeling does seem connected with a sense of honor toward another.])

Lower communication costs may increase exposure to both worse and better conditions, facilitating evaluations relative to unusually good quality and readily finding examples of unusually bad quality. Information access may also encourage a false sense of expertise; without sufficient context, difficult problems can seem to have trivial or at least unrealistically easy and effective solutions.

(Since the experience and knowledge of experts can lead to biased evaluations — where the mental model of the problem is so thoroughly developed and trusted that alterative solutions are easily discounted without deep consideration — discounting real expertise can be a natural temptation and one cannot just settle a question by asking any expert. Communicating the inadequacies of a novice's perspective in a manner comprehensible to the novice is expensive in time and effort. Repeating this for basically the same problem with moderately different phrasing or parameters is tiring. Having closed-mindedness or cabalistic motives attributed to one's attempts to explain further discourages making the effort. As one with curiosity and vast swathes of ignorance, I sympathize with novices who ask basic misguided questions; "let me Google that for you" is sometimes accurate, but not knowing the proper search terms can make finding information very challenging. Knowing that an expert could easily answer such basic questions also encourages a novice to feel put off when such a question is not quickly provided a friendly answer; an expert's time is more valuable and more in demand, but it is easy to feel that an expert is being stingy. As one with a few areas of moderate expertise who has ocassionally tried to help others, I can sympathize a little about some of the frustrations of experts.)

One might also naturally expect almost half of everything produced to be at least slightly sub-par (less than average) and mediocrity to be common (with the complexity of factors affecting product quality and of those affecting quality evaluation, one might expect an approximation of a normal distribution with clumping around the average).

The difficulty in communicating some quality factors tends to discourage providing such quality. One can easily see a 5% value benefit from buying the Value Sized package rather than the Standard Sized package for commodity items (when storage is cheap and transaction costs are noticeable — going shopping, making a decision, etc.). For many items "use count" (durability, breadth of applicability) and use value (e.g., reduced time/effort to accomplish a task, self-validation/identification) are not reliably communicated. When such value factors are difficult to communicate, revenue much less profit cannot be increased by producing a more valuable product; the market "communicates" that a feature is not valued because the feature is not reliably observed. (The localized cost of product research relative to product cost can be high for lower-cost items and people rarely evaluate total costs/benefits well — repeating a quick-and-dirty solution a hundred times is easier than taking ten times the effort to learn a solution that is a hundred times more effective/efficient.)

(One can also encounter "the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness": "A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet." This hints at money flow issues — the expected profit for lending the poor man $50 to buy good boots [or leasing such boots] is insufficient, 7% interest is presumably not enough even ignoring risks and transaction costs.)

One the positive side, information availability/ease of communication could improve quality. Reviews can reduce the research effort in evaluating a product and availability of information about what others think of products can improve product development.

While mass production can make small relative savings appear more significant — "we saved two cents in production costs for this million-per-quarter-selling widget, earning tens of thousands per quarter" — such can also reduce the significance of fixed costs. Much of product quality depends on product design (a fixed cost) and it seems that much of the higher production costs for higher quality products has a fixed nature (I strongly suspect even beyond the cost of making a change). Mass production has made relatively luxurious clothing relatively inexpensive, e.g.

Another factor in the disappointing quality of products may be observed in one of my own psychopathologies. When one cares significantly about the quality of what one's organization produces, one will tend to observe short-falls and expend effort to approach, if not excellence, at least something above crap. However, in most organizations quality is not "job one", and weighing aspects of quality and their costs will also differ among observers. An eager beaver may succeed in improving quality through extra effort, but success encourages expanded effort which leads toward burnout, especially when the organization's culture is not supportive of such goals and the eager beaver has insufficient leadership skill (or authority) to change the culture. Working almost exclusively for a paycheck tends not to encourage going the extra mile because financial rewards are rarely proportional to extra effort; excellence generally does not make economic sense. (This seems a natural aspect of excellence; it is not logically justifiable.)

(I know I am not at all unique in setting myself up for burnout. The common human desires for significance and for safety encourage working too hard, but most people seem less maladjusted than I am — I am particularly disheartened seeing those who work at least as hard as I do, produce better results, and are not stressed out and do not heap blame on themselves or others because things were not as well-done as they could have been, though such people also give me hope that one can care and work hard without destroying one's physical, mental, or moral health.)

I am not convinced that crappiness is unavoidable or necessarily the common case, but I also do not know how to effectively address this problem (I do see it as a sub-optimal condition and not merely an optimum of multiple complex variables).

Obviously filtering and feedback can help. In the case of science fiction at the time of Sturgeon's observation, the economic incentives for writing high literary quality science fiction were low (feedback) and the filtering was more strongly based on the quality of "what-if" and technology exploration and adventure (aspects attractive to the readers) than on 'literary' quality. Any specialized product will compare less well by a general standard, but popular use (both breadth of users and number of users) will tend to encourage improvement measured by general standards. A larger population also increases the probability that the best N members will be surpass some measure of quality.

I write this partially to rant (the emotional release and limited sense of productivity), but I also hope that others will find something of interest and, especially, that responses will give me (and others) more insight into the problem.
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TopicPosted ByDate
[OT] Sturgeon's Observation: reasons for its truth?Paul A. Clayton2022/07/10 04:20 AM
  You are overcomplicating things ...Mark Roulo2022/07/10 08:00 AM
    You are overcomplicating things ...---2022/07/10 11:21 AM
  Knowing what is and isn’t your responsibilityGreg2022/07/12 04:42 AM
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      Knowing what is and isn’t your responsibilityGreg2022/07/12 02:25 PM
  [OT] Sturgeon's Observation: reasons for its truth?anon2022/07/13 03:27 AM
    [OT] Sturgeon's Observation: reasons for its truth?Brett2022/07/13 11:18 AM
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