October 6, 2021 - 8:00am

There’s good evidence that “Lookism” — i.e. discrimination on the basis of physical attractiveness — is a real thing (and not just in matters of the heart). As Tyler Cowen and David Brooks have both noted, the effects — for instance on lifetime earnings — appear to be non-trivial. 

But might there be other forms of prejudice we’ve been overlooking? Cowen quotes from an unnamed correspondent: 

I would like to suggest an even more subtle and intractable form of discrimination yet: interesting-ism. Have you ever considered how individuals and society discriminate against the boring and the mediocre? Have you ever considered that the more discriminating one’s taste, intelligence, and eye for talent is, the more one is apt to dismiss most people?
- Tyler Cowen

It’s an interesting idea (ironically) — but whether it’s true or not depends on one’s definition of ‘boring’. If it’s in the sense of ‘not entertaining’ then we certainly do discriminate against boring things and people. Or rather we just ignore them in favour of distraction and sensation. 

However, if one means boring in the sense of ‘typical’, then the opposite is true — we actively favour the norm. For a start there’s social media, a ruthless enforcer of conformity. Boring is also where the money is. In an era of mass production and mass markets it pays to cater to the people who are most like the greatest number of other people. And so a great deal of effort goes into identifying these individuals, finding out what they want and giving it to them.

It’s not just the boring consumer who’s sought after, but the boring worker too. The same digital revolution that allowed marketing experts to find out so much about us, has also allowed management experts to centralise decision-making power within large organisations. What is therefore required from the great bulk of employees is the willingness and ability to comply with centralised management systems. Local initiative is only valued as a filler of gaps. 

But what about the role of tech in facilitating niche products and producers? Well, yes, in some respects it does exactly that. For example, just compare the handful of media outlets that used to provide news and opinion to the countless sources available today. 

Still, I wonder if innovation doesn’t depend on a collision between the mainstream and the niche, the normal and the eccentric, the boring and the interesting. 

In catering for both sides of the human condition, but doing so separately, is the modern world killing progress?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.