Five Stars for Everyone: How Rating Systems are Diluting the Meaning of Excellence

I’m an Airbnb host. I have a super cute cabin in the woods that I like to share with others when my family isn’t using it. It’s been a great way to earn income while caring for the home and investing in my writing career. It’s also been a wonderful experience—meeting people from all over the world and sharing a little slice of my life with them.

The Airbnb software is easy to use and everything from booking, to insurance, to refunds has been thought of. Their customer support is outstanding. It’s never been easier to run a little business from my home. It’s almost effortless.

It’s also very ratings driven. This is key to the way the program works, hosts rate guests and guests rate hosts. This both increases quality as well as provides a certain safety net—I have yet to host any criminals, or at least none of my guests have stolen or defaced anything. This ratings system has a way of working that sort of element out of the community.

The five-star rating system isn’t new. Restaurants and hotel chains have been using them forever. What is new though, is the unique way businesses like Airbnb use them. Basically, the number of stars one gets is now directly related to one’s income. You know when you stay at the Motel 6, you’re staying in what’s considered a 3 star experience. Definitely not 5. That’s reserved for the Hiltons and Ritz Carltons of the world. Yet being a 3 star hotel doesn’t limit your earnings. There are plenty of folks who want that. They only have a set amount of money and know that they get what they pay for. If they had $400 a night to blow, they would. But they don’t, so they spend $69 and stay at the Motel 6. The 3 star hotel is needed in a world of economic diversity.

But in Airbnb, or Uber, Lyft and all the other sharing economy apps, 5 stars is required. Actually, a 4.5 star average. If your listing doesn’t generate that, then you’re either removed from the system, or penalized for not providing a good enough experience for your guests.

In my case, I must have 89% 5 star reviews to be what’s called a SuperHost. SuperHost listings are given priority in searches. Thus, the more 5 star ratings, the further towards the top of the search you’ll find yourself. It’s the same with Amazon reviews…as an author this is something I must battle every day. The number of 5 star reviews absolutely figures into Amazon’s search engines. Looking for a new book, you’ll only see the 5 star ones.

So what’s the problem? Customers only want the best. Why wouldn’t the ratings be important? I imagine in the beginning, they were meaningful, but now, years into the online disruption it’s become very clear that 5 stars no longer means a thing—for everyone seems to get that rating for whatever type of work they do. Unless you really, really suck, you’ll get five stars. And with time, the number of books with perfect ratings fills pages of searches and the number of SuperHosts grows so huge the meaning of SuperHost is lost—if we’re all Super, then how can an algorithm chose which ones the best?

It’s a dilution of excellence. Let’s take my Airbnb listing. It’s not a 5 star experience. Yes, it’s clean, sanitary and cute. I light a fire for you before you get there so it’s toasty and provide coffee and tea. However, there are cobwebs and spiders (I try my best but they build those webs the moment I’m done cleaning). In the winters, you have to manage the firewood to be warm because it’s the only form of heat, and we’re not close to town. I keep my price low for all these reasons, seeing myself like a Holiday Inn express. You want 5 stars, rent one of those fancy islands. Yet come to my cabin and you get home comforts and when you wake up in the morning to have your coffee on the porch, you’re greeted by Douglas Fir and California Redwoods almost 200 ft. tall, surrounding you in every direction, with the sunlight pouring through their branches dancing gently in the breeze. And a pair of adorable Pygora goats waiting to be fed. It’s 4 star lodging with a 5 star view and petting zoo.

Yet all my guests have been trained, and know that if I don’t get enough 5 star ratings, I can be penalized. So they give me 5 stars. Over and over again. Yes I should be happy, and I am. But something inside of me wonders, do they all expect to receive 5 stars as guests? Because not all guests are equal, just like our listings. Some actually do the laundry and vacuum before they go (that’s not even necessary and I wish I could give those folks 6 stars, because like, one more than 5). Others don’t even do their dishes (this is a HUGE no-no in Airbnb land, if you don’t do the dishes, you’re not getting a good review). And then there are those who’re in between. But if I save the 5 stars for those SuperGuests who practically do all the cleaning for me, then I’m giving a 4 to those who meet the requirements and a 3 if you don’t do the dishes. And that means the majority of my guests would get only 4 stars, which isn’t good for them. They too must have a certain percentage of 5 star reviews.

How then, can I reward excellence? How can I acknowledge the one who went out of their way? When 5 stars becomes mandatory, when perfection is the norm, where do we go from there?

We’re not all perfect. We’re not excellent every moment of the day. Some of us are excellent at one thing and horrible at another. In our drive for data driven or quantitative analysis, we’ve reduced ourselves to numbers and then made it a requirement that we all score the highest. Which is impossible. We’re not all 5 stars. Honestly, I think the effort to keep a wood stove going should count for something. And if you don’t do the dishes, that counts as well.

Maybe my hesitancy to label everyone as perfect comes from growing up as a gymnast. To get earn the coveted 10.0, you had to be perfect. It was rare. Then suddenly, it wasn't rare anymore. Girls were getting 10.0 all the time. So the USAG changed the judging system to make it harder to be perfect. They raised the bar, so to speak. Some might find that cruel, but it made for challenge and I think it advanced our abilities. Ever striving. Ever reaching. To me, that's life.

We’re not all birds, so don’t expect everyone to fly. Our society is based on generic, 5 star expectations that no longer mean anything. If you can’t fly, don’t. And if you can, then do so, even if others envy you

Three Reasons Futurists Should Consider Bernie Sanders

WARNING: This is a political post. Indeed, writing about technology and consciousness and what it means to be human in the 21st century is at it's essence political. But other than my “I Voted Today: Big Fucking Deal” post, I’ve tried to keep myself out of the abyss that’s called American politics. However, with the kickoff of the primaries this month, I find myself wondering who is the best candidate for the things that really matter to me? I’m not registered in any party and thus have the freedom to look at everyone, from Republicans to Democrats to Independents and the third party candidates.

In general, I believe that we should concentrate more on building up the third parties. Our binary blue/red system is ripe with disorder, dishonesty and disillusion. We need to bring more voices to the table, or soon we’ll have one party—the DemApubs, a fully corporate sponsored entity that feeds off our insecurities and preys on our apathy. And until a few weeks ago, I fully intended on voting for a third party candidate in the fall.

Bernie Sanders however, has peaked my interest. Not from a philosophical or even socialist standpoint, but from a futurist standpoint. You see, my goal is not to Make America Great Again (whatever that means) nor is it to be Robin Hood and take from the rich to feed the poor. When I look at politics, I ask myself, who is most likely to get us through the digital revolution and truly usher in the Information Age? Who is supporting policies that enable technology to bloom and take us into the 21st century? Who supports science and innovation? Who is open to letting go of our 19th century fossil fuel industry? Who is willing to free humanity from the Industrial Age? Who will help us lay down the necessary policies that are the cornerstones of a technically advanced society?

Government’s job is to protect the people. Most think that only means foreign policy. But to this I’d add investing in the infrastructure that enables our society to thrive and navigate the huge economic changes of the Information Age. For make no mistake, what domestic policies we chose to implement right now will determine what type of digital world we live in. One in which all of our society benefits from the technological advancements, or one in which only a few hold all the keys and the rest are left to fend for themselves. Because like it or not, while the rest of America is fighting about gays, abortion, guns and nationalism, technology is progressing and trust me, none of those things will matter one bit in the next evolution of humanity.

After looking at all the candidates, I came to a surprising conclusion—that an old socialist from Vermont is actually the best candidate at this point in time when it comes to furthering our advancement as a technological society. He might not even understand half of what’s happening in Silicon Valley or NASA, but his platform contains some important things for all futurists to consider. And yes, many futurists do make more than $250,000 a year, so they might not like to hear what Bernie has to say. But before you vote merely to keep your taxes lower, please, if you care at all about the technological advancement of our world, consider Bernie for the following three reasons.

 #1: Bernie is against nuclear war and for reduced military spending

We are now at the point that technically, we could annihilate this planet. That we haven’t yet is miraculous. We are officially our own greatest threat. Nuclear disarmament is more important than ever, as well as the reigning in of military spending and investment in artificially intelligent drones and soldier-robots. In his article in Politico Magazine, Lawrence Hobbs says this about Bernie, “Twenty-five years after the Cold War, there is…no need to spend a trillion dollars to modernize our nuclear arsenal, and Sanders has even pledged to cut $100 billion in nuclear spending over the next decade. Instead the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Sanders told me he would push for, in order to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for both military and civilian purposes.”

Read more:

As a very practical man reminded me on FB thread, “Avoiding nuclear war is the most important thing we can vote for.” I’d also add that reducing the amount of money spent by our government on all technologies of destruction is a part of that. Bernie is absolutely behind both.

 #2: Bernie is for universal health care, inexpensive higher education and has even said that a universal basic income is something to consider

If all our citizens have access to health care and education as well as a basic income for food and shelter, then our technology is freed from the economic constraints that currently hold it back. Why are we still using dirty coal? Because of jobs. Those in the industry won’t let go because they can’t care for their families without their income. This is but one example. But imagine if they didn’t have to fear. If instead when one technology makes an older one obsolete, the worker won’t starve or end up on the street, but instead will continue to live and have care and be able to afford to go back to school and retrain to the new technology? What a different world it would be if when a life-saving technology is invented, all can have access to it because our health care system works in our favor, not for profits. Any technically advanced society would use its ingenuity to solve the problems of homelessness, hunger and health, and Bernie’s policies can be seen as a path in this direction. It will take a lot of hard work for us to move from our profit-driven economics to one where technology is used to provide the most basic needs to all of us at the least cost, but the time to start is now and Bernie’s campaign is forcing us to begin the discussion.

Why would a futurist care at all that everyone is provided for? Because technology is intimately linked to a work-less future—one in which automation will eliminate millions of jobs, with nothing new to replace them. This means an unemployment rate never seen before. To me, it’s a matter of national security that we ensure ALL our citizens are cared for and that our humanity is sacred and worthy of such an investment. Too many unemployed and impoverished people, and America spirals into third world status. Bob Marley put it so well, “A hungry man is an angry man.” Within thirty years we will either have a plethora of hungry, angry men, or we’ll have the infrastructure in place to ensure health care, food, housing and education for all. I’d rather remain a first world country than resist helping one another.

#3: Bernie is not affiliated with any specific religion

This is pretty huge. There’s never been a real contender for the American presidency who wasn’t affiliated with Christianity. I want to be clear, I’m not an atheist and do have a spiritual practice, but I also believe that organized religion is behind many of the dire issues we face in our world. Most wars are fought with a belief that we are agents of God cleaning up civilization. Apocalypse politics are practiced both within US foreign policy as well as within terrorist groups such as ISIS.

In addition, religious fundamentalism is generally against technology. Scientists throughout the centuries have been silenced by those whose Gods don’t approve of their findings. This is a problem that we can no longer afford to tolerate. Humanity can and will destroy the planet if it continues to operate under the concept of Divine Manifestation. The separation of church and state ensures liberty for all. The freedom to practice a religious devotion of your choice without fear of being burned at the stake. The freedom to practice family planning and birth control (if you’re a woman). The freedom to pursue science, not with wild evil abandonment, but with rational, moral and logical eyes and without the fear of oh, yes, being burned at the stake. That our leaders still have to pass some Christian God litmus test should no longer be happening in the 21st century.

An advanced society hasn’t lost their wonder and awe with nature, the cosmos or even the divine, but they have lost their need for religious dogma that controls their lives and tells them how to live.

I know, Bernie isn’t perfect and I wish he would have run as a third party and not within the corrupt binary primary system. But for futurists, he’s actually a very good choice. He’s the only candidate who has respect for the harm and destruction of the military industrial complex as well as organized religion in our world. Combined with his desire to use our technology to wisely care for all of us with regards to education and health care, I think he’s the one to help us take the next steps in excellence. This is not creating a nanny state—rather Bernie’s policies help us prepare for that time when our technology takes us into the post-work future. If we ignore these very important issues, we do so at our own peril.

Yes! I Do Believe—X-Files Reboot Review without (too many) Spoilers

Well X-File fans, we’re three episodes in. There are many in depth reviews online, but I wanted to take a moment to say thanks to Chris Carter and encourage everyone to check it out, as well as share some observations with other fans.

At this point I know one thing for sure—Fox Mulder is the reason I fall for conspiracy theories. From the first episode in 1992 until the beginning of 1999, when I gave birth to my first son and no longer had time for TV, I faithfully spent my Sunday nights with the man. And now, almost seventeen years later, I realize that most of the crazy ideas running around in his head, are the same ones running around in mine!

Chris Carter’s series shaped an entire generation, creating a group of highly intelligent, sort of geeky fans who also now suspect EVERYTHING their government does. Maybe this was Carter’s goal? Perhaps his life mission is to use story to wake us up? Or maybe it’s just that doubt sells. Regardless, as agents Mulder and Scully grace our screens once more, it has never been more apparent to me that this series has had a huge influence on our public dialogue.

Like many, I celebrated the day I heard about the six episode treat. Yet I’m an X-Files fan, so I was also skeptical. Turns out that at the half way point, I’m incredibly pleased. Rather than pander to the more modern viewing tastes, the new X-Files have stayed true to the feel, intention and even rhythm of the original show.

Most important of course is the fact that the core actors are the same. Mulder, Scully as well as Skinner and the smoking man (who now has to smoke out of his tracheotomy). Yet each one has changed in reasonable and important ways. Mulder is well, a middle aged man. He’s spent the past 15 years in his home browsing the internet and now that he’s called back out to work on the X-Files, his solitude and loneliness are key to his behavior. He now doubts all he once believed, and yet…what if he was right all the long?

For her part, Scully has also aged predictably into her midlife. And like most women, is doing it very well, having spent the last 15 years working in a hospital helping disabled children. She’s still the formal, science minded part of the pair, but something is different. She has a light in her eyes and even a sense of humor. *

Fans of the original X-Files will love how familiar everything is. Particularly with the pacing. The original series consisted of one long story arc based on Fox Mulder’s missing sister and the governmental conspiracy behind it. This story line carried the entire 10 years, with about half of the episodes relating to it. Yet there were also the random scary creature episodes as well. These isolated episodes were often filled with science and science fiction and the two agents debating the entire time as to what’s real and what’s just a hoax, with the creature only revealing itself to Mulder.

It appears that Carter has kept this pacing and given those of us who love the story exactly what we’d expect—a few episodes focusing on the overall story arc and a few monster ones as well. Even the opening credits are untouched and perfect in their Smithsonian, blast from the past feel.

The new series opens with a famous, right winged, conspiracy theorist host of a popular internet show threatening to blow the whistle on the entire alien conspiracy theory and how it relates to 9-11. When Skinner at the FBI office is faced with this, he reopens the X-Files and calls in Scully and Mulder from retirement. Right off the bat, Carter brings us back into the basic overall story line—that alien abduction is real and your government knows, or even perpetrates, it. New revelations with regards to gene therapy, alien DNA and genetic manipulation (with an Avengers/X Men feel),  as well as references to Fox and Dana’s baby, William, whom they gave up for his safety near the end of the original series run. 

The episode last night rewarded viewers with a monster story—but with a twist! In this case the monster is the one who’s violated and forced to become human. In the middle of it all, Mulder goes through an existential crisis and Scully manages to pull off arresting the bad buy all on her own.*

There are a few changes as well, namely that the gore factor is higher. Now we get to see the bodily harm of the monster’s victims and nothing is left to the imagination during Scully’s autopsies. Like I posted on Twitter, the new X-Files is the same paranormal fun + all the gore Fox will allow. In addition, while the dialogue between Scully and Mulder is still your typical fantastical vs. reason banter, they’re both sassier. I call it the post-Jon Stewart sarcasm that seems to have inserted itself in our common vernacular.

Yet the love and honor each feels for the other is still apparent, and that my friends, is the key ingredient. The one element Carter couldn’t have left out.

I can’t wait until next Monday to sit on the couch with my husband, just like we used to when we first started dating, and see what happens next.

* yes, I do hope Scully's immortal ;-)