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The Division Of Labor And Specialization

July 15, 2010

These are some comments I made to a paper Mr. Andre Gaudwin wrote.  You can find a link to the original paper here.


Your paper talks about the dangers our society faces as we specialize further and further and lose sight of the big picture. Quoting you directly:

“In the late 60s I became convinced, mainly because of the obvious insanity of wars and the apparent saneness of those who believe in it, that “we must have made a mistake somewhere throughout of our evolution.”  In the 70s, I also became thoroughly convinced, influenced by many French writers and by Buckminster Fuller, that the extreme specialization of our elites was leading humanity toward a crisis of an unprecedented nature.”

“As for specialization being the ultimate cause of this state of affairs, it is the hypothesis that I have adopted at the time and which I intended to test with my own formation as a generalist after reading Buckminster Fuller’s  Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in which he observes that : “Of course, our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.”

– Andre Gaudwin, Errare Humanum Est

I have a few comments to share.  Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re really of much use in solving this problem.

I’d like to start by asking us to look at life from the largest possible perspective; how does life begin?  Floating in the oceans carbon and other atoms congeal onto themselves into clumps and strands eventually leading to the first cells.  Over billions of years these cells die and replicate and clump together forming into larger and more complex units, in time becoming all the different forms of life we see on the Earth today.  Humanity is quite a latecomer when you look at things from this far back.  We’ve only been around for a few million years, whereas life on this planet goes back billions of years.

So as I stroll through my backyard admiring the breeze as it rustles the tree leaves, or watch the little ant scurry around the leaf litter, or spy on the water spider from above as it skips across the creek water, I find myself immersed in an ecological system of massive and immense complexity.  This environment I observe is so old I can’t even comprehend it.  Over billions of years everything from the grass, to the bushes, to the flies, to the beetles, and everything else have all formed into an interdependent system of unimaginable complexity.

We as humans evolved in the forests and plains in Africa starting a few millions years ago and are nothing but hairless great apes.  One of the distinctive features setting us apart from other species is our skill in memory, analytical abilities, our hands allowing us to use tools effectively, and our ability to learn and pass on our knowledge through mimicry and language.

What has “knowledge” been for the vast majority of human existence?  It’s been a hands on lesson from our father on how to use a spear.  It’s been remembering the locations of fruit trees and caves.  It’s been various learned motor abilities developed and acquired as we hunted and outsmarted the prey and animals we found around us.

All in all, our brains have been used for relatively simple things for the vast majority of our existence.  We’ve been a rather sparse species and it’s only very recently that our numbers have increased to anything appreciable.  We’ve formed the society and your papers deal with issues we face in that society.

Society… It’s a very novel thing to us humans.  Around 30,000 years ago (rough estimate) we begin to domesticate animals and farm our food.  We learned that we can somewhat control the environment to secure a guaranteed meal.  We start clearing away the forests to make room for farmland and in conjunction with domesticated animals we’re able to build permanent homes.  As we get better at doing this, we start to get some free time and rise above bare bones subsistence.

At this point we begin producing extra things and trading these things one with another.  This eventually leads to cities and the economy as we know it today.

When you trace out the story you see mankind slowly trying to control nature more and more.  At first it’s not very difficult.  Not much brain power is required to farm plants.  You just stick the seeds in the ground, make sure they get water, and voila.  Later you learn they can be fertilized and such, but all in all it’s far from rocket science.  Managing domestic animals isn’t much more difficult.  But we became more and more ambitious as time progressed.

Really the vast majority of the complications are very recent.  They’re rooted in the past few hundred years or so.  Back when we started this little journey of ours we had no idea what we were getting into.  People found themselves in this reality on planet Earth back before all our modern technology.  They were hungry, suffering from diseases and plagues of every sort, constantly being raided by foreigners who would steal everything they’ve worked so hard to build up, and they did what they thought was the best thing to do.  They tried to secure meals for themselves and their children, to provide shelter and security, and look out for those precious to them in a very hostile world.  We owe everything to these people.

What are the principles we learned that led to our modern technology?  Leaving out a lot of details, we first had the Egyptians and Greeks laying out the laws of geometry.  The Arabs I believe invented Algebra.  A lot of these techniques were birthed because of economic transactions through indirect exchange using money, and also the need to calculate things like property taxes.

The first major breakthrough was Newton as he laid out the laws of motion in his Principia.  Later we discovered thermodynamic processes which allowed to us build steam engines.  We also started to master electro-magnetism culminating in Maxwell’s laws.  In the early twentieth century we had the discovery of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the foundations of our modern scientific technology.

As someone who has studied these subjects to a relatively high degree of mastery, I can tell you that they’re far from simple.  Calculus, differential equations, Maxwell’s laws, statistical mechanics, quantum physics, general relativity… these aren’t the most simplistic things on Earth.

But even though these things are so complicated, mankind has striven to reach higher and higher.  But today, as you point out, things are getting almost out of hand.  The division of labor has led to massive specialization.  With all of us working within such a narrow focus we seem to be losing the big picture.  I’d like to talk a little about that.

I can see the problem, but I also see no way around it.  To control this world, which is very complicated and subtle, we are required to specialize.  The human brain is too weak to achieve mastery in every subject.  There’s no way around specialization.  It’s simply impossible for a normal human being to be a master engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, and several other occupations, all at the same time.  The knowledge and skill required are too much.

As time goes on, and our collective knowledge of this universe increases, absent some sort of major biological change to our brains, specialization will become a requirement.  That definitely is a problem from an administrative sense, as you point out.

I personally don’t think any sort of social reorganization or planning can fix this problem.  I don’t think it’s even a problem with our leaders not being educated enough (even though our leaders are far too often idiots).  As much as I like the idea of generalists and attempting to master as much as possible, as time progresses a generalist will be impossible.  There will be too much to know and you’ll be required to skim over everything at such a superficial level it won’t be of any use.

We’re coming awful close to outgrowing our means of communicating knowledge to one another.  Right now we’re still relying on that time old method of mimicry.  We watch someone else do things and learn by example.  Other methods of learning include audible speech and books (or reading from a computer screen), and school lectures from professors and teachers, which are far too slow.  The amount of time we spend in school is getting to be too long.  It already requires say a doctor to be in school for over twenty years before he starts treating patients.  (K-12 plus university training plus apprenticeship) That’s a huge percentage of our entire life span!  As our knowledge increases the time required to teach it all will only increase.

Our next stage of progress will come as we integrate ourselves with our computer technology.  It comes down to this:  nature is complicated and our brains are frail, slow, and not very powerful.  We need to upgrade our brains.

I foresee us transcending speech and books.  I don’t think we’ll have to “learn” things in the future.  We won’t have to rely on education or read books.  Today we’re born with instinctive reflexes which evolution has given us to survive within the environment we’ve lived in for millions of years.  Most of those “skills” nowadays are considered evolutionary baggage and make our social life difficult.  I think that’s all about to change.  We’re entering a new epoch.

Once we learn how to reprogram our brains, and enhance their capabilities with nano-technology, people will be born knowing everything.  New information will be wirelessly uploaded to their minds.  Every man, woman, and child will be fully equipped to deal with life.  You won’t have to worry about whether or not your father taught you how to deal with life emotionally, or read psychologists articles on how to properly console a depressed friend, or go to a trade school to know how to fix an appliance.  You’ll just know these and when you need to do it, it will come as naturally to you as a young boy being attracted to a pretty girl.  The newly created artificial instincts will be there all ready to go.  And just like our computers, we’ll be able to reprogram ourselves to adapt to our ever changing world.

This scares some people.  Honestly, I don’t know if I really care.  I don’t feel we have all that much to lose.  I’ve spent too much time reading books and looking at this place for what it is.  Life is fragile and filled with every sort of trouble imaginable.  You, just like me, have been born into this hell, and most everything we face is because evolution and this cruel universe pushed it on all of us.  I say we go for it.

Yeah, we’ll probably make a lot of mistakes as we go about altering our genetics, reward systems and brains.  We may screw up big time.  We’ll have to be careful because our mama universe is real bitch and she doesn’t give a damn about us.  But we need to go for it.  We’ll probably also end up destroying all the other life on this planet in this “civilization” project of ours.  Even so, life for our ancestors wasn’t a picnic.  It was absolute misery and hell.  The whole struggle for survival model, everyone fighting for food is ridiculous.  We certainly don’t want to go back.  That being the case, there’s only one direction to take — forward.

I think this integration with technology is the only way forward.  There is no philosophy which will fix things.  There is no religion or belief system which will cure things.  There is no economic system which can be designed to fix it.  If people tried to love one another, and we had a more decent economic system without all the corruption, sure it’d be better, but still nothing great.  There’s only one way for us to achieve a universe where people truly are happy and prosperous.  We’ll have to improve our brains and technology which will allow us to be conscious of one another’s situations, have empathy for everyone, not just our immediate family, and gain vastly more control over the forces of nature.

As for right now, we’ve went to control this universe and its required such a degree of specialization that it seems we’ve once again lost sight of our initial goals.  I don’t think this is true however.  It’s a real battle to tie down this bull.  This Earth wants to buck us off like a bad habit.  One little screw up and we’re done for.  It’ll throw us off and won’t think a thing about it.  The fossil record shows that 99% of all other species which have ever lived — extinct.

I feel people like us are here to try to keep the ignorant masses from killing themselves.  That seems to be the current stage of history.  Our scientists are laboring away to fix these problems as fast as they can and they’re making progress.  Problem is, the vast majority of this world is filled with complete idiots.  I mean absolute morons.  They’re destroying everything around them, killing themselves, and imposing misery on themselves and everyone else.  Like a herd of mindless cattle, we have to round them up so they don’t run off the edge.  We have to be the few sane people who get on the television and tell people the truth, warning and protecting them.

When I think about our economy, no matter how much economics I study, I see it surrounded by a dark impenetrable fog.  All the tinkering our government and politicians do operates at a very high superficial level.  They work with these vague statistical aggregates and hope by throwing money around they can fix problems which are beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Take physics for example.  Study some quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics.  Just try to model a gas cloud and a few basic laws of interaction between them.  All the atoms follow relatively simple laws, all behaving in exactly the same way, yet it’s hell to statistically model it.  You end up pages and pages of equations and need computers to predict what’s going on.  Now imagine if every one of those atoms followed its own laws and did its own thing.  Then you have the economy.

Our success economically depends on all the individual actions done by billions of people.  We’re all on this ship together.  If people are dumb, corrupt and do stupid things, the Fed’s not going to be able to fix it by lowering the interest rate and throwing some cheap money around.  Major economic problems hit everyone out of nowhere.  There’s detailed and complicated forces at work which I believe are impossible to predict.  Those with some really good foresight can sometimes see an upcoming disaster, but they’re few and far between.

It’s like chaos theory.  In chaos theory a butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest and we end up with tornadoes in Kansas.  Economically, we have some guy going in the store buying a candybar and later we end up with an economic meltdown.  Unfortunately, unlike the weather which we can predict for at least a few weeks in advance, our economists can’t even see a disaster two feet in front of us.

The only people I’ve found with some decent insight into this are the Austrian economists.  They don’t pretend that the economy can be so easily modeled and their view on the business cycle seems to me to work.  It’s just my rather amateur opinion.  If it isn’t apparent already, I don’t think very highly of economics in general.  But from my own research it seems that when the central bank starts lowering the interest rate too low the cheap credit starts flowing, that money starts pumping up some bubbles, and then they pop and we have trouble.  There’s ups and downs in the cycle regardless of intervention.  It just seems the government can sweep the problems under the rug temporarily by infusing the economy with cheap money, and over time this builds up until you have a major disaster.  Their interventions can so easily make things worse.  Occasional drug use can bring temporary happiness and mask over your problems for the time being, but it’s addictive and can destroy you quick.  Cheap money is the same.  I think it’d be better if we faced each small economic downturn as it came instead of letting the bubble build up into a mountain and then it erupts like a volcano destroying everything in its path.

That’s not to say I’m against all regulation.  There’s a lot of places for regulation, like the Glass-Steagall regulations for example.  I’m just saying we have to keep an eye on these bankers and cheap credit.  We need to watch out when they have control over the money supply.  They screw us.

I’m sorry to hear about your poor reception with colleagues.  It’s a personal flaw of mine, but I don’t think very highly of people in general.  I don’t know your life and situation, but in my own trying times nobody has ever given a damn.  It’s just how it is.  You just slug it out and keep moving.

I’ve written business plans, laboring away for years on things, trying to raise capital and get things moving.  I’d submit my plan to these investment companies and not hear anything.  Sometimes I’d get one of those auto-responder emails that says, “Thank you for submitting your plan, but … blah blah.”   Try to contact them asking, “What’s wrong with my plan?  Can you give me some feedback?” … Nothing.  Worse yet some of these investment companies charge you like $150 to submit your plan.  Then they won’t even so much as speak with you.  Talk about assholes.  I’d submit my plan to hundreds of places and not hear anything.  (Fortunately they don’t all charge money.  What would be the purpose of raising capital if it costed you a million dollars just to attempt to raise funds?  Who could afford it?)

I don’t know about you, but the sheer and utter frustration of having the biggest thing in your life, what everything your life depends on is based, being completely ignored … oh, makes me angry.  Real angry.  Sure can make you bitter about life in general.  I try to stay positive but I have to say, it can really get to me.

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