Monday, October 29, 2007

The Irony of Our Times?

I think it's ironic that at the very moment communication and transportation technologies are creating a "global world", specialization is fragmenting each of our societies into expert little niches that often do not understand one another.

It's no longer much of an exaggeration these days to say the only people who understand the law are lawyers, the only people who understand medicine are doctors, the only people who understand information technologies are IT specialists, the only people who understand plumbing are plumbers, and the only people who understand carpentry are carpenters.

Yet, all of those people are increasingly using each other's products and services. I'm typing this on a computer whose components are made in several countries to be read by people from several countries -- and yet much of what I know about the world is so highly specialized that I avoid discussing it except in general terms. Likewise, I can only follow general discussions of what my friends for whom I'm typing this know about the world.

It's not just that we are becoming one world: We are also at the same time dividing into many worlds. I think that is one of the reasons the internet is so important to the future of humanity. It seems to have the power to bring together people from diverse backgrounds, from diverse skill and information niches, into unified online communities. Without that, the world could unite economically -- and even politically -- but perhaps not in a very humane way.


Rambodoc said...

It is sometimes a very tough call to distinguish between super-specialisation and sub-specialisation. A doc who is a urologist may be dealing mainly with male infertility. Would that disqualify him from being a urologist, especially considering that he may have very few of these cases in the last few years?
Maybe this is off-topic, but I just wanted to point out how this specialisation issue is a live one.
Good post!

Paul said...

That's a good point, Rambodoc! Specialization is not only increasingly the case in formal education, but even more so in the workplace. And this is not occurring in just one or two societies, but everywhere that I can read of. I don't see many opportunities for someone to not specialize today.

Yet, it seems the more we specialize the less we understand each other. I am especially alarmed by the depth of ignorance so many people here in the States have regarding basic scientific facts and theories, how their own government works, history, or simple economics. How can they make informed decisions as voters when they don't even understand the basics of disciplines other than their own?

Shefaly said...

Paul: Many of the reasons for this niche specialisation are systemic, such as how advanced education is funded.

In the UK for instance, extracting blood from stone may be easier than obtaining funding from one or more of the research councils for multidisciplinary (we shall not even begin to discuss transdisciplinary work which truly utilises methods of one discipline to do an assessment in another) research, even if one can demonstrate substantial training and expertise at graduate level in those disciplines.

Another thing is our predilection for - or should I say obsession with - youth and impressionability? Needless to say it is less risky to fund a lab rat at age 22, than a mature, returning student exploring questions of relevance to the real world. The real world in itself is a construct of horror in academia.

Now if this is how we train people, how can we possibly expect that any amount of dialogue - sensible dialogue - may be possible across disciplinary boundaries?

Further when those more capable - but punished for being older - do finish their quests, they obviously wish to milk what they have for all it is worth, and that involves not having gratis conversations about specialist knowledge which they can flog for more than zip cash.

That said, in the US, there are serious moves towards funding cross-disciplinary work (a step before multi-) at the NIH, NSF and such funding agency levels. Once again we in the UK are gazing at our navels while the US learns by leaps and bounds and then all it remains for us is to copy them.

Sorry to sound so awful about it all - but I just finished an endeavour of a lifetime made difficult by exactly these attitudes. Luckily I did not need the money which is not everyone's situation.


Jackie said...

One must specialise in our highly technical age, but I agree with you it is no excuse to be ignorant of many other facets of society. We need well-rounded specialists - is that asking too much?
So many of us here seek out venues for pan-interets - volunteerism, civic involvement, as well as mentoring kids (better than having your own :)
Why is it my classmates (in a continuing education class) are mostly older? Perhaps this is a secret they have learnt, after a lifetime of slogging away in their professions?
One more comment please, to take the opposite view: have we not always been specialists? Farmers, buggy whip makers, financiers, horseshoe makers, lawyers, docs? Yes, I am in the healthcare arena (how I "met" rambodoc) - increasing technology breeds specialists, not a threat in my book. I don't want Rambodoc to remove my cataracts later :)

Brendan said...

I touched upon this issue a bit in my post this morning, Paul. A real understanding of the state of human knowledge requires a renaissance man.

Nita said...

Whatever people's specialisations they are still people and one can find ways to bond. true the internet is making these special communities but I have fun talking with someone whom I have nothing in common with.

Paul said...

Welcome to the blog, Shefaly! You raise the very important point that multi-disciplinary work is often the most fruitful. It is indeed difficult to imagine any rational reason to discourage it. But perhaps that has something to do with the horror academia has for the real world that you speak of?

Hi Jackie! Welcome to the blog! I agree that if we are fated to be specialists (as it seems we are) then we should be well rounded specialists. For it seems on the one hand that few people can master some aspect of human knowledge and know-how without specializing in it, while on the other hand it seems that good citizenship (among other things) requires us to be well rounded.

It's curious, isn't it? We evolved more or less as generalists. Until a few thousand years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers and each of us could to a fair extent learn everything there was to learn about our culture. But then with the arrival of agriculture, we began to specialize -- and that tendency towards specialization has continued down to the present age.

What concerns me about specialization is not specialization per se, for as you point out it's possible to be a well rounded specialist. No, what worries me is that many of us apparently do not want to be well rounded -- and such people may not have the knowledge to make wise decisions about public policies. The more of us who turn out like that, the less cause there is to support democracy.

To illustrate, consider an intensely educated technical worker who knows little or nothing about evolution but is asked to vote for a school board. Some of the candidates are creationists and some support the teaching of evolution. Does the technical worker know enough to make a wise decision? In real life, it all to often happens that he or she doesn't.

Hi Brendan! First, let me say how happy I am that you are blogging again! Second, let me add that you are, as usual, insufferably subversive of the new social order to even suggest people today should be renaissance men. Why do you hate America, Brendan? Can't you just put your nose to a specialty and then let Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly do your political thinking for you, like us decent folk do? Why do you so perversely insist on citizens taking back their citizenship?

More seriously, I'm not sure we will ever be genuine renaissance men again -- at least not in the sense that any one person will ever again master all of his or her culture. But as Shefaly points out, we can be mutli-disciplinary. Or as Jackie points out, we can at least be well rounded specialists. So, while I think the renaissance man goal is an unobtainable ideal today, I certainly am not willing to concede the field to knowing nothing at all beyond one's specialty. Any society that does that is suicidal.

Paul said...

Hi Nita! That's a very good point that our common humanity unites us regardless of how specialized in our knowledge we become. That's a very powerful base for understanding each other, too. Years ago, when I studied anthropology in school, I was most fascinated by the differences between people. But sometime around the age of 40, I became just as fascinated by the similarities. I now think the similarities are more profound than the differences. So, even though I can be very skeptical of idealism, I have rather idealistically entertained the notion that my allegiance should ultimately be not to any one nation but to humanity. Silly of me to think that way, isn't it? But the notion continues to grow in me.

Mystic Wing said...

Perceptive piece, Paul. In an age where expertise becomes ever more selective and narrow, on-line technology gives a way to find our like-minded community.

Sometimes, though, these communities seem strkingly alienated at the same time that they are intimate. How do you ever really know people if you never look them in the eye?

Paul said...

"Sometimes, though, these communities seem strkingly alienated at the same time that they are intimate. How do you ever really know people if you never look them in the eye?" -- Mystic Wing.

Hi Mystic! I think you raise an intriguing issue there. One way I typically approach thinking of human nature is through the theory evolution. So, one of the first things that occurred to me when reading your statement was that, of course, we are adapted to living in small groups in which we have a great deal of physical presence and contact with each other.

For instance: A real hug releases neurotransmitters that help bond people to each other -- but does a virtual hug do the same? I hardly think so. Again, a great deal of our communication is non-verbal: Is there any way to compensate for the lack of non-verbal communication over the net? I don't think there's any perfect way.

I think you're right to point out the differences between face to face and over the net communication lead one to a peculiar sense of being at one and the same time both close to and alienated from others.

I've often had the feeling that people I've met over the net would be among my best friends if we knew each other face to face. But I think that "if" just goes to show how much we humans depend on face to face contact to functionally bond with each other.

It's a complex issue you raise.

Jackie said...

Regarding the duality of internet acquaintances vs. flesh and blood friends....

Very interesting topic. As a reluctant poster, I have overcome virtual shyness over the years, by "talking" to folks I know, or who knows someone I know.
Have never entered a chat room, or even blogged myself, or anything of the sort. But email and blog responses gives one a voice in matters that may not come up often in day to day life.
Yes, we evolved as intensely social beings; mom is SE Asian, country folks, and they have been enculturated to have very little privacy. This drives me nuts, as I need a lot of open space and privacy.
So I chose a different route; live in a rural area in USA, and our small community knows each other well.
So I have long term flesh and blood friends, acquaintances, neighbours, etc., and.... internet friends, most of whom I already know and kept in touch over the years. Perhaps the best of both worlds? I too have no doubt that this group, as introduced via rambodoc's blog, would be considered friends, who I could have a cup o' java with.

Paul said...

Hey, Jackie! You live in a small rural community? I grew up in one! They can be great places to live -- especially with the wider world so easily available through the net.

Shefaly said...


"A real hug releases neurotransmitters that help bond people to each other -- but does a virtual hug do the same?"

It rather depends on how much in need of a hug, the recipient is, does it not? :-)

I do have to agree with Mystic Wing that technology has made possible much broader bonding than was possible in one's own physical world.

For years, meaning for a decade or more, my best friends have lived in other time zones. Some are a few hours ahead, some are up to 8 hours behind. If it weren't for technology, I would not have participated in their lives but I did. Through my last few months of thesis writing, I have had more company from my blog readers than my neighbour. I had encouragement from strangers I have never met and am unlikely to meet. And I made e-friends during that time too considering I never had pen pals in my childhood.

Virtual hugs? Sure. That is what they were like.

Nita said...

it's not silly at all Paul. If the whole world thought that way we would be at peace with each other. In fact all religions should be banned and common religion of humanity should replace it.
I too see similarities between human beings, more than the differences. :) In fact if the differences are there, they are superficial. That's how I see it.

Jackie said...

Dear Shefaly and Ms. Nita, I very much agree with your comments... sometimes a virtual hug, from the right person can have a profound effect.
As for religion - this topic has been acrimononiously "discussed" on a list I am on in the past.
Buddhists, as momma is (and me, loosely), is as much culture, ritual, and heritage, as it is a philosophical framework. But I digress...
Paul, I live in a beautiful area with my BF, who is a park ranger. Call it a simple life, but I like it.
Hugs to all :)