Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Renaissance of specialists?

My first year in college, I read parts of Emile Durkheim's The Division of Labor In Society for a social science sequence misleadingly titled "Power, Identity, and Resistance" which was more or less a tour of the greatest hits of liberalism, starting with Adam Smith and going all the way up through Fanon, Hayek, and Joseph Stiglitz by way of Marx, Rousseau, Locke, and many others including Durkheim.

Durkheim was a dense read (I am to this day a member of a Facebook group bemoaning his prose), but I liked the book a great deal. A Kevin Drum post I read today put me in mind of a particular meditation of his: that the notion of the Renaissance Man was becoming unrealistic. There had been a time when every man (it was men) could call himself a natural philosopher or a scholar and reasonably be considered an expert, or at least well-informed, on a broad variety of subjects, from moral philosophy to the beginnings of economic theory, biology, physics. etc. By the time Durkheim was writing in the 1890s, the industrial revolution and the advances of each science and social discipline were making this impossible.

It seems undoubtedly clear that the view is gaining ground that the division of labour should become a categorical rule of behavior, one that should be imposed as a duty. ... The time is past when the perfect man seemed to us the one who, capable of being interested in everything but attaching himself exclusively to nothing, able to savour everything and understand everything, found the means to combine and epitomise within himself the finest aspects of civilization. Today that general culture, once so highly extolled, no longer impresses us save as a flabby, lax form of discipline.

Now for Peter Suderman, via Drum:

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection.


Why memorize the content of a single book when you could be using your brain to hold a quick guide to an entire library? Rather than memorize information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored — resulting in what David Brooks called “the outsourced brain.” We won’t become books, we’ll become their indexes and reference guides, permanently holding on to rather little deep knowledge, preferring instead to know what’s known, by ourselves and others, and where that knowledge is stored.

Drum comments:

Kids who grow up on the internet may be great at looking up odd bits of information quickly, but my experience is that they often suck at figuring out what that information means and what conclusions it's reasonable to draw from it. That's because they don't know the context. They don't know the rest of the story. And that's because they don't read enough books.

I'm tremendously interested in this. I do think we are socially becoming more enticed by the notion of the mind as a sort of grabbing machine, pulling quotations, facts, arguments and experiences from a nearly endless store of information which is largely (though not solely) available through the internet.

But to do that, we need to grab from someone or somewhere. Somebody else has to go out and have experiences, say insightful things, collect facts--essentially, do their homework so everybody else can include them in their personal SparkNotes. An analogy might be the relationship of blogs to certain aspects of newspapers: Newspapers have, in addition to a lot of other less-valuable work, employed people to go and collect facts, have experiences, do research, and--in some cases--be expert. They've been paying people to do their homework while bloggers have taken on the ever more enticing, exciting, and vaunted function of sorting, filtering, aggregating, and sharing.

I don't know whose thought this originally was, but my father has repeated it to me a few times: no medium has disappeared entirely; each one just finds a niche that no other medium quite fills. We still use stone tablets for plaques, headstones, and inscriptions. Books will likely find their own uses, as will newspapers.

Will books remain the domain of the specialists, the conscientious nerds who read and annotated every part of the assignment, while blogs become the domain of the more casual population? And if they do--or if they are--are readers and writers of blogs dilettantes or generalists? I suspect we shall see both, and there will be a spectrum from generalism on a massive scale (Slate, for example) to specialization (Abu Muqawama) with much in between. But how are we to distinguish dilettantes--practitioners of Durkheim's "flabby, lax form of discipline" from the perfection found in wholeness? And how do such shallowly omniscient directories coexist with the focused, determined, and admirable specialists on whom they must rely?

Perhaps this last, at least, isn't really a question. After all, it's already happening. I would consider myself something of a Dewey Decimal-style mind with expanded sections for certain areas of personal interest to me, and I interact with more focused people all the time just fine in my personal life; I consume information provided by such people and store it exactly as Suderman suggested. It is neither difficult nor problematic.

I think the fear of specialist loss, so to speak, which has appeared in some discussions of the fate of newspapers, is a reasonable concern--I can imagine a dystopia of thousands of generalists all groping in the dark for information that isn't there. When no one does the homework, the entire day of class is useless. But I just don't see it happening. As much effect as media and technology may have on the way we process information, I think some people truly are predisposed to generalism, others to specialization, others to dilettantism, and some are polymaths. The distributions may shift but no category is ever empty. Just as books and newspapers (or something like them) will find their niche, so will the fact-finders and the experienced. We'll need them far too much to let them disappear.

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