The Cost of Specialization — Looking to Emerson for Guidance

Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all…The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

The above passage is from Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address delivered at Harvard in 1837. Not far from some 200 years later, Emerson’s words still ring true in this age of hyper-specialization.

Interdisciplinary studies are met with a raised eyebrow by the general public (perhaps for good reason in many cases). “Doctor” or “lawyer” still seem to be the go-to answers for eager-eyed school children when asked about their future line of work — as if the only thing a society truly needed to function properly were these two ennobled professions.

The latest rage in specialization comes in the form of the programmer or developer. Not so long ago being a “computer programmer” was a very unglamorous job, while still technical — not unlike being an electrician. Of course, today’s programmer is a “rockstar” (as we are so often reminded by the marketing campaigns of major tech companies like IBM). When “Millennials” (whose title still irks me) lament about their lack of career opportunities — it is not uncommon for older generations to bring up coding as a viable pathway to realizing the American dream in this fractured post-post-modernity. Of course, most of these folks don’t know anything about what it’s actually like to sit in front of a computer pouring over lines of code for hours at a time (back bent slavishly at the desk, eyes turned red in bluish screen glow, and bones slowly dissolving in the tang of yet another Redbull).

I don’t mean to knock programming — I am as much wowed by the wizardy of computing as the next person, and as a recent Python convert, am eager to learn as much about it as I can. But it is only to say that there is a somewhat unhealthy focus on coding as the socio-economic salvation of a lost generation of computer babies.

This should not be taken as a general attack on specialization. I am well aware of Gladwell’s famed 10,000 hours idea, and fully agree that this sort of dedication supports greatness. Of course I see the practical need for a surgeon that specializes in a particular organ, or a researcher who is focused on a specific aspect of genetic sequencing. What I am talking about is the exaggerated dominance of specialization over holistic ways of thinking and social problem solving. This dominance is prominent in our workforce as well as our educational system. Take for example American healthcare. Despite all of our trained specialists — oncologists, neurologists, anesthesiologists, bioinformatics experts, political scholars of the ACA, and so on — Americans still struggle with accessing and holding on to quality healthcare, while miscommunication in hospitals underlies hundreds of thousands of medical errors each year. While the specialist possesses finely tuned knowledge required to accomplish amazing feats, often the generalist is able to contextualize this knowledge and put it to use pragmatically and ethically in a shifting ecology of human and non-human relationships. What is more, specialization can run the risk of “flattening” our experience of life.

I have heard the argument that there simply can’t be a da Vinci in our current time because the sheer amount of information today requires specialization. I understand the logic, but I don’t fully buy this. For all generations there was more information than any one person could know what to do with; and yet, we have always had polymaths and prophets — luminaries who could alchemize the myriad elements of nature and art to gain deeper insights into the why and how of our common existence.

With shoddy prospects and a shaky economy, much of my generation has run off to the halls of higher education for answers, racking up massive debt, while the actual value of these degrees becomes increasingly questionable. Far from being special, getting a Master’s seems par for the course at this point (I’m on my second now). What we’re left with is a hoard of intellectually specialized man — and — woman-childs who don’t quite know how to do their taxes right, drink too much, and are obsessed with sharing the trivialities of their food and media habits with the rest of the world. I’m sure you’ve seen Broad City. As far the PhDs go, let’s just say they buy their SSRIs in bulk at Sam’s Club.

A generation of “good-jobbers,” who got all the trophies, medals, and honor roll, strives to be famous and great, while ever doggy paddling in the mire of mediocrity. The path of specialization is viewed as our salvation — a portal to true success in a hyper-competitive economy. But do we ever stop to consider what are the costs of this path? Or better yet, is there a special sort of resilience afforded by holistic thinking? The following from Emerson’s Self-Reliance highlights the fragility of ego built on a stereoscopic framework of assumed automatic success, perhaps more pervasive today than in the poet’s own time:

We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives it already.

I’m sure to some that this post will come off as the awkward ramblings of a Millennial burdened by his own debt and mediocrity, who wishes he would have gone to law school to study Mergers & Acquisitions, rather than trying to “find himself.” And as I sadly review my bank account, I’m sure that’s partly true. To others, I’m probably just giving off an out-of-touch curmudgeon vibe. But what I’m trying to get at is the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional flatness of this fragmented landscape we now occupy. The relentless drive to stand out as a specialist among specialists might often stop us from seeing and appreciating the rich interconnectivity that makes life so interesting. What is the use of all this technology? Where are we as a species heading with this? Learn to program, but have a purpose other than to make six figures. Create AI that can save lives or plant food gardens at unfathomable speeds (hopefully Google reads this and starts working on it if they aren’t already). Make art because it’s beautiful and let go of the idea that you’ll ever be famous for it. Stop waiting for a reward, and realize the experience of living is reward enough.

The language of books is a dead one. Let us read them to gain the practical information we need to accomplish certain tasks, and also to gain wisdom on how to see beauty in the world — but let’s not think that the world actually lives in a book or on a webpage. As Emerson says, “Life is our dictionary.” Be inspired. Learn to play guitar. Study science. Get outdoors more. As Moore’s law continues to hold true, computers have already realized their rightful place as absolute stewards of information — and the world will march onwards to the promise of technological progress. There is no turning back from this. What we need is grace and to regain our humanity, to live within ecosystems as a functioning, conscious member — and to apply ingenuity and specialization to the real problems that need fixing — such as global food security and lack of potable water for the world’s poor. At the same time, the social, political, economic, and biological complexities of these problem often require the “big picture” insights of generalists. To be wholly put to use our knowledge sets must be nested within a framework of holistic reciprocity, driven by a shared sense of purpose.