Musings from the Bunker 5/20/20
I’ve been thinking a lot about the explosion of information about the world and how specialized we’ve become. No one “knows it all.” This specialization of functions means that we need to trust experts. It also relates to the globalization and the interconnectedness of our world..
HOW MUCH CAN WE KNOW?
There was a time when nearly all the known world could be within the grasp of a single individual. It is commonly thought Aristotle knew all of human knowledge. Leonardo DaVinci was a polymath familiar with virtually all aspects of the arts and sciences. Francis Bacon, of Elizabethan England, was reputed to know nearly everything knowable during his time. And while he can’t lay claim to knowing everything about everything, it has been argued that Thomas Jefferson may have been the last human being who had a working knowledge of nearly all subjects of the time.
Since then, with the industrial revolution, advances in science and medicine, the information age, and expanded knowledge of the physical world, the entirety of knowledge cannot be known by any single individual. Not even close. (And yet, ironically, much of all of human knowledge can be found accessed by tiny computers we all carry around in our pockets).
As the extent of human knowledge has expanded, we must rely upon each other and must rely upon experts. Yes, experts. Those people being derided in the rise of populism—people who devote their lives to knowing a great deal about a specific realm of knowledge. By the way, when people scoff at scientific expertise or statistical expertise, those same people go to experts when sick (we call them doctors), seek advice of experts in legal matters (known as lawyers), are assisted in preparing their taxes (accountants), get their hair cut by experts, their plumbing serviced by experts…well, you get the picture… A hallmark of modern society is the increase in specialization and the fact that we each depend upon each other. We are increasingly specialized; and that’s what makes modern society so vibrant. But in today’s environment, fueled by politicians, experts are under fire and scientific and statistical analysis are taking the back seat to political considerations.
DIVERSIFICATION OF TALENTS—THE HUMBLE PENCIL AS EXAMPLE AND METAPHOR
An additional thing to ponder is how disparate skills (people with specific expertise, if you will) come together to make something.
Some time ago, the essay, “I, Pencil” appeared, pointing out that no single individual possesses the expertise and capability to make a pencil. It is a group enterprise, intertwining multiple skills, manufacturing techniques and knowledge bases. The production of a pencil illustrates the interdependency of multiple disciplines and the intertwining of global technologies and supply chains.
Think about it for a moment. The people who fashion the wood know nothing of the eraser; the fabricator of the eraser knows nothing of the graphite filler; and so on. But taken together, we are able to fashion this brilliant and practical writing implement. The pencil is, of course, a metaphor for the complex interrelationship and interdependency of various skill sets that allow modern society to function.
To better appreciate what goes into a pencil, read “A Brief History of Pencil-Making” from Mental Floss (and, no, they don’t contain lead). Plus, who would have believed Joseph Priestly discovered the effectiveness of tree gum as an eraser (Priestly also discovered oxygen—I’m sure his mother was proud): https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/87447/brief-history-pencil-making, Here’s a cool short article on how the woodworking portion of the process is done: https://blog.pencils.com/pencil-making-today-2/
The essence of this idea of multiple disciplines working together is best summarized in a Freakonomics podcast (with transcription in the link that follows) about pencils, their history and their manufacture, drawing in part on the essay “I, Pencil”: https://freakonomics.com/podcast/i-pencil/.
SUPPLY CHAINS AND THE INTER-DEPENDENCE OF SERVICES AND COUNTRIES
This idea of specialization isn’t just related to goods (like the thousands of parts in a car or in a computer). It also relates to the provision of services. By way of example, we rely on delivery services to deliver us food. They pick up the food restaurants and markets to deliver it to us. They get goods from truckers, who pick up the food at distribution facilities, who get food from other truckers, who get the food from the farms. All the discussion of supply chains reminds us of the fragile nature of supply chains—chains which depend upon each link doing its job. These supply chains are connected in many instances across oceans. We are intertwined with each other. In issues like lock-downs and “opening up” the economy we need to be mindful of the fact that things work together because of specialization and complex supply chains. This mindfulness should extend to questions about trade treaties and trade wars. It takes decades to build these chains and efficiencies, which can be easy be cut, and which would be difficult to recreate.
THERE EXISTS SOMEONE WHO ACTUALLY CLAIMS TO KNOW IT ALL…
All of the notions of human knowledge being unknowable to any single human perhaps is wrong after all, as we finally have someone who knows (or at least professes to know) everything about everything—not just knowing it all, but knowing more than anyone else about myriad subjects. This really is funny, astounding and disturbing: https://twitter.com/Barkiologist/status/1254931645389344768
"One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority."
-- Christopher Hitchens
Have a great day,