The trend of specialization has been an observable phenomenon since, arguably, the dawn of civilization. With a sufficiently Darwinian outlook, it’s even possible to argue that reality on the whole has a tendency towards specialization From a human perspective, however, it’s clear that specialization has cranked its process up a few notches since the Industrial Revolution.
With the advent of factories and the assembly line, jobs that had previously belonged to cobblers (a speciality unto itself) began super-specializing into jobs sewing together individual pieces of leather and other minute assembly-line tasks. With the dawn of the information age, we’re seeing an even further intellectual specialization where, instead of designing shoes, an individual may only engineer arch-support or improve methods to tool the leather and rubber that makes the shoe. Where once constructions were designed and built by architects or engineers, now an individual engineer may only design and build homes, or roads, or the fire-containment systems for commercial buildings under ten-thousand square feet.
In this flurry of specialization, those fields which affect our daily lives have become too complex for most people to understand. We lament the divorce of the people from the political process. Whole grassroots political movements are developing completely out of a misunderstanding of economic and political issues. This is because today, in order to actually understand a national economy, one must have devoted one’s life to studying economic systems. Today, in order to understand how politics happens, one must have devoted one’s life to the pursuit of political knowledge.
And so the rest of us, those who don’t specialize in economics or politics are left out in the dark, not understanding what’s going on, and we feel it. Some of us react by claiming loudly that it just doesn’t have to be that complex and we mandate a simplification of the system. Most of us react by claiming it futile to even try and by stepping away from the politico-economic process entirely, consciously or unconsciously leaving the state of the nation to the experts, the specialists, just like we do every other domain of deep inquiry.
But today, in this very moment, specialization is beginning to develop a problem.
Innovation is, by definition, a change in the way things are done. To innovate one must see a problem that currently is not solved and solve it. This, by definition, requires being able to operate outside the current confines of a particular field. Yes, it is possible inside most fields to innovate using only the tools and techniques of that field. But it is not possible to innovate using the already existing knowledge in that same field.
More to the point, however, the problems don’t necessarily limit themselves to those that can be solved inside the teachings of a particular discipline. Once upon a time, a computer engineer with a background in materials physics could look at a computer system and say to themselves, “Ya know, I think we can do better.” And maybe they, in their study of physics, had learned enough about particle physics to know that the bizarre realities of quantum mechanics offered a solution that could, in theory, fundamentally open computational power to new horizons. But to do this, to develop this innovation, someone had to leave the bounds of their specialty.
In a world where technical knowledge in a given field of study is roughly doubling every two years, it becomes difficult for the specialist to keep up in their own domain, and nigh impossible for them to understand the intricacies of recent developments in other domains. This is why Stephen Hawking, genius physicist that he is, utters such nonsense as “philosophy is dead” and claims that “philosophy has been overtaken by science.” Dr Hawking understands the literature and discipline of physics, but he does not understand philosophy. He does not understand that philosophy stands side-by-side on the forefront of academic study, he doesn’t understand that philosophy is creating theories of metaphysical reality that parallel theories of physical reality (“Many Worlds” does not mean the same thing to all academics) because it is outside his specialty. It takes someone who generalizes, someone who understands both physics and philosophy in order to connect the two and realize that both fields constantly inform the other.
This is one of the benefits of the University environment. Colleagues from departmentally disparate fields can work together to discuss and solve problems, to teach each other and to share knowledge. More than a few philosophy of science papers have listed as a co-author a faculty member of the philosopher’s institution’s natural sciences division.
But as specialization continues to increase, it becomes harder and harder for disparate specialists to communicate. Even inside a single discipline, different fields find communication to be difficult. If one sits in a classroom teaching continental philosophy and uses the language of analytical philosophy (or, God forbid, vice-versa), one’s point will be lost.
So a new specialty is developing or, rather, re-developing.
It has been said that the age of the generalist is dead. No longer can someone study and contribute to every field of study as did heroes of the past like Hegel and Descartes. No longer can an individual work on the forefront of innovation without some specialization. Even a liberal arts education today is more of an educational pyramid, with individual students still specializing (under the guise of “majors” or “areas of concentration”) in political science or sociology, with only a smattering of cross-discipline education. So the age of the generalist is dead; so it has been said.
This thesis may have held twenty, or fifteen, or even ten years ago. It’s grip is shaky today, however, and in ten years it will have been rendered an obsolescence.
Specialists can’t understand the recent advances in other fields well enough to incorporate those advancements into their study. Specialists in separate fields don’t know how to communicate to each other well enough to generate the degree and fluidity of discourse that once may have been held. But separate fields still must draw on the advances of others in order to continue to innovate, often creating new specialties in the process (computational neuroscience, anyone?). This is where the twenty-first century generalist steps in.
In the twenty-first century, the generalist will no longer be a direct source of innovation. In the twenty-first century, the generalist will no longer be the paragon of thought and education he might once have been. But in the twenty-first century, the generalist will be the force of innovation, the medium of communication, and the wellspring of our future.
The twenty-first century generalist may not know how to combine tablet computing, news media, and the medical research industry in a sustainable fashion. He may not know each field well enough to be able to engineer a solution that is effective, popular, relevant, and profitable. But he does know each field well enough to know that it can be done, and he knows each field well enough to know who to bring together to make it happen.
The twenty-first century generalist will get the astrophysicist and the sociologist to sit at the same table and talk about human society and its place in the cosmos. The twenty-first century generalist will be equal parts engineer, poet, scientist, philosopher, salesman, businessman, con artist and mystic. And it’s this mult-faceted specialist-in-general that will re-mobilize the disaffected masses. It’s the twenty-first century generalist who can see those people that today’s intelligentsia think of as the huddled masses—the idiots pushing this country towards Idiocracy—as the specialists even they are. The generalist will know that construction workers and massage therapists and slacker stoners are every bit as important for the accomplishing of greatness as are the heroic intellects sat aloft in their airships floating above the ivory towers of yesterday’s now-irrelevant elites.
The country, the world, is not headed towards doom. It is not headed towards a sea of incompetence and inadequacy driven by a greater and greater polarization between the masses specialized in their daily lives and the governing authorities specialized in running the show. We are at a cusp point, yes. We are at a place where the tension between the governed and the governing is at a screaming crescendo, but the solution is already developing. The tension will not break this country, will not break the world. The tension is already delivering artists, individual instantiations of a moment of holistic vision that will deliver us from the deepening stream of specialized non-communication. From thesis and antithesis, we have synthesis.
There are seven billion people in this world. The generalist is the air that carries the sounds they make to bring us together to build a future.