Extreme Specialization

With my kids back in school and having just gone to the parent’s “curriculum overview” last night (previewing the upcoming year’s teaching and the basics my kids will be learning), this first article in a CNet series really hit home. It did so since I’ve given A LOT of thought to the internet as our collective consciousness as well as been having profound observational experiences as of late surrounding the extreme specialization the internet enables.

The CNet series is dubbed, “Intelligence in the Internet Age” and starts out with:

A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.

Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?

Lazily reliant on computers? Not a chance since the internet fosters extreme specialization.

Extreme Specialization
Once humans could, we specialized. We didn’t have to know everything. We didn’t have to do everything. Some people could, say, be farmers and grow enough food to feed a village while others in the village made furniture, violins or became bakers, butchers and shopkeepers (or keepers of records, knowledge and methods of mediation which morphed in to government).

In the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs & Steel” by Jared Diamond, he articulates why and how certain peoples could become specialized and how this explains why some pockets of humans developed, say, classical music while others in different geographies remained hunter/gatherers (and some still are up to our present day). Leveraging pack animals and geography for farming specialities enabled other, more granular specialization to emerge — and technology (guns and steel) and disease (germs) to profoundly affect the course of civilizations (often disallowing certain ones to ever get to a point of meaningful specialization).

Specialization does, however, require information and knowledge. For the majority of human existence, we relied on memory to pass down information and knowledge to one another through storytelling. Thus we are quite adept at doing so but we all know how faulty memory can be. As symbolic reasoning progressed as humans evolved, we became increasingly capable of capturing our stories, our history, our thoughts and ideas, communicate
them and therefore others could relate to it all conceptually. As the millenia passed by, humans were able to metaphorically stand on the shoulders of those that had come before and build upon this knowledge foundation which had been remembered and told as stories or captured in symbols.

We are getting smarter because we don’t have to rely on retrieving everything relevant from memory or hope to recall the essence of a story and re-tell it properly. Increasingly what we need is at our fingertips a tap or a mouse click away. Methods and tools are in place (taxonomies, search, an internet-infrastructure, databases, blogging, podcasting, vlogging, et al) enabling us to collect and collate relevant items to understand, to communicate, to innovate and to tell a story properly.

Back to a snippet from the CNet article:

“According to at least one definition, intelligence is the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn.” Yet intelligence is not just about book learning or test scores; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the world. On average, people with high IQs are thought to live longer, earn more money, process information faster and have larger working memories.

Yet could all this information provided by the Internet and gadgets dampen our motivation to remember anything?”

How can our abilities to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language and learn NOT be accelerated by the collective consciousness of humankind and organized data being at our fingertips?

I believe we’re already several years in to extreme specialization that has been accelerated by the internet. Web services (Amazon, Salesforce, NetSuite); Search (Google, Yahoo) as well as personal services like ecommerce (Bigstep, Yahoo Merchant) blogging (Typepad), podcasting (Podshow, iTunes) and the plethora of repositories being built (Internet Archive, OpenMedia, etc.) and information/knowledge repositories (Wikipedia) and traditional media online….are providing us all with incredible access to the world’s information and knowledge.

I personally know people that make a living at creating ringtones, others designing user interface icons and flash animations, one designing greeting cards and still another making the little plastic covers for beanie baby tags. Every one of them requires the internet to run their respective businesses, ship their products, and manage their back office. Small examples I know…but what better instances of extreme specialization could there be? (I mean…making your living with plastic beanie baby tags!?!).

The massive scale and incredible availability of information, knowledge and products — built upon the platform known as the internet — is connecting and expanding our minds in ways that even cognitive science has yet to grasp. I’d call that smarter.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.