Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

The myth of the unavoidable specialization

In a recent essay, Malone et al. claimed that we were entering the age of hyperspecialization. Their core assumption: human beings are more efficient when doing specialized tasks. Thus, they claim, we are moving toward a future where software will distribute hyperspecialized tasks to expert individuals. They believe that we will progressively work on narrower and narrower problems.

Among intellectuals, specialization is often seen as a good omen. It is the safe thing to do: stick with a narrow topic (e.g., how polar bears raise their offsprings, or the chemistry of sugar). The usual argument is that with the growth of knowledge, we have no choice but to become narrow specialists. Conversely, people with a wide range of interests are pursuing a high risk strategy. Whenever you attempt to contribute to a new problem, you risk ridicule: maybe everyone who has worked ten years on this topic knows that you are pursuing a dead-end.

So, yes, humanity knows more about every single subject than ever before. Conversely, our brains are are biologically identical to what they were 2000 years ago. Thus, we ought to be increasingly mentally challenged. But this logic is flawed because it equates the mind with our brains. We are expanding our minds exponentially! Indeed, our minds are increasingly externalized. First, we started telling stories, using other brains to support our own cognitive abilities. Then we invented writing. Then we invented the Web. At each step, human beings become smarter and smarter in every respect. One might object that it is not I who becomes smarter when I am connected to the Web. That somehow, saying so, is cheating. But this is pure semantics. The fact is, with access to the Web, I could run circles around Sir Isaac Newton, even if he were allowed to have an entire library at his disposal.

We could still conclude that as we expand knowledge, the specialists have a greater and greater edge: it becomes riskier and riskier to be anything but a specialist. But I believe the opposite is happening. Far from moving toward hyperspecialization, we are in fact moving toward hypergeneralization. Millions of freelance workers worldwide fill out their taxes electronically, bypassing the specialists (accountants). Whereas researchers absolutely needed expert librarians to avoid wasting days in libraries, Google Scholar has made reference checking accessible to all, at no cost. I learned how to prepare pineapple like a chef in minutes using a simple YouTube query. Soon augmented reality glasses will allow you to walk in any park and know instantly the characteristics of any flower you encounter.

But wasn’t the XXth century about specialization? Of course not! The XXth century was about people like Einstein who invented a new type of fridge and also a little something called relativity. The specialists are most often the poor people. You want to rise up in a company like Google or Facebook? Then be someone who can expand his mind as needed, not a silly Java specialist who can be replaced easily. Leaders like Henri Ford like specialization, for others, never for themselves.

Your future wealth is determined by how much you can expand your mind beyond the capacity of your biological brain, not by your current skills.

Take a chance and go work on a new problem, today.

Further reading: Lack of steady trajectories and failure and How information technology is really built. See also Serial Mastery.____

: Alexandra Seremina translated this page in Romanian.