On Specializing

Specializing isn’t a task that man has always done, it is still a relatively new concept we are still seeing unfold in front of us as we get better at it and as we continue down its path. I have been interested in this general idea of specialization lately. My journey so far of looking into this has brought me to two intellectual giants, Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry. These two have similar thoughts on the matter. These two offer a different seeing the effects and possible consequences of specialization as we know it today.

Jacques Ellul, who is best known for his critique of current social systems, had this to say in an interview: “In a society such as ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be responsible. For example; a dam has been built somewhere, and it bursts. Who is responsible for this? Geologists worked on it. They examined the terrain. Engineers drew up the construction plans. Workmen constructed it. And politicians decided that the dam had to be in that spot. Who is responsible? No one.”

I don’t think Jacques is making the claim that each of these parties that was in the building of the dam is purposefully offloading responsibility, but it is more of a bug of the current system. There doesn’t seem to be anyone with skin in the game. When no one has skin in the game how do problems get solved?

Jacques continues: “There is never anyone responsible. Anywhere. In the whole of our technological society the work is so fragmented and broken up into small pieces that no one is responsible. But no one is free either. Everyone has his own, specific task. And that’s all he has to do. Just consider, for example, that atrocious excuse, it was one of the most horrible things I have ever heard. The person in charge of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was asked during the Auschwitz trial, “but didn’t you find it horrible? All these corpses?” To which he replied, “What could I do? The capacity of the ovens was too small. I couldn’t process all those corpses. It caused many problems. I had no time to think about those people, I was busy with that technical problem of my ovens. This is a classic example of an irresponsible person. He carries out his technical task and he’s not interested in anything else.”

We are all blindly focused on the tasks we are handed. We don’t bother to learn more if we don’t have to and we aren’t all that curious about how where our specific task fits in the grand scheme of things.

This brings me to Wendell Berry who reaches a similar conclusion from a different angle. Berry is an award winning writer but if you asked him what he would prefer to be known by I imagine it would be his farming. From his book The Unsettling of America: “The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. … [but] more common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility. Even worse, a system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competencies and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say, the ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and “agri-businessmen,” the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself.  He earns money, typically, as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible.”

Institutional irresponsibility is in fashion. I don’t think this is done consciously or intentionally, but when we specialize as a culture it allows us to offshore our collective responsibility and who wants to be responsible anymore? In a time when non-specialists were irresponsible we simply fired them, hung them or they were eaten by bears. That just isn’t the case today. Cultural responsibility ducking is in folks. Institutions all around us are wheeling and dealing with no regard for what comes next. This works in the short run for these guys, but now that it has been around long enough we are seeing just how that is coming back to bite us. We are seeing this now, when we have our largest institutions leading us astray and refusing to take any responsibility for their failures and instead of apologizing and changing course they decide to double down to pathetically save face. Is this lack of responsibility at an organizational level having any impact on us mentally and psychologically? Berry goes on to talk in his book about how “…. this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world.” Is there any correlation? Or just coincidence?

I don’t know if these two have it figured out completely, but the points made certainly carry weight and certainly deserved to be thought about and played with.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s