Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A couple weeks back I wrote about a talk that author Neal Stephenson gave at Greshem College in London, titled Science Fiction as a Literary Genre. Genre wasn’t all Stephenson talked about.

He called one of his most interesting sub-topics “Vegging Out and Geeking Out” and if you like you can skip right to it in the video; it’s a mere 4-1/2 minutes long. In this part of his talk, Stephenson characterized the world we live in today as being too complicated to be grasped by a single person. The nature of knowledge and intelligence changed, he asserts, over the last fifty years. He says:
"The Heinleinian hero, who knows everything and can do everything, is gone. The world is complicated. No one can be good at everything. [...] [E]verything [...] in our lives has too many features, too many details for our minds to hold. The best we can do is to be good at something."

That got my attention. I think it's pretty close to an argument I made in Digging deeper holes. "Complexity breeds collapse," I wrote in that post, because of the uncontainable variety of possible 'complications' to simplifications that engineers assume (of necessity) in order to calculate risk and mitigate it. I argued that this variety of complications makes it impossible to engineer immunity from disasters like nuclear meltdown or blown out oil wells. When the infrastructure of our society is too complicated to grasp, it necessarily trundles along out of our 'control.' When it breaks, we have a hard time fixing it. When it breaks catastrophically, we must endure catastrophe. This is not news. Matter of fact, it’s awfully close to biological theories of evolution: what doesn’t work dies.

In burying Heinlein, Stephenson could have used a Heinleinism: there's too much in the world to grok.

After an interlude in which he makes excuses for those, like himself, who "veg out" in front of the TV after an exhausting day of too-much-complexity, he says this:
Choose any person in the world at random no matter now non-geeky they might seem and talk to them long enough and in most cases you will eventually hit on some topic about which they are exorbitantly knowledgeable, and if you express interest, on which they will talk for hours. You have found their inner geek. [...] This is how knowledge works today and how it's going to work in the future. No more Heinleinian polymaths, instead a web of geeks each of whom knows a lot about something. [...] We're all geeks now."

I’m not so sure that "how knowledge works today and how its going to work in the future" represents a significant break with how it worked in the past. Has there really been so great a shift in the past half-century? Do people really relate differently, as individuals, to a world that has long teemed with more than any one person can know or control? Heinleinian polymaths may have seemed a teeny little bit less unlikely fifty years ago, but most would agree they were always something of a long shot. My once-plentiful sci fi library is gone to the great used bookstore in the sky, so I'm reduced to relying on wikiquote for this expression of what Heinlein represented as appropriate ambition for the common (hu)man, from his novel Time Enough for Love:
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."


My grandma was a terrific knitter. Not just scarves and blankets, either. She could go to high-end clothes shops, drink in a knit dress on display in a window, then go home and make it. She also changed her share of diapers over the years, and cooked many a tasty meal. She was not much for planning invasions, building walls, or conning ships.

I’ve worked with dozens, probably hundreds, of computer programmers over the years, many of whom could cook tasty meals and most of whom could solve equations. Butchering hogs and writing sonnets have been far less common skills among my digitally adept colleagues.

I have a soft spot for the implication that humans have an inherent, insatiable curiosity, but Heinlein is probably overstating the average human appetite as much as Stephenson might be selling it short.

I’m also naturally suspicious of an acquiescence I read into Stephenson’s suggestion that "We're all geeks now." If the world is, indeed, complex, then those who would remain citizens of a democracy are responsible for getting a handle on its complexity. That’s the only way we can equip ourselves to participate meaningfully in self-governance. Ceding understanding of the big picture to people with big big brains who can figure out the world for us is not a palatable form of surrender. Satisfying ourselves with narrow expertise leaves management of society to an elite vanguard of smart and powerful generalists. I won’t vote for that.

Perhaps a view that specialization in knowledge is the inevitable path forward echoes similar movement toward specialization in centuries past, as production of goods developed from cottage crafts to craft guilds to industrialized economies. Or as human participation in industrial economies was mechanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the likes of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor. These broad and powerful economic and social developments generated displacement, chaos, pain, and unprecedented wealth.

They didn’t change the basic truth that nobody ever grokked the world.

Nor did they keep the curious from trying.


  1. What's striking about Heinlein's list of desirable skills is that most of them are technical, or some variation on basic "people skills". Given access to the internet, you can find information about how to perform any of the technical skills. People skills are less easy to read up on and perform, but are common enough and for most people aren't THAT difficult to acquire given the right combination of desire and experience.
    Neither Stephenson nor Heinlein mention the ability to think, analyze, and reason about the world. Everyone may have an inner geek, but without critical thinking skills to apply and extend that area of specialization, you're stuck with what you've got. If you can only check off every item on Heinlein's list, that makes you a handy person to have around, but not much more than that.

  2. That's an interesting take on both the Heinlein and Stephenson material I quoted in this post, Quinn, but I'm not sure I'd draw the line quite where you did. I might say that thinking and analysis are implicit in Stephenson's "knowledgable" and in many of the skills listed by Heinlein. But more important, I'd say that experience is implicit -- and key -- in each author's concept of knowledge & ability. And that having critical thinking skills is probably implicit in gaining that experience and profiting from it to a degree that one can qualify as a Stephensonian "geek" or a Heinleinian polymath.

    Stephenson's "exorbitantly knowledgeable" gives this away in his case, I'd say.

    As for Heinlein's list, I haven't butchered a hog, but I've taken a knife to a large number of (plucked and gutted) chickens and (skinned and gutted) rabbits, not to mention fish fresh out of a river or lake -- and I feel pretty confident saying that reading about how to "break down" these animals isn't sufficient to an ability to execute the task well. Ditto for writing a sonnet, cooperating, programming a computer, and cooking a tasty meal ... limiting my comment here to some of the listed technical and people skills I've actually tried myself. Finding information about how to do these things isn't the skill-limiting-factor, I don't think.

  3. Hmm... I think we may be talking at cross purposes (due to me not reading your original post sufficiently closely, upon second inspection.) What I have in mind is less the scope of expertise/topical familiarity for a single person (and it's hard to argue with experience being a necessary player in the attainment of expertise), and more an ideal intellectual scope.

    Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect everyone to be comfortable grappling with metaphysical questions, but even being able to analyze product reviews to detect and help compensate for bias should certainly be within the reach of Heinlein's "common man". Perhaps even more valuable than being able to make an argument is recognizing the limits of one's knowledge, and the implications for when one *can't* make an informed statement on a topic.

    I've had gone through both the generalist and specialist forms of education (twice each!), but in those 18 years, the one class that I benefited most from-- head and shoulders above anything else-- was one semester of "theory of knowledge", an epistemology class required by the International Baccalaureate program that forced us to articulate and argue for our beliefs, assumptions, and understandings acquired through the other subject areas in the program and in our own lives. We often left the class filled with questions, doubt, and anxiety; those days were the best ones and they left a mark. I wish it were offered more widely, because I think the critical thinking skills it fosters would be an asset, whether applied to matters of great global concern or whether the claims made by an ad are plausible.

  4. Fair enough, Quinn. It's interesting you mention your Theory of Knowledge course. For me the developmental equivalent was two consecutive quarters of a course called Legal Studies, which was more-or-less an immersion in logic and philosophies of governance. The course was taught by a Belgian professor, Phillipe Nonet, who's still at Berkeley's law school. He taught it like John Houseman taught in the movie Paper Chase, purely Socratic; and reduced many, many undergraduates to tears (especially the ones who hadn't done their assigned reading). It felt like the intellectual equivalent of being tempered in a furnace. And looking back, as in your case, they were probably the most valuable classes I took at Cal.