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.