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Specialization (It's a Trap!)

Buckminster Fuller, it turns out, is not a great writer. I picked up a copy of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth recently, because I am having a deep craving for optimistic visions (wonder why?); it definitely has some interesting bits and I am finding it worth my time, but I’m pretty frustrated with his pompous, convoluted phrasing and the ahistorical speculation used to argue his point.

Still, I am trying to read it charitably, as a fable or some kind of foundation myth for switching from a scarcity to abundance mindset.

The ideas that are interesting to me are:

  • Specialization is a trap.
  • We should think of fossil fuels being to technological civilization like the nutrients in a seed: only to be used while getting self-sustaining metabolic processes under way.
  • Wealth should be measured in person-days that a particular mode of life can persist.

I think I’m going to leave the second and third aside for today. The second is compelling to me, but I have geek biases I need to be wary of indulging, and I’m still grappling with whether there is a version of the third that can provide an apples-to-apples comparison across sets of common technologies.

Buckminster Fuller thinks that specialization is harmful to adaptability. When you invest in know-how to optimally exploit a particular set of circumstances, you are shit out of luck when those circumstances change and your skill is no longer needed. That is straightforward enough and a good argument for leaving slack in systems and prioritizing life-long learning. But then Fuller also contends that elites in power deliberately incentivize specialization to force dependence… and that starts to seem like some wild ahistoric speculation.

I find it much more likely that the economic needs of people interested in a skill are more easily met when the skill is packaged in a legible discipline, so that social institutions (like academic disciplines) form around a particular skill, and have natural incentives to police the boundary of their domain as a means of reducing cognitive overload.

On an unrelated note, it seems like Bucky may be patient zero for obnoxious business speak.

By questioning many audiences, I have discovered that only about one in three hundred are familiar with the word synergy. The word is obviously not a popular one.

This was published in 1969. In 2020… if only. If only.