The Pitfalls of Micro-Specialization in Mass Societies

To compete on any mass market, one must be an extreme specialist in something someone is willing to pay for.  It is this idea that all of modern industrial society is built upon.  Each worker has a tiny slot of expertise that they fit into.  The larger the society the smaller the ranges of expertise, the larger the social machine, the smaller the parts and the more precise their function.  As each worker becomes more and more focused, each has less and less capability to consider the big picture.

In a microspecialist society, each limited field is cordoned off from every other by a set of precise terminology and shorthand that amounts to a plethora of mutually unintelligible languages.  The idea is that big projects are accomplished through countless tiny pieces smoothly interlocking into a comprehensible and logical whole.  Unfortunately, when each person obediently does their part without knowing anything of the whole, the result wildly diverges from the original intent.  Worse, entire populations and social classes can be crushed underneath a great machine that has no awareness of the damage it does.  So the process grinds on, continuing only because somebody started it.

People have always pursued trades and specializations in even the smallest of communities, but the modern specialization differs from the pre-industrial sort.

-In a village type of situation, each specialist had a stake in their community and it was in their interest to care about the output of the process that they were feeding into.  The end result of labor was clearly visible to everyone in the community.

-Though each person had a trade, much of their daily needs were produced in the household.  Even a specialist had to know a wide variety of skills and had a great deal of responsibility over many aspects of their life.

In a modern situation:

-There is little sense of community.  It is easy to have no idea how one’s labors affect humanity as a whole.  One feeds labor into the machine, the ultimate output of the system of labor is invisible, irrelevant, and obscure.

-Each person goes to work and does just one thing.  Failure to microspecialize means being outcompeted by someone who does.  Other microspecialists take care of every need in a laborer’s of life outside of their field of micro-expertise.

    -Ultimately, no single person has any knowledge of or responsibility for the output of the system.  A gigantic, reckless, inexorable machine is set into motion that exists independently of human desires and wellbeing.  The one thing it is sure to do is to attempt to perpetuate itself, just as if it were an organism.  Otherwise, whether this machine helps or harms humanity is a function of chance.  Whenever it gives to the human race it takes, whenever it brings improvement, it also debases.

    A further dilemma:  when everyone performs but one task through their own labor and the end result for each laborer is invisible, there can be no incentive beyond immediate gain.  That is, no laborer will do any more than it takes to be compensated.  If the consumer on the other end is deceived or sold a less than optimal product, it makes no difference.  The laborers would never even know about it anyway.  It’s not their department!  No single person is responsible for less than honest or lazy practices, it’s no one’s department.

    The market selects for the cheapest product that can still sell relative to all others.  Thus, someone will always find a way to market a cheaper good that can be passed off as equivalent or comparable to its predecessors.  In theory, the pressure to sell cheaper products results in the best quality merchandise sold for as little as possible.  In a mass society of micro-specialists however, the result is the merchandise with the best appearance of quality sold for as little as possible.

    In a society where no one can afford to know much outside of a microniche, appearances are everything.  If the product is shiny, slick, and cheap enough, it will be consumed en-masse by masses who simply don’t know that much about what they’re actually buying and how it compares to what they could be buying.

    The aggregate result is that over the course of generations, the way is open for standards to continue to slide.  The food industry is illustrative, as it is one of the most important of services in one’s life.  It is conceivable that not so many generations ago it would have been inconceivable to outsource one’s daily nourishment to hordes of faceless microspecialists with no larger knowledge and no incentives on the personal level.  There is no reason for the aggregate clusters of specialists to care about the consumer’s best interests beyond the degree they are forced to care by public regulations.

    The result?  The countries most given to the ethic of industrialization have food industries that consistently cause epidemics of previously unheard of health problems across massive populations.  After a couple of generations, these unnecessary problems are taken for granted by consumers; there is no incentive whatever to remedy them.  There are ample incentives to keep the consumers oblivious so that highly profitable harmful or substandard products can continue to be produced.  Better still, industries that cause new problems produce new industries devoted to appearing to remedy those problems!  A true remedy of course would put the new problem busting industries out of business!

    The mass production of anonymously provided services selects for those entities best able to hack the system.  That is, a system of supply and demand can only be predicated on what individuals know to demand.  What markets provide is relative to the expectations and personal experience of the consumer.  This is an axiom that industries in aggregate operate by.  There is no conspiracy.  No one has that much responsibility or knowledge.  Rather the present state is emergent from the properties of the system.

    Most products could be made much more durable, but there is a major disincentive to do so.  If no one knows exactly how long a shovel can be made to last, then entities can sell shovels designed for planned obsolescence.  That is, they maximize profitability by making their product last as short an amount of time as consumer expectations will permit.  Ironically, a company that produces shovels that last 20 years will be outcompeted by those who produce shovels identical in appearance designed to last only 2 years.  The companies selling products designed for planned obsolescence easily destroy their competitor who foolishly sells merchandise of the highest possible quality.  Before long, people suppose that a good shovel lasts for two years.  In a generation or so, perhaps people can be sold shovels that last for only one year…

    Millions labor away, each oblivious in their own little corner.  The food specialists screw over everyone, including themselves by flooding the market with harmful food.  Clothing makers make life harder for everyone by making garments designed to quickly wear out.  As each person struggles to make a profit from their labors, they do so ultimately at the expense of everyone, ironically forcing everyone to labor harder still to survive.  It’s an endless treadmill, a Sisyphean undertaking, a task that feeds upon itself.  Ultimately, things are produced for the sake of production.  What goods are being produced and even whether they are any good becomes increasingly irrelevant.

    The system self perpetuates because each field of knowledge is made inaccessible to every other by the highly specialized conventions and jargon of each respective clique.  Thus, the beautiful finale:  it is made nearly impossible to assemble the ample information out there into a coherent revelation.  Protective obfuscation is an emergent property of the system.  That is why it is still here.

    The Obsolescence of ‘Conventional’ Military Operations

    As military technology continues to grow, its usefulness lessens.  It has reached a point where a less advanced opponent can expect only annihilation in open conflict.  However, opponents with equivalent technology can no longer engage one another directly because of nuclear weapons.  Opponents who stand no chance in open conflict avoid open conflict.

    Thus we end up with the ironic modern situation.  An arsenal of expensive toys that are useless against a handful of men with boxcutters.  In a sense the bombs, tanks, and cruise missiles have become antiquated and obsolete.  War has gone back to essentials.  It is not so much about the weapons as it is the people behind them.  If one person with hostile intent can be put in the right place at the right time, it almost doesn’t matter what weapon they have or even if they have any physical weapon.

    One person is in terms of supply and demand dirt cheap.  There are always more people than anyone needs at any given time.  One can walk through any city in the world and see the poor lying around as unwanted as pennies dropped in between cracks in the pavement.  People regenerate, usually faster than they can possibly be killed off.  Males, especially, are mostly superfluous in biological terms.  Millions can die and the women can get pregnant just as before.  People are versatile, they can be deployed anywhere in society at any time.  One person is very easily lost in the endless crowd of humanity.  One human being who doesn’t want to be found is far superior to high-tech stealth weaponry.

    Advanced weaponry on the other hand is so expensive that only the richest countries can afford to develop and purchase it.  Entire expensive facilities must be built for its safekeeping and storage.  Entire armies of personnel have to be trained and paid for its successful operation and maintenance.  The cost of operating a ‘conventional’ force is such that even a military occupation relatively modest by historical standards drains its nation of resources.  Such is the expense that ‘overwhelming force’ becomes impossible.

    Hi-tech weapons kill people off with industrial grade efficiency and with minimal losses on the side that uses them, but in all cases the cost is so monumental, that they only stand a chance of doing their value worth in damage against like forces.  Namely, forces that could never be confronted without nuclear war and mutually assured destruction.

    Against what the modern military calls ‘irregular’ forces, they are mostly useless.

    A cruise missile might be able to easily wipe out a hundred men, but the cost of the weapon exceeds any damage inflicted.  The cruise missile costs millions of dollars.  A hundred men cost less than nothing.  Each one who dies just makes a little more elbow room for everyone else…and even so this loss just takes an insignificant bite out of population growth in an already overpopulated world.  In the Vietanam war, the US military had an unprecedented kill ratio, losing tens of thousands of troops in the whole conflict while liquidating hundreds of thousands of enemies per year.  However, over 2,000,000 new North Vietnamese males were reaching the age of conscription each year…

    Deployment of modern weaponry against an expendable population is a losing proposal…unless the said weaponry wipes out the population’s capacity to produce more people.  This is easily done, but still cost far exceeds gains.  If any population now wiped another off the map, it would be in the direct interest of every other population to turn unanimously on the offender to ensure their own preservation.  The loss of trade alone would make wiping out an expendable population a cost ineffective proposal, as the wealth of modern states is dependent upon trade.

    One might still make the case that hi-tech warfare still is preferable when one takes non-material considerations into account—that the hundred people killed by the cruise missile are a hundred of the right people to kill.  The argument is that one needn’t kill off even a large portion of an expendable population but only the few offenders.  The problem with this proposal is that each of the 100 people killed belongs to a family, clan, and tribe.  Each of the hundred killed only multiplies the portion of the expendable population with cause for resentment towards the technologically advanced power.  ‘Insurgents’ enjoy success because they are members of a community that actively supports and hides them.  There is no destroying them without inciting their supporters to riot.  If anything, when considered on a non-material level, the case against modern weaponry is more compelling.  When one factors in emotion in tight knit communities, there can be no ‘surgical’ removal of undesirables as with buildings.  Buildings usually stand on their own while human beings as fundamentally social beings never do.  Killing off a hundred men impacts the lives of hundreds, if not thousands more who knew them.  Not only was the cruise missile ineffective, its deployment on guys with AK-47s could be considered a lost battle for the advanced nation.

    If a nation is unwilling or unable to move in overwhelming force and is unable to cost effectively fight a given population, victory through greater technology is not a likely outcome.  Without a conventional military opponent, there can be no conventional victory.  As far as the locals are concerned the conflict can drag on for generations—as many conflicts in their respective lands already have.  They’re at home with all the time in the world.  They don’t have to win any open confrontation, all they have to do at minimum is make their homeland cost ineffective to govern.  When their enemy is using a huge arsenal of expensive equipment, it is almost absurdly easy to exceed this goal.  The invader is losing resources from the moment they invade!  All resistance has to do is keep it that way!

    I, Giovanni Dannato, was a most pre-eminent Italian scholar in the sixteenth century.  My teachings  in my time were deemed heretical and I was burnt at the stake forthwith!  I still remember how the roaring of fire drowned out even the loudest of the jeering and shouting. ..

    Now, I have returned unto humanity that I may question generally accepted assumptions and examine the nature of societies.  Once a heretic, always a heretic I suppose…