Conceptual Specialization of Labor Enables Precision

by Vaniver3 min read8th Jun 20158 comments


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Specialization of labor is one of the primary reasons why the modern world is as wealthy as it is. Conceptual labor is a special case of this general trend; one of the primary reasons why we seem much more knowledgeable than the past is the producers of knowledge are as specialized as producers of consumers goods, and concepts are as varied and precise as consumer goods. The rest of this post expands on that concept and discusses implications for mining wisdom from the past, as well as communicating in the present.

To illustrate what I mean by precision in concepts, let's consider the paraphrased version of an interaction I had with another LWer recently. For some reason, Yoda and Luke's exchange in Dagobah came up. Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

"That doesn't make any sense," my friend griped.

I was immediately swarmed by a rush of connected sensible concepts that Yoda's statement points to, not sure which one to point out first. Even if it is not be generally useful or applicable, it still shines in context as a specific response to Luke's defeatist attitude. There's a specific failure mode where people put in an effort without expecting to succeed, and are handicapped by their lack of effort, and another failure mode where people expect to succeed without putting in effort, and are again handicapped by their lack of effort. One could even also consider over-achievement failure modes as identified by the same quote--the point is not how hard you tried, but whether or not you successfully completed the task. Some people self-handicap so that they'll have an excuse for failure if they fail, and Stuck in the Middle with Bruce also seems relevant. 

One of the things I learned in practicing the Alexander Technique could be labeled by this phrase. I would describe it as doing something to discover whether or not it succeeds, rather than trying to force it to succeed or fail. It was taught (to me, at least) as part of sitting down into a chair: I was spending a tremendous amount of muscular effort in my legs controlling my descent, which my teacher thought was unnecessary. "Don't worry about whether or not it'll work if you don't force it," she said, "don't force it and see what happens. It's okay if you collapse onto the ground--I'd rather than happen than you continue to do the same wrong thing." (I didn't collapse; the effort was unnecessary. But even if it had been necessary under the trajectory I was using, that would have helped identify what trajectory I should have been using.)

Later, I was driving and noticing that my left leg was in an awkward position. In my mental map of the car, there was not enough space for my leg to be extended comfortably--er, like many kinesthetic things, this is hard to convey in words. I don't mean that my leg was straightened at the knee joint, but that my hip, knee, and ankle were aligned in the same plane, instead of twisted, and that my knee was pointing up and ahead, instead of to the side. According to my mental map of the car, the leg had to be twisted to fit. I said to myself "you know what? It doesn't matter what my map says. I'm going to straighten my leg and see what happens." (My map was wrong; there was space to my leg to be comfortably aligned instead of twisted.) I see the quote as deeply related to the distinction between the map and the territory, and the harms that come from having a bad map. I see the quote as pointing to a lot of interesting and relevant findings in motivational psychology.

But... let's go back to the quote. Even if you include a bit of necessary context, it's only ten words. "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try." While this might serve as a label or as a pointer, it can hardly serve as an explanation. Most importantly, the quote is not long enough to exclude incorrect interpretations.

Consider Yoda's previous line: "No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned." One can easily take that frame and place my car-leg-epiphany inside it, but just the frame seems insufficient to generate the car-leg-epiphany, or to differentiate between concepts that should be unlearned (that my leg can't fit) and ones that shouldn't (the particulars of how to direct the car with the wheel). Yoda's statements only make sense retrospectively; once one understands what Yoda understands, then they can infer what he meant to say.

To quote one of Kaj_Sotala's facebook updates:

It's damn annoying when you feel like you've finally unlocked the wisdom behind what used to sound like old platitudes, and feel like this gives you superpowers, but you also feel that you can't communicate the insight to anyone because they'd just hear the old platitudes.

Sometimes, someone's problem really is just that they must unlearn what they have learned. But you can't just tell them that--you have to explain it. Which returns us to conceptual specialization and precision.

In abstract mathematics, many of the concepts that people find interesting and novel now were almost entirely unknown centuries ago. But when it comes to interacting with people, organizing a group, and other old fields, it seems likely to me that any concept discussed today was probably first noticed long, long ago, but perhaps only clearly articulated recently.

Great thinkers in the past probably did know much more than it seems on a first look; there have long been very clever people who can figure many things out for themselves. It seems much more difficult to figure out how to communicate something correctly, because that requires not just recognizing deep principles, but also learning lots of probably surprising facts about neurodiversity. When one makes a deliberate effort to teach a concept to a wide variety of people that one learns all the misconceptions that must be pruned from the audience's mind and from the teacher's presentation. But without specialization, a teacher is not trying to teach 'recognizing microexpressions,' but 'interacting with people,' which is too large a subject to effectively teach, or to generate a sufficient repertoire of instructive techniques. That suggests they can be worth reading--but only once you know enough about the underlying subject to surmount any communication obstacles from your side of the divide.

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