We know an awful lot, we humans. We’ve learned a great deal about our universe at the macroscopic scale, and about our planet at the microscopic scale.
Yet, as an individual human, I know very little. I could not successfully repair a major issue with the car I drive, much less build a new one. I could not set my leg if I broke it. Unlike Captain Kirk, I couldn’t even create gunpowder without doing some serious research first. And don’t get me started on the technology required to gather the raw materials necessary for most everything I use.
Personally, I grew up on a farm, so I like to think that if push came to shove I could hold my own at growing a garden and raising the odd chicken or edible rodent. But I daresay there’s many a person out there who would not be as optimistic if they were left to their own devices to provide food.
The thing is, I don’t need to know any of this stuff. So long as humanity continues to function the way it has, I can be safe in my ignorance, provided I am surrounded by people who are specialists in their given fields. I take my car to a mechanic; I go see a doctor when I am sick; I purchase food from a grocery store, which in turn purchases it from a host of middlemen, who purchase it from farmers.
Humanity has developed a staggering wealth of knowledge. It’s far too much for a person to absorb or remember, and so we’ve parceled this knowledge out to different people. As the knowledge grows deeper, the parcels become narrower. First, we had doctors, who developed specialized knowledge about the human body, medicines, and healing. As knowledge increased, we began to have doctors who focused on surgery or dentistry or psychiatry. Now, we have medical specialists who are devoted to healing our skin, our hearts, our ears-nose-and-throats, our eyes, our teeth, our minds.
The same pattern can be seen in virtually every profession. Drop a cash-crop farmer into a dairy operation and watch the confusion. Tell a programmer who’s used to using SQL and PHP that they need to start writing code with AJAX. Go to your optometrist and begin describing your stomach pain.
We manage to keep this knowledge afloat, and growing, by keeping it in the cloud. Specific elements of it are held by different people, who grow that knowledge (and ignore virtually all other knowledge) and pass it on to their successors, who in turn dive deeper into specific areas and grow the knowledge there.
In effect, the growth of knowledge demands a growth in population to maintain it.
Which raises two very serious questions.
What happens if we suddenly lose a group of experts? What if a new generation of farmers, tired of hard work and poor pay, just decide to pack it in and pursue other careers?
And what happens when we reach a point, either through choice or through necessity, where we are no longer increasing the global population? Where will our expertise reside?
Photo by puroticorico.