Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Age of the Dilletante

Sometimes on the intarweb you find the idea that our time is the age of the amateur, like the amateur scientist of the 16th to 19th century; at that time noblemen with to much money and to much time lingered into science and did a lot of important discoveries, today people with to much time can have access to the latest discoveries, to a lot of knowledge, can work on new technologies and do a lot of armchair science. An amazing amount of technological ideas is generated by this new class of idling intellectuals, bored technicians, hobby artists and armchair scientists. Technology and science have been democratized, everybody has access to anything and can become anything they want. Without to much effort I could become an underwater archaeologist, a backyard rocketist or a closet electronicist (I made that word up...).

This is one side of the story. My feeling is that there is another side... Life, work, science, technology have become so complex that nobody can be a specialist anymore. Everybody is an amateur, even the people who are doing stuff professionally. Be it at university or in industry, it looks like nobody has a real clue about what they are doing, everybody is a dilletante. This might be a sign of a lot of change happening, this might be a sign of life growing to complex for anybody to grasp. Nobody has a plan, nobody really knows what is going on. The people who are good on their job have an idea on how stuff works, a vague feeling what happens under certain circumstances. The bad ones just don't have a clue. But nobody is able to tell exactly what will happen.

The age where you had masters of a craft who really knew their tasks, who knew what will happen, has long gone by. Work, Life, Technology and Society have grown so complex that people have yet to keep up with it. The big bosses do not really know how to run a company, the politicians do not really know how to run the country, the technicians do not really know how their stuff works,... Nobody can be certain about anything anymore, everybody is just improvising.

This is the 21st century. Everybody is equally lost...


Kryptikmo said...

The real question is this:

Does that really matter?

Our progress is greater than it has been any time in human history. Technology progresses a rate never seen before, research uncovers more and more about the deeper secrets of the universe, systems that were unthinkably complex 50 years ago are laid bare for school children. Perhaps my optimism is unfounded. I see a world where, to a more or lesser extent, quality of life still gets better, day-by-day. What scares me is that these increases in QoL seem to be coming to an end. Not so much because technology stops but because as a society we are finding it increasingly difficult to cope. A desire for understanding and intellectual rigour is seen as something to mocked, scorned. An attempt to better oneself often seen as betraying your roots. We stand on the brink of a truly mobile society and are dragged back by a culture that is evolved to be far less movable than any technology that we invented.

What chance, what price that new societies will spring up based around those that are ambitious and want to drive forward, and those that are happy to stay as they are? What odds that such a behaviour has already started with the mooting of sea habitats, with billionaires removing themselves further and further from it positive (no) or negative (yes)? Do people succeed due to their choices and skills (yes) or by blind luck (no)?

But, as long as progress continues apace and Stuff Gets Done and Things Get Invented does it matter that we abstract more and more the details underlying our systems? I would say probably not, as long as our understanding of those systems is good enough that when we find something that throws us a real bogey comes along, we can pre-empt it...*cue scary scifi about Grey Goo*

Anonymous said...

Probably you're right about universal diletantism. If I learned something over the last months: even if you have only a vague idea about the details, the trick is to convince people you know more than they do. That's why you have a PhD. ;-) If a discussion becomes difficult, just evoke the impression that the solution is so obvious it would be a waste of time for everybody to go too much into details. Believe me, with 99.9% of the people it works. I do it all the time.

- M.