Conceptual Specialization of Labor Enables Precision

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.