If today's world of modern conveniences is built on a cornerstone, it would be specialization. Specialization makes things cheaper and easier to get. For a relatively small sum of money we can buy complex electronic equipment (headphones for example) with components sourced from 12 different countries and have it delivered to my door in less than 48 hours. While the benefits of our modern system are fairly obvious, there are some non-trivial trade offs and, unlike the benefits, these largely remain hidden.
Specialization brings things (like cheaper goods and services) into our lives but it also taking some things out. In my view, the things taken are not trivial. One example is entertainment. I remember reading a passage from a Wendell Berry essay that had the sentiment that people no longer consider themselves experts in their own amusement and now outsource their attention, time, and money to the “entertainment industry” that specializes in making content for the masses.
Specialization robs us of the special feeling felt when making our own things. When we first got chickens, I had to make a hard choice: buy a coop which would be cheaper, better looking, and more convenient or build my own. On paper, the decision should have been fairly easy. Against common sense, I built the coop and it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my life. Maybe that’s hyperbole but definitely in my top 100. I made a ton of mistakes during the process and almost lost a finger while trying a plunge cut I shouldn’t have but the feeling of creating a coop of my own was special. I imagine that there are other things we don’t do because convenience has narrowed our gaze.
In our culture, the first question someone might ask you is “what do you do?” They mean what is your professional specialization. We are defined by our sectors. Trying to describe an entire person with a singular, tidy label never makes sense. People are taught to identify strongly with their individual specializations and some, like athletes or musicians, find it hard to recover after losing their specialist status.
Dealing with complexity
Specialization has a way of making things more obtuse by adding complexity to things people seemed to have figured out. Food is an interesting case study: Before specialization, you ate whatever your group of people had been eating for generations and, by and large, this worked out. Grandma knew best. Now dietitians constantly postulate about which things we should eat more or less of. The advice is varied and the results more so.
In summary, I want to make it clear that I am not against specialization. Each person is different and will have different skills. In a world that praises specialization to the ultimate degree, I just feel like we should be more honest about the trade-offs.