Inspired by this question: What would it take for society reach a point where the time it takes to learn leaves no time to discover?

We live in a world where no one person or group of people truly understands all of our technology. The majority of people involved in technology today are specialists and only have an understanding of a narrow portion of their field of study. For example, there are millions of people that can program in a high level language, but don't really understand how that code actually is being interpreted by the hardware (and don't really care).

Will there ever be a time where we can no longer train enough people that have a deep understanding in technology to the point where certain forms of technology are lost?

Is it possible that we have already reached this point and are already beginning to decline?

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    $\begingroup$ I find the analogous to asking "will there ever be a time where too many programmers exist and not enough server admins?" $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Dec 10 '14 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ I got an idea! Maybe we could develop some kind of technology were people explain their knowledge in some kind of persistant form, so other people can access to them later and regain that knowledge. We could use some vegetal fibers glued together, with some chemicals to make marks on them according to a set of predefined rules. When someone wants to know about the knowledge, they can go to these fibers and interpret the marks to retrieve that knowledge... And I am wondering if we could use something analog changing magnetic fields in some kind of plate, for use with computers. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Dec 10 '14 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 Trolling like if it's the internet. +1 $\endgroup$
    – kaiser
    Dec 11 '14 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ The implied unconscious incompetence of high level software engineers hit a nerve :D $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Dec 11 '14 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Gusdor I've program everything from high level down to assembler, I imagine that's quite rare though. A shocking number of programmers don't understand how memory, threading, garbage collection, etc really works. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Dec 11 '14 at 11:38

Will there ever be a time where we can no longer train enough people that have a deep understanding in technology to the point where certain forms of technology are lost?

Sure, that has already happened.

Various languages, damascus steel, certain stained glass techniques, how to move giant blocks to build pyramids...

Was that caused by specialization? Debatable. Disinterest in an old/niche technology helps drive things. A desire to protect valuable trade secrets can drive things.

And depending on your view, things like Beethoven or Mozart or Shakespeare's skill/mastery has already been lost due to a lack of comparable peer to pass down the expertise. These are only slightly more famous examples of swordmaking or glassmaking skill that is slightly more common.

And another thing to consider is the difference between knowledge and understanding. Historians can know about things, but it's one thing to study something and another thing to master it through frequent use.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Maybe we could add something like "humanity looses interest in things that either get out of fashion (craftsmanship, arts) or is technically not needed anymore". $\endgroup$
    – kaiser
    Dec 11 '14 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ However, if the need arises, we could either rediscover them, or discover something equivalent (or better) for the task. I'm pretty sure that if we needed to mass-produce good quality swords for combat, a suitable alloy would be quickly developed which surpasses damascus steel. No need for it = no one invests time and money to develop it. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Dec 11 '14 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ A great example of a trade secret that was lost through secrecy is Greek Fire. $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Dec 11 '14 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Gusdor : while the exact recipe is indeed lost, I guess the properties of napalm are by all means and purposes very close to it. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Dec 11 '14 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Damascus steel is a relevant example, but that specialism was kept artificially narrow-- it wouldn't have disappeared if it could have been learned by anyone who wanted to at the time. And indeed, thanks to the specialist fields of armory and metallurgy, it could now be recreated. As for individuals who didn't pass on their skills, that's kind of an argument for more specialization, rather than less-- so we'd have an institute of Mozart acolytes instead of generalised music faculties, and other kinds of music would never have flourished. $\endgroup$
    – bobtato
    Dec 11 '14 at 19:28

The key part of your question is the word 'we'. We, that's all of humanity. Look at human knowledge, of science for instance, in this way:

http://www.wired.com/2009/03/mapofscience/ Source.

Our knowledge is all interconnected. Early on, individuals were working with a much smaller map, they were near the core. The work they did was growing our knowledge in significant, but relatively small ways.

Today there is work happening all over the map. People are advancing the boundaries of human knowledge on all fronts. Specialization allows individuals to abstract the lower level things, like your example of assembly, and make progress in the high levels. Raising the base level for the next scientist to stand on. As Newton is often quoted as saying

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants

So, for your question, will we not be able to maintain our level of progress? As individuals things may slow down, but we add more and more individuals to the pursuit everyday. As a species, collectively, we will only keep advancing and accelerating our understanding of the universe. The universe is full of incredibly complex problems for us to solve and each solution unwraps a whole set of new complex problems. If we ever stop because we think we've learned everything, it will likely be due to hubris rather than fact.

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    $\begingroup$ That map is great +1. $\endgroup$
    – kaiser
    Dec 11 '14 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ As individuals things may slow down, but we add more and more individuals to the pursuit everyday -> This is the key assumption here. If we stop adding more people, or even slow down adding them to the point that we're not gaining fast enough, then the rest of this falls apart. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Dec 11 '14 at 20:05

Personally, I believe the hyper-specialization of the modern world is sometimes overstated. Telling ourselves that architects don't know anything about building, or programmers don't know about hardware, is a way for relatively ordinary people to flatter ourselves, because it suggests we could be architects or coders if we'd chosen that as our major in college.

But I've noticed that often, the really brilliant people in a given field aren't constrained by their supposed specialty. John Carmack writes amazing software because he is very much into low-level hardware; architects like Calatrava or the Smithsons make buildings that could only come from a deep understanding of engineering or construction (respectively). Although a much larger proportion of the population now works in intellectual fields, I'd suggest that the number of people truly advancing human knowledge is as small as ever, and if you look at that minority, they're just as erudite as Newton and Liebniz were.

It's true that only a very few people (and places) have the wherewithal to manufacture a CPU or perform a heart transplant tomorrow, and that may be a weakness in our global civilization. However, if there were some catastrophe, I think we'd find that there are people scattered throughout the world who have the knowledge and intellectual agility to reinvent those skills and techniques fairly quickly.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, thanks to our information society it gets hard for knowledge to get lost. When someone would murder all heart surgeons today, it wouldn't be hard for other doctors to learn how to perform heart surgery because they could read all the books, articles and research papers left behind by the heart surgeons. One could argue that the growth of information also makes that information harder to catalog and search properly, but our technology on that sector is also increasing. The question is how well our indexing technology will keep pace with our growth of knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Dec 11 '14 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ "Fairly quickly"? How many days have Intel spent to evolve from 180 nm to 14 nm and beyond? If all CPU manufacturers (and their factories) are wiped away from this planet, would any one group be able to re-erect a CPU manufacturer and continue producing at 14 nm... fairly quickly? $\endgroup$ Dec 11 '14 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't say we'd go from zero to hero overnight-- obviously if every fab and all its engineers exploded, we'd be starting over with perhaps 1980s technology initially. Having said that, the experience of WWII for example shows that in a society-mobilising emergency, new technology can be developed and rolled out at extraordinary speed; many times faster than things happen in peacetime, when all the brains are competing in different risk-averse commercial silos $\endgroup$
    – bobtato
    Dec 11 '14 at 19:09

Its fair too say that as someone specialise's in one thing, they have less time to spend gaining knowledge in other things. This means discovery's that require knowledge of two fields at once are less likely to be found by that person - especially if it leaves a high level of detail in both.

This does not mean humans as a species will stop developing, however.

We have developed tools for communication, and structures for the exchange of knowledge. Its not unreasonable to assume we can use this to get past any "inter-discipline limits" on progress.

For example; As long as facts are entered into databases in a readable format, and published in an way accessible to others, then its possible for computer programs to spot patterns that humans are unlikely too. A computer program could see correlations along the lines of "sunspots effect crops" only for things humans are infinitely less likely too see connections in.

As correlation isnt necessarily causation, this would only give you a short list of potential things to investigate, which scientists could then study to see if its real. But it completely sidesteps the need for specialists in two fields to spot said connection.


Not necessarily, though it is possible.

As you say, most people are specialised. But given how just how specialised many people are, this begs the question how we make our current technology. For example, look at supercomputers (or even normal computers). Look at vehicle production. These processes aren't done with just one person operating everything, nor with one discipline of people. Computer manufacture involves people who understand processor architecture, OS designers, materials specialists, screen makers, precision robotics, and of course, engineers to make sure all the machines work. Car manufacture is similar: although it is mainly robotised today, the robots need maintenance, and someone has to design the car in the first place.

None of these people can do all the jobs in the factory. So, the point is, for complicated jobs you get a group of people together and they do the job by working with each other.

In the future, we may well have far more complex technology. I think that as this happens, the teams we will need to work the processes and machines will grow, and the fields they each study will narrow. So, in theory there definitely is a limit: where there are not enough people to fill all the required roles.

However, it is entirely possible that among our new technology there will be advanced AI and computer memory. We may end up being able to build robots and upload all the necessary information for them to do many jobs for us. This would end up with everyone being employed in robotics manufacturing, until we build robots to do that at least.

So yes, there is definitely a point where this will happen. However, if our technology advances at the right rate then we may be able to save it by building helpers.


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