Heinlein once wrote:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
This was during the 20th century, before the beginning of the so-called “Information Age.” At that time, computers were in their infancy and the vast floods of information that would be generated as a result of widespread capacity to easily store and replay this information were still in the future. The Library of Congress was only composed of printed matter–the archiving of movies and such had not yet begun–and what data storage technology there was could handle a few megabytes, at most.
Today, the Internet Archive, a project built to act as a record of how the Internet has grown and changed, has a capacity of just under 4 petabytes. To put this in perspective, the sum total of a human’s experiences throughout their life may equal 1 petabyte.
This is not to say that Heinlein’s ideal of a broad knowledge-base is no longer fulfillable, but that expectations may need to be revised in some fashion. Given that the Internet Archive only holds a snippet of existing human knowledge–there’s little in there from scientific journals, for instance, or from other specialized documents. Hundreds of times as much information remains locked away in various corporate archives–chip designs, calculations for auto efficiency, rocket and satellite schematics, and other proprietary secrets. Governments, too, have a vast knowledgebase–intelligence, engineering of secret projects, valuable historical documents and footage of various sorts.
However, this same interconnection that has fostered an explosion of knowledge has also enabled a unique opportunity to both fulfil and reject Heinlein’s standards for human knowledge: given the ability to ask for, and receive, reasonably-accurate information on a moment’s notice from a vast body of users–many of whom may very well be the specialists that Heinlein decries as insect-like–one can retain one’s own specialization without giving up the access to the body of knowledge that represents humanity.
There’s a joke about a chemist, a physicist, and an engineer who are all given a red rubber ball and asked to determine the elasticity. The physicist performs a simple experiment with a meter-stick to determine a known drop height. The chemist does an analysis of the rubber compound to determine energy storage. The engineer pulls out his Pocket Ref and looks up the entry for “Ball, Rubber, Red.”
Three very different approaches–the first two depend on primary knowledge, while the third takes the sum of accumulated knowledge and accesses it when it’s needed. This is similar in many ways to how information access works in this age of interconnection: there are those who perform the actual measurements, and there are those who combine and manipulate those data.
Overspecialization is still crippling, though: the old adage about hammers and problems still comes into effect if you’re so specialized as to forget that there are other tools–the method of statistical analysis that was published in a biological journal that amounted to a rough approximation of integrals comes to mind–and end up reinventing the wheel. Even worse, if there is a lack of cooperative information available–for our academic society is often antagonistic rather than cooperative, with ‘publish or perish’ being the byword–the same ‘discovery’ may end up being made independently many times over, and the litigation over who stole what from whom further distracts and detracts from our progress as a species.
That’s not to say that our progress has been entirely hindered by antagonistic scholars, though; this self-same antagonism, this constant sniping at others’ work, is necessary: it provides the requisite evolutionary pressures for our body of knowledge to grow and change. As philogiston gave way to energies of combustion; as the luminiferous aether and the crystal spheres gave way to Kepler’s orbits and, then, to Einstein’s modifications, so too will today’s ideas be subject to future revision as hungry researchers and scientists look to make a name for themselves.
The key is, here as everywhere, to strike a balance: to keep these researchers hungry enough to progress, but sated enough not to obstruct others’ access to their material. Research needs to be shared to be useful; the only way an insect can be a man is if he can access the specializations of all the other insects well enough to do whatever needs to be done, and in the most efficient way possible.