The Technical Idiot

There are many domains of life which require heavy specialization. The qualities that demarcate that specialization are very particular.

Many people don’t care to learn the general understanding that constitutes living well. When they’re very good at their job, they can simply pay money to make things they don’t understand go away:

Therefore, heavily specialized people tend to have limited understanding of everything else around them. This can bleed into large groups to create a staggering amount of incompetence:

  • Lawyers who understand how to defend a criminal client, but still consent to their apps’ terms of service without reading them.
  • Java software developers who don’t know how to diagnose a broken computer mouse.
  • Auto mechanics who can’t assemble their own solar panel system.
  • Doctors who don’t take care of their diet.
  • Psychologists who still battle with repressed trauma.

No individual inside that system is particularly aware of this. From their point of view, they’re more-or-less aligned with all their peers, give or take some small aspects of that specialization. There’s not much evidence to see differently:

  1. They receive inputs of specialized work they must do. It may include operating something, applying understanding from years of education, or simply routing something to the direct location.
  2. They have no need to understand where their inputs came from, and also don’t need to understand where those inputs leave to.
  3. If their organization permits it, they can grow and get promoted (or paid more) by becoming more qualified in that specific specialization.
  4. Growing in any other aspect of their life (e.g., finding happiness, pursuing a relationship/family, finding meaning) is at best irrelevant for the group’s standards, and is at worst an impediment.

The culture reinforces this and creates an arcane mental mechanism over time. The “technical idiot” can just as much be a “legal idiot”, “bureaucratic idiot”, or “managerial idiot”, context-depending.

There are no solutions or ways to consistently fight against this development, only on deciding which risk management procedure advances your own self-interests:

  1. Localize your efforts to what you can do and working twice as hard to protect your situation.
  2. Getting as far away from it as possible by finding a new place to do business or live your life.
  3. Accept it as a necessary portion of living in a large-scale society and hand it off to professionals.

This system will always be in place as long as our personalities reinforce this mechanism, which will always happen as long as everyone able-bodied is expected to work on technical things.

Without protecting against the technical idiot, society devolves into a systematic and amoral mechanism ready for a tyrant to take control (e.g., Russia in 1922, Germany in 1938).

Language is one of the most significant ways to detect incompetence:

  • Strangely-worded jargon that’s difficult to parse. Back-to-back five-syllable words are usually a dead giveaway.
  • Poorly-placed modifiers that add no value (“it’s important to note that…”, “In lieu of the preceding…”).
  • A statement with “and/or” is legal idiocy: an “and” word is by its nature more constraining (contains all the elements) while “or” is broader (indicates at least one element). Thus, it should probably be “or”.
  • Specific concepts mixed with vagueness (e.g., “We can maximize our margin call revenue by setting up a system.”).
  • Using big words when they can use small ones instead.
  • Stammering or stuttering, which indicates an unclear mental path. This doesn’t always indicate a lack of understanding (especially on very technical matters) but does indicate constraints on how far someone understands.