Thursday, August 03, 2006

Generalization versus specialization

Steering well clear of Lebanon, not out of lack of interest but out of lack of energy to get all read up on it so I could have anything at all insightful to offer...

I've been reading Jane Austen lately, and as always with literature of that period and the periods immediately following - say, up until the Edwardians or so - I'm struck by the concept of "accomplishments." I mean the way all girls of the middle class and above learned to draw, play piano or some other instrument, sing, write descriptive prose and poetry, dance, arrange flowers, do fine needlework, all of them acceptably well regardless of native ability; and the way all boys of the middle class and above learned some of the above but more about riding, shooting, maybe swordplay (ornamental or practical), dressage if they were in the country, and so on. Both genders were expected to have a working knowledge of "the classics," of course.

All times have their accomplishments. In my teens I was "expected" to master (or at least to perform acceptably) certain things that I largely didn't: gymnastics (no prayer - I couldn't even touch my toes for most of my youth), pop singing (classical is another matter! But I could never get the whole close-your-eyes-and-whine-nasally genre down), drawing horses (I've never figured that out), fashion (to judge and to wear, not to design, not that I could design it either). My brother had to be competent in certain team sports, be familiar with some canons like Star Wars (at which I was better), and do tricks on something with wheels like a bike or a skateboard. I'm not able to step outside my own life well enough to determine which well-rounded young person, the 1980s one or the 1800s one, had the harder time learning his accomplishments. But I find roots in the youthful-accomplishments idea in the Renaissance and the Renaissance man, and I find similarities in places today.

This post, from the Long Tail blog, deals with how digital photography and cinematography change acting and directing:

Why [has digital caused such large changes]? Because film costs a lot and must be used sparingly, while digital tape is practically free. The difference between the scarcity economics of film and the abundance economics of digital is, as Bill put it, "the difference between pointing a loaded gun at someone and a toy gun. You point a loaded gun at them and they're going to act different. A film camera is a loaded gun. Digital is not."

He explained further what he learned shooting Flyboys with the Panavision Genesis. "The old model of acting is that the rehearsal is great and then things change when you say "rolling"--usually for the worse. Now there's no film in the camera. You can shoot everything. So there's no rehearsal. Or perhaps it's all rehearsal. Either way, it's far more natural."

Actors freeze up when they know that there's a cost to failure--a thousand-foot magazine of film costs $1,200 between film and developing. Said Bill: "That slight whirring noise of film running through the camera is the sound of money. And it gets in the way of being real."

Anybody? Anybody? I have on my wall three absolutely fantastic candid pictures of my kids, enlarged and proudly displayed rather than clustered on a shelf or on the fridge, because we bought a big memory card for our digital camera and are able to take a hundred and some high-res pictures without unloading. If I hadn't had literally dozens of shots of each child to choose from - that is, if I'd been limited to the amount of film I was willing to buy and develop - I would have had virtually no chance of taking three shots good enough to treat like professional portraits. My mother-in-law, digital camera always at the ready, treats the medium the way she always has: "Get over there next to your brother, honey. Sit up a little. Turn. No, the other way. Now - SMILE! Darn it, you had your eyes closed. Let's try it again..." rather than clicking away twenty times on the premise that one of those twenty captures will yield something good. It frustrates me to watch (especially since the whole reason professional photographers can charge the big bucks for children's portraits is because it's so hard to get three kids to look good all at once in a portrait-style shot), but I understand the impulse.

So. Available tools change the types of accomplishments we strive for - no great news there. The question for me is whether our "accomplishments" in these days, aided by tools that can turn the rankest amateur into an occasional master by dint of sheer persistence, render this age a new renaissance, in which we ought to try not just to perform learned skills adequately but actually to be relatively masterful in several areas at once. With my computer, an internet connection, my digital camera, and enough time, I can (both theoretically and, in some cases, in fact) turn out a killer home movie, gallery-worthy photos or even "art" if I apply enough filters, an animated feature, a book that only needs professional binding... Add some readily available craft materials and I can actually bind that book and expect it to last for decades, or turn out cards that ought by rights to put Hallmark out of business, or illuminate a manuscript. If I have a melody line in my head and a Moog or its equivalent, I can (and this is purely theoretical - I've never yet come up with a melody that's worth remembering) arrange it and "perform" it with multiple virtual instruments, sing it in harmony, and distribute it over the internet. Between the resources available at any public library and the resources available at my desk, I have access to almost everything I need to become "accomplished" in the 19th-century sense, at least on paper (I can't afford a horse), as well as in the 21st-century one (that's what my HTML, VBScript, and SQL books are for). So. Do I focus, or do I diffuse my efforts? With so very much available to be learned, am I better off as a specialist or as a generalist?

Heinlein had his opinion:

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.

-The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, first published in Time Enough For Love


Gahrie said...

OH quote Heinlein too?

I was such a shallow and callow youth......

I agree with Heinlein in the general, but not neccessarily the specific. You should be able to deal with most situations as they come along, adapting as you need to. I guess I would say I believe in flexability more than specialization.

By the way my favorite Heinleinism is TINSTAAFL (There is no such thing as a free lunch)

Jamie said...

I'm with you on that, Gahrie - note that the quote doesn't include "...perform bypass surgery, design a heavier-than-air flying machine..."

Heinlein wasn't the world's best writer. His prose really stunk a lot of the time, even among the (at the time) ungraceful universe of scifi writers. But he was certainly himself a Renaissance man, a storyteller whose stories tend to stick to the roof of your mind, and a person whose life was all about the living of it.

I used to have an ID bracelet, back in the days when kids thought ID bracelets were cool, on the reverse of which I had engraved, "Dum vivimus, vivamus!" in his honor, and in order to remind me to live while I live. (It was heck on wheels getting the engraving shop girl to see, and correctly engrave, the teeny difference between "vivimus" and "vivamus." And you know she was mentally rolling her eyes and thinking, "My God, what a frickin' geek!" the whole time.) Sometimes I wonder how well I can follow that philosophy with three kids, an ordinary job, a husband who goes to work in office clothes rather than a flight suit or pajamas, and the gray in my hair kept at bay by regular artifice these days... but what can you do? I'm playing the hand I was dealt, it's a hand with lots of intangible and tangible rewards even if we have to seek out the adventure rather than having it come to us, and I'm doing my best to teach my kids TANSTAAFL too (I go with the "ain't" formulation myself).

Gahrie said...

Ah, but you see, I am a teacher, and at one time a Language Arts teacher, and it's against union rules to use "ain't".

By the way, one of the world's supreme ironies, is the fact that I am actually a member of a union, since I don't believe government employees should have the right to belong to unions. And worse, I am currently running to become an officer of said union. (I was my school's building rep for four years because no one else would do it)

Jamie said...

My sister, a school psychologist and a committed conservative, is a union rep. It tears her up. Yet somehow she soldiers on...