Mastery II

I’m currently reading Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. It’s an interesting novel, and there are elements of the story that resemble Vinge’s singularity. (Potential spoilers ahead) The story concerns two competing civilizations that travel to an alien planet. Naturally, there are confrontations and betrayals, and we learn that one of the civilizations utilizes a process to “Focus” an individual on a single area of study, essentially turning them into a brilliant machine. Naturally, there is a lot of debate about the Focused, and in doing so, one of the characters describes it like this:

… you know about really creative people, the artists who end up in your history books? As often as not, they’re some poor dweeb who doesn’t have a life. He or she is just totally fixated on learning everything about some single topic. A sane person couldn’t justify losing friends and family to concentrate so hard. Of course, the payoff is that the dweeb may find things or make things that are totally unexpected. See, in that way, a little of Focus has always been part of the human race. We Emergents have simply institutionalized this sacrifice so the whole community can benefit in a concentrated, organized way.

Debate revolves around this concept because people living in this Focused state could essentially be seen as slaves. However, the quote above reminded me of a post I wrote a while ago called Mastery:

There is an old saying “Jack of all trades, Master of none.” This is indeed true, though with the demands of modern life, we are all expected to live in a constant state of partial attention and must resort to drastic measures like Self-Censorship or information filtering to deal with it all. This leads to an interesting corollary for the Master of a trade: They don’t know how to do anything else!

In that post, I quoted Isaac Asimov, who laments that he’s clueless when it comes to cars, and relates a funny story about what happened when he once got a flat tire. I wondered if that sort of mastery was really a worthwhile goal, but the artificually induced Focus in Vinge’s novel opens the floor up to several questions. Would you volunteer to be focused in a specific area of study, knowing that you would basically do that and only that? No family, no friends, but only because you are so focused on your studies (as portrayed in the novel, doing work in your field is what makes you happy). What if you could opt to be focused for a limited period of time?

There are a ton of moral and ethical questions about the practice, and as portrayed in the book, it’s not a perfect process and may not be reversible (at least, not without damage). The rewards would be great – Focusing sounds like a truly astounding feat. But would it really be worth it? As portrayed in the book, it definitely would not, as those wielding the power aren’t very pleasant. Because the Focused are so busy concentrating on their area of study, they become completely dependent on the non-Focused to guide them (it’s possible for a Focused person to become too-obsessed with a problem, to the point where physical harm or even death can occur) and do everything else for them (i.e. feed them, clean them, etc…) Again, in the book, those who are guiding the Focused are ruthless exploiters. However, if you had a non-Focused guide who you trusted, would you consider it?

I still don’t know that I would. While the results would surely be high quality, the potential for abuse is astounding, even when it’s someone you trust that is pulling the strings. Nothing says they’ll stay trustworthy, and it’s quite possible that they could be replaced in some way by someone less trustworthy. If the process was softened to the point where the Focused retains at least some control over their focus (including the ability to go in and out), then this would probably be a more viable option. Fortunately, I don’t see this sort of thing happening in the way proposed by the book, but other scenarios present interesting dilemmas as well…