Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Car made of People

Ah, Linked-In. I'm still not completely convinced that this Facebook for networkers is worth the time and the effort that I put into it, but I'd rather use it and not need it than need it and not use it. In any case, while updating my profile summary today I got my brain juices flowing, and now I can eloquently explain why I do what I do.

To get into the obligatory metaphor, ever since Henry Ford popularized the automobile for the American public, cars have been getting more sophisticated and more complex. A repair that a mechanic could have completed without incident 10 years ago now requires a specialist. In recent years, cars have incorporated increasing numbers of electronics, specialized equipment, and luxury items. One guy can fix your built-in GPS, but you need to see a different guy about the problem with your electric windows, or the gauges in your dashboard.

Likewise, humanity is becoming increasingly diverse and complex. In an increasingly crowded and competitive world, the struggle to succeed individually while co-existing with other individuals is getting more and more complicated. Billions of people all trying to exist together, and at the same time trying to improve that existence for as much of humanity as possible. And being social animals, they create millions of political, social, and cultural institutions, groups and organizations, sorting themselves into these different factions based on their unique personal outlooks.

If you think of the human race like an automobile, each person and faction of persons represents a part in an enormous machine that needs constant maintenance. Each part intersects with the others in different ways, and sometimes the gears don't mesh and the oil doesn't pump. When different portions of humanity have contradictory needs, you get wars, social unrest, decreasing resources, and all sorts of nasty things.

Seriously though, this is bad. To address these problems, you need to understand their causes. To understand their causes you need to study all sorts of interesting fields, like economics (it's interesting to some people!) psychology, sociology, and... you guessed it... history. Think of each one of these fields as a different bit on a souped-up spy car. Studying each one will help you figure out how a different part of human society functions. But to get a feel for the entire complicated blueprint of human existence, you need to crack open a history book, because this is a manual that will let you know how a tiny portion of those parts have interacted in the past.

I went into this field because I like to know why things are the way that they are. Studying the past allows you to understand the present, but also to make preparations for the future. The more I learn about the origins of modern institutions, the better equipped I am to plan my own life.

And this is exactly why the recent, persistent cuts to American humanities and social sciences are such bad news not only to social science majors, but to the nation as a whole. The human machine is not going to stop changing, or even slow the process. Governments and individuals are constantly blundering into situations that a quick review of the historical record would reveal as an easily avoidable mistake. Would you trust a mechanic who didn't understand how your car brakes function? Human society is infinitely more complicated, with more parts than the most technologically advanced car, and we're not even close to understanding how all of those parts work. It's going to take a LOT of mechanics to keep that work going, but that won't happen if these fields are continually being looted of funding.

Here's hoping that the brakes don't give out.

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