Outsourcing Reality

Steph and I have been thinking and conversing a lot lately about how we, as a society, are losing touch with the day-to-day reality of survival. In some ways this can be seen as progress, and in others it’s a dangerous trend. The difficult part is distinguishing which side each outsourced piece of life falls into.

The following list should show you what I mean. I admit, it’s subjective and made off the top of my head, but it consists of the things I believe are the building blocks of society and human growth. These are all necessary things. In other words, if these things went away or were constricted in some way, it would cause serious problems with the development and survival of the human race.

  • Having something to eat
  • Having necessary household goods
  • Having a building in which to live and work
  • Having a way to get from place to place
  • Making babies
  • Giving birth
  • Caring for and educating the young
  • Caring for the elderly
  • Protecting your possessions and your loved ones

These are things we need as humans. There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps not every single person needs to be involved in making babies, but if everybody stops making babies, we’ve got a big problem. If we don’t educate the young and educate ourselves, we’ve got a big problem. If we can’t protect the stuff we’ve worked to gain and maintain, we’ve got a big problem. You get the idea.

Now, let’s look at how these things were done a few hundred years ago. You probably already know where I’m going with this. If not, see if you spot a trend. (If you see something wrong in my history here, feel free to correct it with citations in the comments.)

  • Having something to eat: People grew crops or knew a guy down the road that grew them. They owned weapons and hunted for themselves.
  • Having necessary household goods: People carved or crafted the things they needed (toys, utensils, working tools) and occasionally ordered the complex stuff from a catalogue.
  • Having a building in which to live and work: People built their own houses using wood from their own nearby forests, and helped their neighbors and nearby towns to do the same.
  • Having a way to get from place to place: People walked or rode the horses that their family or nearby friends raised. Sometimes they got on boats and rowed or sailed, but it was rare.
  • Making babies: Duh. (This one’s hard to “improve”, huh?)
  • Giving birth: Often done in a person’s own home, perhaps with the help of a local doctor or a neighbor.
  • Caring for and educating the young: Very long ago, done almost entirely by a child’s family and close friends. Education of children and teens began to move into the school in the 18th century.
  • Caring for the elderly: When and if they survived to an age at which they needed care, they were taken care of in their children’s own homes. When they died, their family and friends embalmed and buried them.
  • Protecting your possessions and your loved ones: This one varies widely based on exactly which part of the world you’re in. In the Western world, until around the 17th century, most civilizations expected their people to protect their own personal possessions except in cases of invading foreign armies. There were governing bodies to resolve disputes, of course, but people owned weapons and used them according to the laws of their land.

The trend, of course, is that people tended to have a deep involvement in the necessary elements for their and their loved ones’ own lives. If you were hungry, you generally had to go out and kill or harvest your own food. You taught your own kids, and cared for your own parents. As a side note, its an interesting trend that the rich were less involved in each of these elements, choosing instead to pay someone else to take care of them in their stead.

Now let’s compare the old ways of doing these things with some of the newest developments in each field. Some of these are not the most popular way in which these things are done, but they are new developments which are rising in popularity. (“Rising” is a relative term, and I am not at all suggesting these will be the only way these tasks are done in the future.) Note that when I say “we” below, I’m not talking about individual people, but rather most of the people in a given society that does these things.

  • Having something to eat: Go to the grocery store and buy what we need from a farmer (or farming corporation) we never met who uses methods we’re unfamiliar with.
  • Having necessary household goods: Go to Target or Wal-mart and buy whatever we need for amazingly low prices, having no idea how these things are made, what is in them, or how to fix or improve them.
  • Having a building in which to live and work: We hire architects to build our homes and places of work for us. We hire other people to fix and upgrade them because the inner workings of the structures are sometimes so advanced that we don’t know how to fix and upgrade them ourselves. (Especially in the case of plumbing and electrical work.)
  • Having a way to get from place to place: We buy cars (which we can’t build) for long journeys, Segways for shorter ones. We’re more mobile with airplanes (which again, we couldn’t make ourselves) and we only go on boats for fun.
  • Making babies: There are new ways to do this too, though they’re not as popular for obvious reasons. We’ve got surrogate pregnancies, test tube babies, in vitro fertilization, and soon enough, cloning.
  • Giving birth: Usually done in hospitals with professional doctors and nurses, lots of bright lights, IVs, and monitors we can’t read.
  • Caring for and educating the young: Done by government-hired professionals with degrees in things we haven’t studied, even for kids as young as two or three, all the way through one’s twenties and up.
  • Caring for the elderly: Nursing homes with professional nurses and help staff help our elderly. We keep them generally out of sight and out of mind once they can no longer care for themselves. When they die, a professional embalms them, a professional does their funeral, and someone else digs the hole and buries them. Someone else even tends to the graveyard.
  • Protecting your possessions and your loved ones: In some places, like America, a person is still allowed to own guns and protect their stuff. But in other places, like Australia, gun ownership is illegal. (When Steph and I asked an Australian friend of ours who visited us recently what people there did if there was real trouble, she just said, “Call the police.”)

Before you jump all over me for that list, let me point out that I’m not saying these developments are all bad. What if we don’t all need to know how to grow our own food? In these more modern times, we have the freedom to spend time doing something besides going to “corn class.” I’ll be the first person here to cheer for the doctors and nurses that helped deliver Caleb. After Steph’s pre-eclampsia had gotten under control and Caleb was born, I asked one of our nurses, “What would have happened a hundred years ago in this situation?” She was blunt: “Your wife would be dead.” Hooray doctors!!

Still, that modern list reveals some problems, too. Depending on your leanings, different things will appear to be a problem to different people. Some think Australia has gone astray and are cheering the US Supreme Court’s recent decision. Some think a committed, hard-working parent would give their own child an education far, far better than any public school could provide. Some think the outsourcing of our food supply has led to less healthy food, obesity, and more inhumane treatment of animals. Some feel that the outsourcing of general consumer goods has lead to more industrial waste, toxic landfills, and higher carbon emissions. Even Pixar’s new movie Wall-E cautions its viewers about outsourcing reality and going on “automatic mode” for general societal functions. When you concentrate your necessary functions at one point (educators, police, industrial farmers, gasoline) it creates one big point of failure. Any engineer knows that’s a bad idea.

My question, then, is obvious. The older way of doing things isn’t always the best. The newer way of doing things also isn’t always the best. So what is? At what point are the freedoms given by modern technology and professionals in every field simply not worth the ignorance those freedoms leave in their wake? I don’t buy the argument that the answer to that question is completely different for each person. It seems logical to me that we, as a society, need to pick a few things that are the most important building blocks of our society, and be very careful to teach those things to all our kids as they grow. Not that we would enforce this as law somehow, but that it would be a general cultural understanding that every person should know how to do X, Y, and Z before they’re an adult. Don’t even bother arguing that’s currently in place. It isn’t.

I’d like to hear your opinions on this topic. I’m still mulling it over. We need rules to define what is important for every person to know and what isn’t. And we need to know whether it is possible to push forward as a society if we’re spending all our time re-learning what the last generation had only just perfected before they died.

Update (6/28/08 8:36pm): Steph recommended that I clarify a couple things. When I said it was a bad idea to “concentrate your necessary functions at one point”, I was talking about the dangers of putting some centralized authority in charge of a basic function like the ones in my list. For example, saying that only the police may have guns means that any criminal who has one can go wild as long as the police aren’t around. If the police can somehow be stopped or significantly delayed, which is much more likely than stopping all citizens, the criminal goes unchecked. If citizens have guns, and thus the power is decentralized, this scenario is much less likely.

Likewise, if we were ever at a point as a society where one mega-corporation produced all our food and no one else farmed, and that corporation were to change the food (presumably accidentally) in such a way that it harmed the population, who could do anything about it? It would be very difficult. Redundant farmers with separated processes and crops keep these kinds of dangers isolated and limited in scope, and keep the power of food decentralized.

Steph also argued that “every person should know how to do X, Y, and Z before they’re an adult” is currently in place although I said it wasn’t. She believes X, Y, and Z are reading, writing, and arithmetic. My point is really that the X, Y, and Z should be a larger number of things on my list. Those three things only fit under the “education” bullet in the list. It seems I’m recommending that our schools broaden their mandatory curriculum into areas like farming and other basic survival skills. I’m as surprised to hear that coming out of my mouth as anyone could be.

10 thoughts on “Outsourcing Reality

  1. Well since we are in the middle of “peak oil” and society as we know it could be on the verge of collapse it might be a good idea to take up candle making or wood carving on the side :-))

    Another thought. Star Trek. They have uber tech that makes everything for them, EVERYTHING. Scarcity is eliminated (and supposedly Utopia is found). Suddenly finding food, shelter and whatever else you need to get by are no big deal because machines can build everything from the atomic level. You have a box in the kitchen that looks like a microwave but produces infinite food out of thin air. 🙂

  2. It is a difficult thing. I’ve always thought if society broke down along the lines of your favorite apocalyptic scenario I’d be screwed. I don’t exactly have good back-breaking labor skills. But I don’t have any answer to that. I don’t like gardening so I’m not going to learn to be a farmer. I don’t like hunting so I’m not going to learn to skin a deer. I’m not sure those things would be much help if there was societal collapse (the likelihood of surviving the initial calamity is probably slim).

    It’s probably worth noting that making babies has changed a lot in the past 200 years. Or rather not making babies. I think contraception in various forms has made quite a difference in society.

    And just an observation, but this is kind of funny coming from a computer-addicted techie like yourself. 😉

  3. Perhaps this is simplifying things too much but we are definitely moving from a “jack of all trades, master of none” to a “master of one (or some) and jack of none” society. The thing is though that we have always had specialties in life. Even in medieval times, many specialties existed. There was only one or two guys in town that could work iron and that was what every tool was made of. A person might have known how to farm, hunt, make clothes, and build houses but it was impossible without the tools from the blacksmith.

    Today we are just more specialized than ever before. The great benefit is that instead of a billion people knowing the same pieces of farm info, some have dedicated their life to just farming and its study so their fountain of knowledge is much greater than ever before. Our society is so connected that the specialty knowledge and products from that are freely (and readily) available. The problem arises when the info or products become polluted. We have had plenty of examples of this already this year. Lead in toys, Salmonella in our produce. We just need a way to protect things better. Perhaps that too is a specialty.

    To me, x, y, and z have always been find water, gather food, and find/build shelter.

  4. “but if everybody stops making babies, we’ve got a big problem”

    The overzealous adoption of this tenet is already our biggest problem.

    If you want to worry about the future, worry about non-sustainable exponential growth.

  5. Dan, I want to assume this was just an innocent misunderstanding. What I was saying through the bit you quoted was that if 100% of the human population stops reproducing, meaning that absolutely no babies are *ever* born again, we have a big problem.

    I think the only way a person could disagree with that is to say that it’s not a problem if the human race goes extinct, in which case they should see a psychiatrist immediately to find out why they hate themselves so much. I can only assume that’s not the boat you’re in, Dan, and that you’re a more reasonable, balanced person than to believe things like that.

    You’ll note I never said anything about exponential population growth in the entry, nor did I encourage everyone to have as many babies as possible. In fact, right before the quote you pulled out, I said “Perhaps not every single person needs to be involved in making babies.”

    It’s almost as though you came here looking for a fight, Dan. Please don’t put your own ideas of what I’m saying into my mouth without being able to support it in the text.

  6. That last paragraph of my comment above was far too strong. I’m sorry, Dan. Rather than delete it quietly, I’ll just own up to it publicly.

  7. I’m hanging out with my brother’s elementary-aged kids for a week, and their ability to be engineer and artist, compassionate counselor and politician, computer-whiz, athlete, teacher, master-gardener, and musician, all within the span of a day — well, it simply amazes me. I remember being that age, and being curious about everything. I think the key may be in (a) teaching kids to be curious about all aspects of life, and (b) showing adults that there are ways to continue to be curious.

    Let’s face it, because it is more efficient, we WILL specialize. I’ll figure out the best way to teach people a foreign language, and you’ll forever be better at fixing my computer. I’ll call your tech people for help, … and you’ll probably never call me or my colleagues. If I have no ability to dabble in technology, though, not even a little, then I’ve lost something. If I cannot figure out how to fix my clogged toilet or don’t know where to go to figure it out, I’m kind of dumb and will be calling a plumber way too often. If I don’t know what Rosemary or Orzo is, then a beautiful recipe will be overwhelming to me. But, if I’ve been exposed to a lot, at least the building blocks of a lot, and have been encouraged to seek out whatever interests me, even if I fail, I will have been given a great tool.

    My orchestra teacher told my high school class that there was one life-lesson he wanted to instill in us before we left. He said, “Every few years, pick a new hobby. Throw yourself into that hobby, learn everything you can about it. If, in a few years, you still like it, then you can dabble in it for the rest of your life. If you don’t like it, drop it. Either way, pick up something new.” In other words, continually expose yourself to something outside your normal realm. I think his words were wise.

    This gives no answer to monopolies controlling our food system or many of the other larger topics you brought up, I know. But I can’t offer much advice for that.

    It makes me think, though. I do think that there are moral issues that should be instilled in our children, which are even more important than curiosity or a willingness to learn. The nursing home example, especially, got me thinking about this. When we specialize so much that we dehumanize, I think we have a serious problem. When Grandma becomes someone we think about when we get a call from her care-giver, but otherwise assume is fine, we miss out on something. When we forget to be thankful for food or warmth because we don’t have to do hardly a thing for it, we miss out on something. When we believe and act, whether we admit it or not, THAT A PERSON’S WORTH IS DIRECTLY TIED TO THEIR ABILITY TO PRODUCE, we have lost our focus and our modern world has killed something in us. If we find ourselves judging a person by their intelligence, ability, etc. rather than seeing them as a human, whole and lovely, made in God’s image, we are changed, and I don’t like that change. In our modern, specialized society, this is what worries me more than specialization. Dehumanization.

    Alright, I didn’t intend my response to be quite so long. I’m sorry if I took your words in a totally different direction than you intended. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  8. In the paragraph about going to the store and buying food from a farmer I think you missed MANY middle-men. A professional buyer gets it from the farmer and sells it to a processor who may then process it further to manufacture it into a sellable product. A packager and shipper are involved and of course the final store in which you buy it. I am sure there are many other inbetweeners. I once saw a breakdown of how much money a farmer gets of the finished food products in the store and it is amazingly small, say a tenth or less of the price you pay. Interesting. And people have the gall to complain about farmers when store prices increase! Tell that to the fruit stand people. They may be some of the only ones who go direct to the public and sell their produce.

  9. Just to play devil’s advocate a bit:

    You say “We need rules to define what is important for every person to know and what isn’t.”

    To me, such rules would be, or result in, an example of the kind of thing you are concerned about. At least, any single set of effectively enforced such rules would be. Do you really want someone, or a small body of someones, deciding on and enforcing what EVERYONE should learn? (Actually, it occurs to me that we are getting perilously close to that with No Child Left Behind, but that’s another topic.)

    I think there is very little that truly needs to be universally known. And of course not all we know is, or should be, taught in school. I’m all for guidelines, rules of thumb, groups of people combining to promote knowledge they care about–but I wouldn’t want them to become too narrow, rigidly enforced, or (with regard to the groups of people) too powerful.

    With regard to specialization: We are as species adapted to live in a society, and it is an essential feature of these societies that no one does everything. Even in hunter-gatherer societies, let alone city-based societies, there is specialization and division of labor. It’s a bit scary, because we aren’t and can’t be totally self-reliant, not even us Americans, and these days we have to depend on people we will never know or even meet. Sometimes when I think about this–the incredible degree to which we are intertwined and interdependent, the amazing complexity of modern society–I wonder if there isn’t something rather wonderful about it. And for each of us individually, I think it may be a good spiritual exercise to loosen our grip on our ego and contemplate our interdependence from time to time.

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