Robustness and facility are two virtues fundamentally at odds, and all complex systems, be they organisms, economies, or militaries, are subject to the trade off between them. While the relation between specialization and efficiency was noted by both Xenophon and Ibn Khaldun centuries earlier, widespread acceptance of the “drag” redundancy places on a system’s productivity did not come until publication of Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations. Mr. Smith uses the example of a pin factory to teach the general principle.
Mr. Smith does not present the primary drawback of this arrangement. With efficiency comes fragility. Ten men working by their lonesome produce a paltry number of pins, but the faults of one man do not destroy the efforts of another. In contrast, if something happens to one of the ten factory men and; his equipment, no pins get made and the factory must shut down. One bad cog puts a stop to the entire machine.
For the survivalist this is a problem pervading not only the pin factories, but all of modern society. Over the last century two trends have decidedly shifted society’s balance away from robustness and towards efficiency. Modern dependence on technology and the specialized knowledge needed to maintain it is the first of these trends; the second is the fusion of local communities with the global economy and larger political units. The day is past where a man is expected to know how to repair all that is on his property, grow his own food, or make and use his own fuel. In some cases this is simply the fruits of geographic isolation and economic specialization – the knowledge needed to raise livestock and plant crops is quite useless to the city dweller. Other cases reflect the ‘division of knowledge’ that inevitably comes with man’s growing understanding of and ability to manipulate the universe in which he dwells (e.g. few Americans know how to build a hard drive, much less a nuclear power plant). The rise of multinational conglomerates and global supply networks ensure that most of what we need is made far away; the eclipse of local civic and political institutions by national agencies erodes our communities’ capacity to solve problems without outside help. What we are left with is a culture of dependency, so ingrained as to be seen in our aesthetics. Explains Matthew Crawford in his excellent essay, “Shop Class as Soulcraft“:
At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.