Sunday, October 07, 2012

Middlemen, Specialization and Birthday Parties

A child's birthday party as I remember them, both as child and parent, consisted of the child's friends and acquaintances coming over to his house, entertaining themselves with squirt gun battles in the back yard and/or party games or board games inside, singing  "Happy Birthday" and consuming (at least) cake and ice cream. The final stage was the opening of presents, followed by the retrieval of the guests by their parents,  the whole process more or less organized or chaotic according to the tastes and abilities of the hosts.

This afternoon I attended my grandson's birthday party. It was held at a facility obviously designed for holding children's parties. The entertainment, preceded by a safety video, consisted of playing on and in large inflatable structures—slides, a bouncy room, an obstacle course. That was followed by cake and pizza, after which everyone went home, the birthday boy accompanied by a bag of unopened presents. 

Looking at it as an economist, it is clear that the change from then to now represents an increased use of the division of labor, something that, as an economist, it is hard for me to object to. And yet I do, and I do not think the reason is entirely a conservative preference for the way things used to be. For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant. Homes have an emotional dimension to them. To invite someone into your home, whether an adult colleague or a child's friend, is to some small degree to treat him as part of your family.

Increased specialization, the substitution of commercial for home production, appears in a variety of other contexts. Another that I have observed is the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In the early years of the Society, thirty or forty years ago, if you wanted medieval clothing you researched it yourself and made it yourself or, if you were lucky, got a friend who was better at it to make it for you. The same applied to most of the rest of what you had—rattan swords, most or all of your armor, jewelery, tents, even shoes if you wanted something more period looking than you could buy in a shoe store.

Nowadays, you can go to the Pennsic War, the Society's largest annual event, or  online, and buy clothing, swords, armor, jewelery, tents, shoes. In some ways, it is a great improvement—the quality and authenticity of what you can buy, sometimes at quite reasonable prices, is considerably better than what most of us managed to make for ourselves. The best work now, done by specialists, is better than the best was forty years ago, and available to many more people.

Something is gained, but something else is lost. Part of the fun, in the early days, was having an excuse to learn and practice a wide variety of crafts, research things for yourself instead of depending on what other people told you.

At the most recent Pennsic, I made the acquaintance of a group that camped near us but that, for some reason, I had not previously encountered. Many of their tents, much of their furniture, they had made for themselves. They called themselves the clockmaker's guild, and one of their members had indeed built a clock, which he showed me. It was made of wood and worked without a pendulum, the pendulum clock being, he told me, an invention that appeared just after the SCA's cutoff of 1600 A.D.

All of which is how I knew that they were my kind of people.
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.
-Robert A. Heinlein


dWj said...

One of my main hobbies in the past several year (and the forum in which I met my wife) is Sacred Harp singing, in which we gather together and sing together, taking turns choosing songs. I've largely given up correcting people who ask about our concerts or rehearsals; we don't generally "perform". We just get together and sing.

I've thought if I were tasked with running the NEA (with an exogenous budget) I would try to steer funding away from art that specialists do and then present to "consumers" in favor of art as something that one does; perhaps one would hire specialists to instruct and lead and provide examples, but I think, probably in part because of my participation in Sacred Harp, that art is something you can only fully engage if you are involved in producing it, and that hiring it out makes as much sense as Douglas Adams's "electronic monk".

The thing to attend to in specialization is that you're not outsourcing the consumption of the good you want. I could pay someone to perform music for me; I could also pay someone to attend a concert on my behalf, so that I can spend the time on other things. While I'd like to know how to butcher a goat, I'm generally fine with buying my food from specialists, just as I'm glad I know how to do arithmetic but usually let my computer do it for me. In each case the value I place on engaging in the relevant activity is subject to quickly diminishing returns.

Hammerhead said...

Love your 'human' laundry list! But why a sonnet? Couldn't it just as well be a limerick or ballad or, heck, epic?

What do you make of a girls' pre-teen birthday party where the birthday girl was picked up in a limo at her public school and four selected friends were allowed to accompany her as all the other non-selected got to watch them drive away for an afternoon of shopping in a fancy New England coastal town, with parents' credit cards? This story reported by a friend of mine whose daughter attended that school (and was not in the party entourage).

Hammerhead said...

Oops, I see the list was Robert Heinlein's. Guess I can't ask him about sonnets vs. limericks, unfortunately.

RKN said...

I'm usually comfortable in the company of a polymath, the versatility of such people intrigues me. Practically speaking, however, versatility does not necessarily indicate competency. Setting my broken bone properly, or building my wall plumb, is best left to the specialist. Flaws in poetry I'm more likely to forgive, and forget.

SheetWise said...

As an archer, I usually shoot FITA rules -- but I've shot field archery with SCA a few times. I shoot barebow with a state of the art carbon/aluminum recurve using carbon/aluminum arrows and a spectra bow string. They shoot with handmade longbows, flemish string, wood arrows, and real feathers for fletching! We always, at some point, end up shooting each others equipment -- and I'm the one who walks away impressed with what they have. Other than being able to hit a target at seventy meters, their sport is a much richer experience.

Bear said...

If the SCA has drifted that far from researching and doing it yourself (ie- _learning_), I'm not sure I really want to go active again. I'm not active in the SCA now, but I still make paper, inks, and paints by hand from period materials ( I'd hate to think I'm one of the last SCA DIY crafters.

Simon said...

Great post. In possibly related news, Camille Paglia suggests that visual arts have been declining because of the dissociation between the arts and the crafts and industries.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Bear -

I think a lot of the shift is away from doing -everything- yourself, and towards intently focusing on a few things you do yourself, while relying on others for the rest. Still probably not good - but we're not abandoning research or anything.

(Although for fairness's sake, given my family, I should note that my viewpoint may be biased. OTOH, this is also from observing dancers, so...)

John said...

The approach is similar to why we still learn math even though we have calculators. Why not learn about both math and calculators? The priority needs to be on learning because that is where satisfaction and security come from. Nobody can learn something for you and then give you the knowledge and the satisfaction. People can guide you to what is most valuable and help you try to understand it, but it is ultimately a personal experience and a personal endeavor. If education today focused on the overarching principles in science, art, and religion, I think there would be more knowledge in general. Everybody would have a foundation to appreciate knowledge and skills which they could then forever build on. Specialization would increase because what was considered speciailized before would become general knowledge with a universal increase in intelligence, which I do think would occur with a better approach to education (meaning allow competition).

Bear said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I guess I read too much into that post (but, in my defense, it did seem to illustrate a trend I saw before I went inactive, at least in Meridies). I never _did_ everything myself (although Fred down in Yeoman's Wood claimed I did [grin]); But I _tried_ darned near everything at least once, if only to prove to myself that I could. I seemed to be an exception. For me, that was one of the main attractions of the SCA; I've always been interested in "obsolete" technology and techniques.

Of course, there was Ansel the Barrister, who went so far as to grow his own barley and hops for his beer...

Rebecca Friedman said...


Our dance-master here keeps bees - and makes various beverages with the honey.

I think you're right that there -is- a trend, and I do think it's unfortunate. Another of the people here didn't seem to think of making her own clothes (as opposed to buying). So... it varies. My impression is the best people in any given science will be significantly above where they used to be (there are always neat things at Pennsic; I remember my father telling me about someone distilling rosewater using medieval technology -at the A&S Display- at Pennsic a few years ago; in dance, we've steadily been learning more and more as well) but, more specialization, less doing everything yourself. And less to do that someone else hasn't already done, and done better, which I worry makes things less interesting for newcomers.

Bear said...


"And less to do that someone else hasn't already done, and done better, which I worry makes things less interesting for newcomers."

(bearing in mind that I haven't been active for years, so maybe this is out of date) _That_ was essentially the problem I thought I was seeing back then. I thought at the time that it should be blamed on laurel system, at least has handled in the kingdoms I'd lived in. If a person was hoping for recognition in A&S, he had to be _the_ best or the _the_ first at something in particular (and be good at marketing himself toTPTB), or there wasn't much point in trying. Me, I didn't really care is someone else was doing something; I wanted to see if _I_ could do it. Personal satisfaction, but nothing else.

I knew of a case: Typical shire; A&S officer always requested that shire members keep him updated on _all_ their activities so he'd have lots to report. One member was always doing something: armoring, jewelry, clothing, footgear, brewing, cooking, and so on. He always told A&S what the latest was. Another shire member was doing some weaving that no one else around there had picked up yet.

A&S officer started passing out copies of his kingdom report at shire meetings. Guy noticed that none of his stuff was listed, asked why. A&S told him he was doing too much and it made everyone else look bad, and it wasn't as if his work was the _best_ anyway like the weaver.

Lesson learned for newbies: If you can't be the best at the start, don't even bother because you'll get no support nor brownie points for trying.

Rebecca Friedman said...


I'm not sure the problem there isn't the focus on the A&S "contest" approach, honestly.

The point of reconstructing a dance isn't to win a contest or get an award, or even get recognized; it's to have another lovely dance you can do. The point of sewing a dress is (for me) a mixture of the joy in making it (both actual fun process and "Hey I made my own dress -how cool is that-?!") and, well, now I have a dress! Again, my view may be biased given my family - but I've always thought the point in doing things is to do them, not to get an award.

I will probably never get a laurel; I'm working mostly in dance, and there just isn't that much laurel-class work to do. Additionally, a lot of what I do is teaching the work of others; my own work is mostly detail stuff, working from and doing detailed translations from the Italian to try to get the steps we use closer to the steps described in the books - which is reeeeeaaaaalllly not laurel-level. But - a laurel isn't my goal. If I teach my favorite dance at Pennsic long enough, I'll be able to -dance- my favorite dance at Pennsic. And for me, that makes it more than worth it.

(Mind. Official recognition is not the only recognition. Getting to know awesome people is also part of the reward. But at least in my part of the SCA, that has not been a problem at all. People notice when you do cool stuff.)

That said - I'm pretty sure laurel standards have relaxed a little. This can be seen as good or bad, depending what you see the laurel as... a reward for exceptional achievement and contribution to, ultimately, human knowledge, or something you're expected to have, like an AoA.

... As I said. My view may have been a liiiiittle biased by my family.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Darn it! So sorry for double post - it said it hadn't posted! David, if you can remove the extra, please do so? Sorry again!

Patri Friedman said...

I see DIY/generalization vs. commercial/specialization as being a matter of consumption vs. production.

Doing things yourself is visceral, it's what we evolved with, and so it feels (and is) fun and rich and rewarding. Yet it's far less efficient - our wealth comes from specialization and trade. If we all grew our own food, it might be organic and delicious but there wouldn't be 7 billion people and I couldn't be using a computer.

And I think most people would get a lot more emotional joy out of saving one life directly than saving 100 statistically. The direct save is personal - they get eye contact, a handshake, a thank you card. But if people only saved lives directly, one at a time, there would be a lot more deaths.

I think it's confusing because making things by hand feels like production - after all, you're making something! But if it could be done cheaper by specialization and mass-production, then you are doing it for the extra fun, so really it's consumption.

I think it's an awesome form of consumption, I love being around people who make stuff for fun, and one of the things I love about Burning Man & Pennsic is they are full of makers. But it's still consumption.

I think your "having an excuse" is key here. If you love making things, then a situation where that's the most efficient way to get things lets you do the most fun thing. But surely it isn't better to force people to make things themselves whether or not they enjoy it. When commercial alternatives are available, people who want to DIY still can - and they can choose what to DIY based on their preferences, free time, budget, etc. (And lots do - look at Etsy, or Make magazine). The people who stop DIYing are the ones who prefer to specialize.

That said, I think there is something special about islands of DIYness in the world where crafters and generalists can go to visit the ancient world where there was no mass-production. And it's sad when they go away, even when it means something (like the SCA, or the internet) is becoming accessible to more people. But there are always new islands on the frontier of production...

This is a culture clash we have in seasteading a lot, BTW, where people get excited because they think that floating countries means that everything will be DIY, and they want to build all their own infrastructure. While I maintain that DIY governance can easily be better than what's currently available, but when it comes to power, water, food, etc, we're better off relying on commercial solutions. Especially as it scales. People find "DIY everything" to be romantic, but I don't want to live in a city with Burning Man's infrastructure. And I don't think they actually do either. Or they would be living off-the-grid right now. But it's the same kind of thing - it seems like building a new country gives them an excuse to do everything the old-fashioned way.

Bear said...

(Nota bene: If you haven't already checked my web site and figured it out, I was a little bitter about the SCA and the direction it was going back when. That faded enough that I've been thinking about going active again, but not entirely.)

I've ego enough for any 4-5 normal people; I would have liked some recognition back then. But I didn't care about a lot of the formal contests and such. I'd have settled for "Tiberius? Yeah, he does a lot of cool stuff." What I got was... I made a lot of armor. Not fancy, just functional. Stuff that would get newcomers out of the carpet and into something more protective and a little more period. By the time I quit, I couldn't go to a combat event without seeing some of my gear on the field. But the only folks who knew I was doing it were in my home shire where I was literally told that it was my _job_ to make whatever free armor anyone in the shire wanted, whenever they wanted it, and to shut up when I heard some recipient of a set of gauntlets/etc. claim to have made them himself. (Guess why I quit the SCA; hint- it had something to do with being told that if I didn't like it that way, to get out.) I made my last piece of armor for another person in 1994.

At least at that time, Meridies was incredibly bad about the whole clique/nepotism deal; if you weren't in the right crowd, you didn't get even informal (non-SCA, mundane) peer approval. And you were dirt if you didn't have a tin hat of some sort (I knew of several people who wouldn't "hear" a simple "Good day, m'lord" unless the speaker had a circlet or better).

At the other end of the spectrum was the (then Principality) Outlands, where "Ooooh, new armor. Can you show me how to do that? Thanks! Hey guys, look what Giovanni did!" was normal. Interestingly, Meridies disallowed an Outlands AoA. Drachenwald (principality) was middle of the road. Informal recognition was normal, but formal recognition for anyone not in the "clique" was as likely as winning the lottery.


"DIY/generalization vs. commercial/specialization": I don't doubt that value of specialization and a divided labor economy. I'd be... hard pressed to etch my own microchips to build a laptop. [grin] I was limiting my discussion to the SCA, which -- in my own, admittedly dated, view -- IS one of those "islands of DIYness"; the point being to learn as much as possible about long ago life by trying as much as possible. But I saw it tending toward _excessive_ (even a DIY island has to specialize some, if only for lack of time) specialization, with people who couldn't pitch a tent or boil water for morning coffee getting laurels for very specialized and truly beautiful seed pearl work on a dress. A dress that she couldn't actually make herself. While the generalists like myself, who could do a lot, but didn't specialize enough to produce the one masterpiece level item, got blown off. Sure, we're the ones folks came looking for when stuff needed doing; but we were also the ones left at the back of the hall when credit for doing it got passed out in court.

Rebecca Friedman said...


Yes, I checked a post or two back, so I recognized the story. I caught the bitterness. And I've heard that groups vary, and some are really heavily and unpleasantly politics-ridden; I'm just lucky enough to have ended up in ones where that wasn't an issue. Well, lucky enough and following-my-family enough.

I will say though... The Laurel and the Pelican are different awards, and ditto the lesser awards in those areas. Making armor for people sounds a lot more like Pelican-type work - service - than Laurel-type work to me. Both of which are valuable and worthy of recognition... but not the -same- recognition.

Bear said...


Well... _my_ armor certainly wasn't Laurel (artistic) class. [grin] Nor was I looking for a Pelican; I must wanted to get enough people armored up that I'd have _someone_ to spar with through an entire fighter practice. Since I did start the Laurel bit, maybe I should have tried to recall a different example, but it still illustrated the "don't bother unless you're connected/perfect" problem I was seeing.

I think I'll stop now before I convince myself to never ever give the SCA another shot. [grin]

Rebecca Friedman said...


Fair! And armor definitely -can- be laurel class. But arts-type activities can go into arts or service, depending on... well, how you're doing them.

But yeah. All I can really say is... different groups are different. (And different groups of people within different groups... you get the idea.) Sounds like your local group really wasn't so great, but on the bright side... that isn't all the SCA! Some groups can be a lot better.

If you do rejoin, good luck finding one! If not (either way, actually) - good luck in general!

Mark Bahner said...

"For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant."

Most kids have seen their friends' houses. But ask Eric Cartman, and he'll tell you Shakey's pizza is the most awesome place in the world.