OSD 251: A very particular set of skills, part 2
The downsides of specialization.
Last week we made the positive case for influencers getting more and more specialized over time:
The internet is as dense with ideas as New York City is dense with people. So the critical mass problem disappeared — if an audience exists for a content niche, there’s no structural reason they can’t find it. And the minimum viable audience size only gets smaller over time, as the costs of producing and distributing content continue to plummet. Say it takes 100 true fans to make a business viable. Back in 1911, there were at least 100 people interested in hypertechnical silencer data. But Pew Science would have failed if it launched back then, because it would have been impossible to find and reach those first 100 true fans. Today that’s a non-issue. Distribution is free and content is king.
That’s good news for building up a culture, because it means that increasingly, everybody can build their niche within that culture. The more specialized the better, because the fans will be all the more passionate.
The flip side to that is … well, imagine the following story.
Open Source Defense is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Radio just got invented, and you’re pretty excited about it. You buy (or more likely build) some equipment and start talking with your local radio friends. There are some (mostly theoretical) problems with completely unfettered access to amateur radio, so the governments sets up a licensing scheme. You and your friends get licensed and start setting up rules to keep everything orderly. The rules can be pretty hard to understand, so you set up training courses for newbies to learn the rules, and eventually the government requires newbies to take tests to prove they know the rules. The test requires some studying, so you set up even more newbie training to make sure they know what’s going to be on the test.
And so in ham radio, as in many nerdy domains, over time the rules ended up strangling the very culture they intended to make more orderly. This isn’t unique to ham radio. You know this dynamic well if you ever tried, say, explaining hunting licenses and tags to a newbie.
“OSD 235: Guns are for nerds” explained it like this:
The implication here is that your tech can’t go mainstream until your users don’t know or care how it works. For people who care about a technology, that’s a scary thought. Car people lament that when you open the hood of a new car, you just see a sheet of plastic. Computer people worry about billions of people blindly entrusting their data to the convenience of a few companies’ centralized cloud services.
Those are reasonable concerns. But the lesson of history is that if people need to care how your tech works, then a lot of people just aren’t going to use it. That’s counterintuitive for fans of tech, because our passion is to get people to love the tech we care about. So there’s a simple choice to make. If you want your tech to be for hobbyists, make your users love learning about it. If you want your tech to be for everybody, make your users not need to know anything about it.
There are two versions of specialization. One is where a culture caters better and better over time to every niche, meeting new sets of people where they’re at. The other is where a culture draws increasingly inward, building out layers of arcane practices like moats for newbies to cross.
The first uses specialization as a discovery mechanism to improve itself and find effective onboarding strategies.
The second uses specialization as a way to entrench to the status quo. The particularly dangerous thing here is that this is often inadvertent. Specialization (think of the ham radio example) emerges as a way to help newbies navigate. But in these cases it ends up entrenching the very obstacles it’s trying to help newbies overcome.
This week’s links
Who’s going to SHOT Show? If you’re a subscriber, you’ll get an invite to the OSD party.
Reply to this email to RSVP. See you in Vegas.
From the Minnesota Law Review:
The Article traces the escalating punitive measures visited on gun offenders over the past half century. It first peers down into one microcosmic exemplar of firearms carceralism etched into federal mandatory minimum provisions and Supreme Court case law magnifying those penalties. It describes how criminal justice reforms have traditionally excluded those whose offenses are categorized as violent, and specifically and emphatically those who offend with guns by their side.
The days of the old “levels” of body armor are coming to an end. Finally, the National Institute of Justice released their long-awaited new armor classification guide. Let’s take a look at NIJ 0101.07 and NIJ 0123.00 to see what the new ratings look like.
Relates to a point we’ve made often that advances in gun tech accrue to constructive uses faster than destructive ones.
Consider cybersecurity. Moore’s law has taken us through seven orders of magnitude reduction in the cost of compute since the 70s. There were massive changes in the form and economic uses for computer technology along with the increase in raw compute power: Encryption, the internet, e-commerce, social media and smartphones.
The usual offense-defense balance story predicts that big changes to technologies like this should have big effects on the offense defense balance. If you had told people in the 1970s that in 2020 terrorist groups and lone psychopaths could access more computing power than IBM had ever produced at the time from their pocket, what would they have predicted about the offense defense balance of cybersecurity?
Contrary to their likely prediction, the offense-defense balance in cybersecurity seems stable. Cyberattacks have not been snuffed out but neither have they taken over the world. All major nations have defensive and offensive cybersecurity teams but no one has gained a decisive advantage. Computers still sometimes get viruses or ransomware, but they haven’t grown to endanger a large percent of the GDP of the internet. The US military budget for cybersecurity has increased by about 4% a year every year from 1980-2020, which is faster than GDP growth, but in line with GDP growth plus the growing fraction of GDP that’s on the internet.
OSD Discord server
If you like this newsletter and want to talk live with the people behind it, join the Discord server. The OSD team is there along with tons of readers. See you there.
Gun apparel you’ll want to wear out of the house.
Thanks for reading Open Source Defense. Subscribe to get a new post every Monday.