Idle Thoughts on Intellectual Assembly Lines

September 5, 2008

Here Bruce LaDuke puts “crowd sourcing” into a historical context that raises some interesting questions about the future of intellectual endeavor. Go here  if you don’t know what that term means and want a neat (and timely example) of how it works.

I’m not at all sure what an assembly line looks like in an intellectual setting and I’m even less sure of what it might mean in terms of how the various human component will be viewed by society at large. Just taking a casual glance back at the way we’ve treated human assembly lines in the past there seems an ambivalence of attitudes.

On the one hand, a craftsman able to perform every function of a line: a person who can build an engine from beginning to end, is given more respect than a person with just one of the necessary skills, boring cylinders, for example. We make television shows of organ makers, for example, but none on the guys that press the brass into the sheets the organ makers use. On the other hand, boring cylinders is hard work and requires a trained hand. Moreover, America’s factory workers are the backbone on which our prosperity is built. I’ve been very proud of all my relatives in various blue collar jobs and have never once faulted them for not being a craftsman, and I know I’m not alone. 

I don’t know if I will feel different about the intellectual assembly line. By now Wikipedia has been out long enough for me to 1) have participated in editing pages and 2) know people who have. But it hasn’t been around long enough that I know anybody whose soul employ is being one of the crowd sources.

At any rate, as a writer I don’t see myself sharing a skillset with the Wikipedians any more than I think the similarities between press releases and poems is anything more than superficial. It’s not a looking down on what they do. I find their work worthwhile in my day-to-day life. I just would never compare what they do to what I do.

But that’s just Wikipeida. Open source applications are a growing realm for this sort of intellectual assembly line. I imagine already that certain people are really good at creating certain kinds of widgets, themes, and other applications that are built for specific interactivity. If a really wonderful calendar widget comes out for Firefos, how long do we wait for its creator to make the same basic interface for Chrome? I’m coming from a place of ignorance here but breaking application work out from more holistic programming seems like just a subset of the larger craft. Do webapp specialist get viewed as peers of programmers or as something else altogether?

Of course, science has been using an assembly line system for awhile now so maybe I’m decades late in even wondering about this stuff.


  1. I wonder what is the smallest part you can possibly make on the intellectual assembly line. Maybe it’s when you have to type a word that you see on the screen in order to buy tickets on the Internet, and they tell you that you’re helping to digitize a classic work of literature.

  2. There are two things required for all knowledge working: 1) logical semantic structure and 2) questions (a realized lack of structure). Seeing knowledge in this way removes all of the confusion of terms that society has built up over the years.

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