Unstrengthened and unilluminated: How specialists are failing the rest of us



In 1959, J. Robert Oppenheimer delivered a talk entitled "Tradition and Discovery" to the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies.

In it, he spoke of what he saw as an imbalance in knowledge:

The imbalance between what is known to us as a community, what is common knowledge, what we take for granted with each other, and in each other, what is known by man; and on the other hand, all the rest, that is known only by small special groups, by the specialized communities, people who are interested and dedicated, who are involved in the work of increasing human knowledge and human understanding but are not able to put it into the common knowledge of man, not able to make it something of which we and our neighbors can be sure that we have been through together, not able to make of it something which, rich and beautiful, is the very basis of civilized life... We learn of learning as we learn of something remote, not concerning us, going on on a distant frontier; and things that are left to our common life are untouched, unstrengthened and unilluminated by this enormous wonder about the world which is everywhere about us, which could flood us with light, yet which is only faintly... perceived.”

There is much that is being explored and learnt by small special groups and specialized communities within our constellation of industries.

Network scientists are learning about social cascades. Marketing scientists are learning about the mechanics of categories and brand growth. Creative technologists are learning about what can be built. Researchers are exploring new ways of understanding people’s preferences, motivations, perceptions and choice. Data analysts are learning how to extract practical insight from ever bigger, ever more complex and varied data sets. The list goes on.

All of them are, to use Oppenheimer’s words, involved in the work of increasing human knowledge and human understanding. Or at least our industry's knowledge and understanding.

But while the company and tribal solidarity of  immediate peers may be a source of identity, strength, and comfort, if we fail to put the knowledge acquired into the common knowledge and toolbox of all of us, then we will remain as an industry, unstrengthened and unilluminated. Until this knowledge escapes the specialized communities, platforms, forums, departments, and silos, then we - agencies, clients and our wider industry - will only ever evolve at a glacial pace.

So to the specialists everywhere, I say (and indeed plead): Talk to the unbelievers and unconverted. Talk to the naysayers. Find and address the points of greatest resistance. Engage with those you regard with suspicion. Invite in the ignorant. Make friends with the Luddites and reactionaries. Interact with those on the opposite side of whatever divide you think exists. And don't expect them to come to you. Invite yourself as a specialist into the forums, platforms and conversations of the mainstream - however hard and frustrating that may be.

Increase the common knowledge of us all.

Bring the wonders of the distant frontier back home.