The Nexialist approach: Van Vogt and the idea that ‘specialisation is for insects’

Gautham Shenoy August 4, 2017

Robert Heinlein was a great believer in what is known in literature as the ‘competent man or woman’, who exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge. He wasn’t one for specialisation, as this oft-quoted extract from his 1973 novel, Time Enough for Love, makes amply clear, “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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

“Specialization is for insects”  

That’s not to say he decried specialists. Specialisation – even hyper-specialisation – has its place in the world, but with the world looking increasingly at ‘synergy’ to solve the big problems and companies looking at ‘generalists’ to enable inter-disciplinary collaboration to navigate the future, people who can work as ‘map-makers’ are increasingly important. It’s perhaps time to look beyond specialisation and the now-famous, often-contested ‘10,000-hour rule’. Made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, the rule states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to gain mastery in any field.

While that may work great for people in music and sports, where the fundamental rules don’t change, it falters at the hurdle of business, where the rules and the playing field can be different from one day to the next, with change being the only constant.

One person who did decry specialisation was the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, who called it the enemy of synergy. And he had his reasons. In his highly influential 1975 volume of essays, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Fuller writes, “We are in an age that assumes that the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable… In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases…”

The current buzzword or description for a non-specialist is the term ‘expert generalist’, something that Elon Musk is held to be the epitome of. And he is that. But is there a better term that would describe a non-specialist person whose chief skill is curiosity, generalist knowledge and an ability to integrate various disciplines and their specialists to solve a problem? As it happens, there is – and it comes to us from a science fiction novel from 1950.

Left: A. E. van Vogt in 1957. Right: The Panther Science Fiction edition of The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

Alfred Elton van Vogt or simply AE van Vogt was a Canadian science fiction author who at one time was spoken of in the same breath as an Asimov or a Heinlein. Philip K Dick – for one, among many others – credits van Vogt’s books with sparking his interest in sci-fi and storytelling and influencing his writing the most. To the extent that Dick modelled the character of the eponymous ‘Man in the High Castle’ on van Vogt (with a garnish of Heinlein).

In 1950, he wrote a novel – perhaps the first ever in sci-fi about the adventures of a starship’s crew to exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life – The Voyage of the Space Beagle (a nod to Charles Darwin’s book, The Voyage of the Beagle). The mission of the starship is to explore the limits of deep space and contact alien life forms, with the crew being made up of specialists from various sciences, and a person called Elliot Grosvenor from a new discipline called ‘Nexialism’.

“Nexialism? What’s that?” asks one of the crew members to the Nexialist (the term for one who practices Nexialism). “Applied whole-ism”, replies Grosvenor.

Van Vogt’s opinion was that specialists usually don’t know about things beyond their chosen area, and hence are unable to come out with non-traditional answers. Nexialism – derived from ‘nexus’ meaning connection – as per him, was about cross-fertilizing information from various disciplines, to connect the dots not normally connected, and to develop new ideas from these connections.

Van Vogt’s opinion was that specialists usually don’t know about things beyond their chosen area, and hence are unable to come out with non-traditional answers

To quote its definition from the book, ‘Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields.’ In other words, one that integrates the findings of more specialized disciplines into an effective problem-solving methodology, whose specialisation was to connect specialists from widely divergent fields.

And that’s what Gosvenor, the Nexialist, does over the course of the book. Initially looked down upon as a non-specialist and belonging to a non-science, Grosvenor quickly becomes the go-to person whenever they face an unexpected challenge, a life-threatening situation or a strange alien enemy, one even the size of a galaxy, bringing together the starship’s engineers, experts and specialists to come up with hybrid, workable and practical solutions that ultimately save the day.

Left: Cover of the first edition of The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Centre & Right: Other Editions

I know of at least one person who calls himself ‘an aspiring Nexialist’, even in his LinkedIn bio. Obviously a science fiction buff, and a collector – and reader – of sci-fi comics, Sharat Satyanarayana is a generalist by nature with varied interests who’s a troubleshooter-at-large to many start-ups and entrepreneurs across their lifecycles. In addition, he assists large incumbents with figuring out their innovation programs and – more importantly – what could kill them.

I asked him what his first reaction was when he found out about Nexialism and the term. This was his reply, “The first time I found out about Nexialism, my response was one of having found a calling. I always struggle to explain my wide ranging interests and the constant experiments I dabble in, mostly to learn and apply as appropriate.” In Sharat’s view, a Nexialist is the kind of person who can steer teams and organisations in the fast-evolving technological future with his/her ability to weave through data points that can seem irrelevant to the average specialist, and by connecting these dots between various disciplines, including art and the humanities.

In terms of Nexialism’s relevance to an automated future, he believes that hyper-specialists will be able to function and/or navigate efficiently and effectively only with the help of generalists as the map-makers. Nexialists – he says – will be required as the geek-mavens embracing their perceived stupidity in deep domains, yet skimming enough to pull out application-oriented narratives and ideas, and taking shallow dives as and when required.

“A Nexialist is the kind of person who can steer teams and organisations in the fast-evolving technological future by connecting the dots between various disciplines, including art and the humanities.”

To come back to van Vogt and The Voyage of the Space Beagle, Grosvenor tries to teach about Nexialism to the starship’s crew, but no one’s interested, initially. But over the course adventures and near-escapes, living to see another day thanks to Grosvenor and his Nexialist approach, more people get interested and the size of his class gets bigger, until every seat in the room is occupied.

So in the penultimate paragraph on last page of the novel, Grosvenor the Nexialist begins his lecture thus, “The problems which Nexialism confronts are whole problems. Man has divided life and matter into separate compartments of knowledge and being. And, even though he sometimes uses words which indicate his awareness of that wholeness of nature, he continues to behave as if the one, changing universe has many separately functioning parts. The techniques we will discuss tonight will show how this disparity between reality and man’s behaviour can be overcome.”

Van Vogt does not tell us what those techniques are, choosing instead to leave it to the reader to have grasped the hints about the benefits of a generalist approach and its outcomes, while having given it a nice little term that describes it very well: ‘Nexialism’.

On that note, I sign off for this week, and hope to see you here again next Friday as we look at yet another facet of – or nugget(s) from – science fiction. In the meanwhile, do share your thoughts, opinions, requests and suggestions in the comments below or tweet to us with #NWWonFD. Live long and prosper!