My Boy Builds Coffins

My boy builds coffins with hammers and nails
He doesn't build ships, he has no use for sails
He doesn't make tables, dressers or chairs
He can't carve a whistle because he just doesn't care
    -- Florence and the Machine, "My boy builds coffins"

Carpentry is a pretty versatile skill; we haven’t yet stopped having use for wood. Not all carpenters are equally versatile. Some will turn their hands to anything. Others are like the coffin-builder, masters in one domain with no interest beyond it.

It isn’t just a matter of skill. Sure, a cabinet-maker has skills beyond those of a joiner. But if Florence’s boy went to the unemployment office, they’d push him towards, say, a job building tables. On a purely technical level, they might well be right.

Every domain has not just its own set of skills, but its own aesthetic, its own community of practice, its own motivation. If you get your joy building coffins, what’s the appeal of a chair?

The last decade of AI progress has wiped out any number of academic and creative niches. Decades of work in Natural Language Processing, for instance, is obsolete because GPT can do it better.

Progress tends to merge existing disciplines into a blob, before eventually spawning new offshoots. In the aftermath of a big paradigm shift like this, a few naive techniques beat the state of the art across many disciplines. Ten years from now, various areas will have learned how to layer their own skills on top of the basics. And with that, specialization and communities of practice will re-emerge, albeit not in quite the same constellations as before.

I’m writing this as somebody whose expertise has not been made obsolete by AI – I avoid that simply by not having such deep expertise in the first place! Yet even vicariously I feel a certain amount of grief for the work and skill confined to history. And even when that is a shared experience – I’m not aware of any cultural structure to recognize and channel that grief.