//02 December 2023

Generally speaking (part one)

As per usual, these thoughts have been marinating in my brain for a while and seeping through in conversations and in other writings. I tried to put them together here and see what comes out. And as always, this is not a last stance, rather a scaffold to stand on while building something more.

When your only tool is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When you have spent years, decades of your human life in dedication—devotion, even—to a field of study, it can consume you to a point where you just cannot see through a different lens. You cannot unsee the tags you’ve attached to concepts, you keep attaching the same tags to new concepts. In a sense, you cannot escape yourself.

This can be readily observed in senior academics. The more senior they are, the more likely their views have crystallised, and the more effort they need to exert in order to remain perceptive to foreign paradigms. Sure, there is variability in the extent to which they are aggressive and deliberate in their monopolisation of a topic. But even in cases of subdued and cautious disposition, more often than not the undercurrent of their dominant worldview is still there. And that means an air of tenuous disagreeableness is always present in the conversation. Whether that helps or harms the conversation is better to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But it definitely harms attempts at interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary academic stuff which has been all the rage for a while now.

Sadly, even the most junior students aren’t immune to that effect, either. Especially when they are shoehorned into working on an extremely niche subtopic from the very beginning, without first building up some appreciation for the intricacies in the broader field (let alone life itself!). Surrounded by peers with similar niche interests—plus a tunnel vision mindset and lack of life experience—and incentivised by labour economics, the result has been bemoaned many a time. A hyper-specialised society that somehow manages to be individually smart, but collectively dumb AND individually dumb, but collectively smart at the same time.

For a philologist, everything is a language. For a physicist, everything is a fundamental interaction. For a biologist, everything is an organism. And for a computer scientist, everything is a cockatoo.

Surely these statements sound overgeneralising and reductionist. An important touch of nuance is the distinction between is/can be. However, swapping “is” with “can be” doesn’t make a difference when the only effect is that you allow yourself to continue as if X is Y (been guilty of that myself in the past). For example, one could start with a sentence along the lines of “mathematics can be thought of as a language”, then proceed with writing hundreds of pages as if mathematics is а language, without examining this assumption in a deeper way.

By no means is this to imply that everything written after such an assumption is garbage. The quality of argumentation and the work’s worth as a whole are to be judged separately. What I am pointing out here is the approach, particularly when it is employed hand-wavingly, perhaps even unwittingly. Double points for irritation if this is also done while laying claim to interdisciplinarism. What happens instead is one discipline devouring another, often with the intention of borrowing a different hype train to what is effectively a ride home.

[A somewhat loaded and lazy (but adequate) example: using the hype about quantum computing to invoke the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in order to give credence to a completely unrelated claim about the non-binary nature of… -pick your poison-.

Another (imperfect) example: articles like this one, where the “dynamics of collective attention” are analysed through datasets from Twitter, Google Books, cinema ticket sales and the like. The maths may be cool and all, crunching the numbers on these datasets certainly is interesting, and the topic combines several keywords very much in vogue: attention, social media, Big Data. The conclusion also confirms our preconceived notion of “society is speeding up”. Just the perfect study to “scientifically validate” everyone’s hunches on the matter. What the discussion is lacking—one might argue—is examining the extent to which people’s behaviour online (as extracted from the raw data) is actually an adequate representation of “attention”. Sure, such a question is out of the scope of the work, I can already hear the chants. But why is it that such crucial points are so frequently left out of the scope? In this, I find more evidence for our failure to do interdisciplinary work.]

A single end result from this tactic might be securing research funding at the cost of annoying the academics whose sub-field you’ve ransacked united with yours. The cumulative end result is this ridge between disciplines, where no one listens to or understands each other and everything turns into an ego trip. At the same time, in the past century or so, intellectuals have published a flurry of ideas so unhinged that they convinced the world everything is possible, moreover—that everything is also pursuable.

Am I advocating that everyone should just stay in their lane? Often, when expressing criticism on an attempt at bridging the divide, it sounds like you’re gatekeeping. In fact, it is both true that you need narrow focus to become an expert on a thing, and that prolonged narrow focus stunts your growth in other directions. And perhaps, the people who might be better equipped to do interdisciplinary work are not a team of experts on vastly different topics, but a team including generalists.

What a strange and elusive animal, the generalist! We don’t get too excited about them. Much rather watch the violin virtuoso, the F1 pilot, the coffee expert. There aren’t many employers seeking generalists, though it sometimes sounds like it (the infamous example of the “full stack developer” being a code name for an overworked employee doing the job of a whole department). In academia as well, it seems, you would be wise to go to the professor who is the world expert on attosecond lasers or the science of umami taste. In fact, it is close to impossible to become an academic if you don’t carve a microniche for yourself. On top of that, “wisdom” and “common sense” have become dirty words that have no place in the life of a scholar (or “analyst”) so removed from life itself, since removing yourself from life itself is usually another prerequisite for a fruitful career in “science”/“academia”.

In the words of Frederick Hayek,

“civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.”

The modern world is built on this principle, which puts enormous weight on trust in the “system” and substantial pressure on its individual “cogwheels” to do the work/the right thing, since no one else can (either literally, or rather, no one else has the legitimacy). Sure, we can’t have the proverbial nice things if we don’t develop specialist knowledge and skills. But we need generalists to make sense of it all. And we would all benefit from a little more general knowledge in our daily lives. Everything from the right to repair our appliances to the maneuvering of social situations and connecting with others flows from this spring of cognition which we form by casting a wider net around us. By doing this, inter/multidisciplinary connections form naturally. You can’t help but trespass the boundaries between disciplines, many of which become arbitrary anyway.

I obviously struggle to express how much value I put in generalist knowledge/understanding and how much I lament its lack wherever I see it. Since this text is verging on word salad territory already, let’s part ways here. The next part will be more practically-oriented and more coherent. I hope.