The Frontal Cortex


David Foster Wallace on the increasing specialization of knowledge, or what I call the acronym boom:

Things are vastly more compartmentalized now than they were up through, say, the Renaissance. And more specialized, and more freighted with all kinds of special context. There’s no way we’d expect a world-class, cutting-edge mathematician now also to be doing world-class, cutting-edge philosophy, theology, etc. Not so for the Greeks–if only because math, philosophy, and theology weren’t coherently distinguishable for them. Same for the Neoplatonists and Scholastics, and etc. etc. (This is a very, very simple answer, of course, maybe right on the edge of simplistic.) [SNIP] We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius–which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise…. Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.


  1. #1 Joe
    September 19, 2008

    A specialist is someone that knows more-and-more facts about a smaller-and-smaller area of expertise, until she knows everything about nothing. When I was a post-doc at MIT I once talked to a tenured professor of nuclear physics who was ignorant about the fundamental aspects of optics. Thatís when I left the field (also, there were no academic positions available, but thatís another story). Great sympathy for the late DFW and his lament on specialization from this reader.

  2. #2 Ren Galskap
    September 19, 2008

    It seems to me that there was a subject shift midway through that quote. It started off talking about communication across specialties, and shifted to the problem of finding someone who can explain things that you need to know to solve immediate, practical problems (e.g. computer damage, cancer). The reason I don’t know about the use of the theory of relativity in physical cosmology is that I don’t have the time to learn about it. The reason my father can’t get help with his computer when his sons are not around is that he can’t find anyone else with the time to explain things to him. When dealing with communication across specialties, we’re limited by our own time constraints and our own motivation. When trying to get information about immediate problems, we find that we have the time and the motivation, but we’re limited by other people’s time constraints and motivation. IT specialists and doctors are paid for solving problems, not for imparting information. Specialists are usually willing to explain a given aspect of their specialties to non-specialists, but only if it doesn’t take too much time.

  3. #3 Cody
    September 19, 2008


    Knowing everything about nothing is not the limit, as this PhD comic beautifully illustrates.

New comments have been disabled.