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Reblogged:How Compartmentalization Can Get in Your Way

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In a post about "Techie Luddites," tech blogger JCS notes a particularly striking example of compartmentalization, a cultural phenomenon that Ayn Rand commented on nearly fifty years ago:

newspapers.jpg
Thought experiment: Replace the newspapers with smart phones. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
... In an interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Morgan G. Ames tells us how many of the "technical elite" refuse to let their children use electronic devices such as phones, tablets, or computers and how they send them to schools that proclaim themselves to be traditional and tech-free.

As Ames points out, many of these technical people consider themselves to be the smartest people in the room and while that may be true regarding technology, they don't know anymore than the rest of us about child development or the wider social implications of technology. They are, in fact, subject to the same fashions and misinformation as everyone else.

If that claim seems a little overwrought, consider this shocking fact: at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, "[a] techie-dominated, tech-shunning school," only 35% of kindergarteners had been fully vaccinated before California made such vaccinations mandatory. If even the anti-vaxxers have established a beachhead among the technical elite, we must certainly abandon any claim to being immune to new luddism [sic]. [bold added, format edits]
This is alarming, but I disagree with the last sentence.

Why?

Let's first ask: How can otherwise intelligent adults fall for such obviously ridiculous ideas as the anti-vaccination movement, or the slightly less ridiculous idea that children shouldn't be exposed at all to electronic devices? By failing to integrate new knowledge outside their areas(s) of expertise. This failure leads them to ineffectively evaluate claims to knowledge that they otherwise would easily reject, or at least fail to realize the need to investigate such claims more thoroughly. And so we have someone who (for good reasons) couldn't imagine not safeguarding against a computer virus -- taking some random stranger's advice at face value (but checking it poorly, if at all) and failing to vaccinate his children.

Ayn Rand mentioned this phenomenon in her 1972 essay, "Selfishness Without a Self," but her student Leonard Peikoff fleshes out the idea more thoroughly in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:
A somewhat better case is the man who does integrate his mental contents, but only within an arbitrarily delimited square or compartment. An economist, for instance, may eagerly relate a new economic idea to other ideas within his field, but refuse to consider its implications for related fields (such as politics, ethics, history) or their implications for his own. "That's not my concern," such a man characteristically says about anything but his own specialty; "that's somebody else's domain." Ayn Rand calls this type of non-integration compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization is an improper form of specialization. It consists not merely in specializing, but in regarding one's specialty as a dissociated fiefdom, unrelated to the rest of human knowledge. In fact, however, all knowledge is interconnected. To cut off a single field -- any field -- from the rest of cognition is to drop the vast context which makes that field possible and which anchors it to reality. The ultimate result, as with any failure of integration, is floating abstractions and self-contradiction. A simple example is the conservative economists who scornfully dismiss philosophy, then advocate the profit motive in economics and the Sermon on the Mount in church.
Obviously, compartmentalization can lead to bad choices on the part of someone for whom this is a modus operandi. And this certainly can cause harm or inconvenience to others through their actions. But it can also cause problems for observers, who might subsequently have to get past prejudice this might induce. In my caption, I point to a humorous comparison of men reading smart phones versus men reading newspapers. That sure does make the digital minimalist crowd look like idiots, doesn't it?

Or does it?

The parents who won't let their kids have any screen time are generally being ridiculous, but we shouldn't let them cause us not to consider the merits of advice by those who, like Cal Newport, suggest using such devices much less frequently than many do. They -- and this is crucial -- give good reasons for the advice, as one might suspect when one starts considering the differences between newspapers and smart phones. For example, how commonplace was it for people to fall into holes or run into things a century ago, because they were reading newspapers as they walked or drove?

This is obviously not to say that we need to look afresh at every idea such people embrace, but we would do well not to let a compartmentalizer's apparent adoption of an idea weigh too heavily in how we evaluate that idea. That person does not really understand what he professes or does. As usual, one must do one's own thinking first-hand, as far as possible. (This doesn't make us not need to consult experts, for example.) It will not immunize against mistakes altogether, but I think it makes the mistakes less frequent, less severe, and much easier to correct when they have been made.

-- CAV

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