The Internet, The Polymath, and the (hopeful) Death of Specialization

The Internet, The polymath, and the (Hopeful) Death of Specialization - a metaphor

Pardon me while I speculate wildly.

I was at a work conference earlier this year. The theme was around disruptive and continual innovation, and to that end, one of the keynote speakers was Futurist, Brian David Johnson. He’s the Futurist in Residence at the Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University. I’m not really familiar with any of his work, but he gave a really interesting talk on thinking through technological evolution.

There was one quick, short thing he said that got me thinking about a few ideas I’d been batting around in my head about our modern obsession with the specialization of knowledge over a breadth of knowledge. It was a little comment that got a quick laugh but wasn’t really pursued, for no fault of his own, it wasn’t really as relevant to his full talk.

He was talking about that fear you hear about from news articles and pundits about how technology is making us dumb by allowing us to off-load our memories and knowledge to digital storage (computers and internet). He likened it to a similar fear that popped up around the time following the invention of the printing press.

And then the kicker…what happened after the printing press was invented…the renaissance.

A New Type of Person

Now my 14th-century history might be a little murky, but I do know that printed words certainly increased literacy and the sharing of knowledge across the more learned class of Europe. And this sharing of knowledge certainly freed up people to bounce disparate ideas around geographical areas and attack problems from a multiplicity of angles. I mean, think Da Vinci. He’s painting, he’s inventing, he’s cutting up cadavers. He is the definitional renaissance man. (sorry ladies, we’ll just call them Renaissance people).

So a renaissance person is someone who cuts across multiple, often unrelated, disciplines for what? I don’t know what Da Vinci’s motives are, but I image they’re rooted in a deep curiosity about the world he lives in. A curiosity opened by cheap and available content, limited by nothing other than imagination.

And this isn’t just a passing fancy. Without the Renaissance, you don’t have the enlightenment, and without the enlightenment, you don’t really have modern economic and political structure. So really, imagination, curiosity, and a sizeable and widely available repository of knowledge are responsible (good and bad) for the world we all live in today.

I mean, we’re talking about the beginning of modernity here.

A Newer Type of Person

But then you have to think about what’s happened over the past 100 or so years? With each passing year, the renaissance person was abdicated by the specialist. The printed book became a haven for research into the minutia of each discipline. People spend lifetimes aggregating piles of data only to make incremental moves forward in their field. And the result is self-made blinders.

Until what? You got it! The Internet. Facebook, blogs, AOL, bulletin boards, YouTube, snap chat. Mother fucking Wikipedia! Good lord. Never, since the printing press has knowledge opened up so many doors at once.

You’re a carpenter that wants to know who ruled Spain in 1435? Google it.

You’re a historian who wants to know how to build a birdhouse? Youtube it.

The democratization of information, and the offloading of information into the cloud is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I’ll tell you why.

Your brain is not meant to hyper-specialize. It is not meant to store data. It isn’t a hard drive.

The Original Person

Your brain is a processor. It excels at finding patterns, drawing conclusions, putting two and two together.

And as the internet opens up vast doors of data for our mind, we too can begin to expand our creative insights across horizons just like Da Vinci did. And for now, it might be looking up long dead kings, but as we expand and attack problems and curiosity from new and confluent angles, who knows where we’ll get?!

Allow the interest to hold the world. It’ll be there until the bomb goes off or the zombies attack (and at that point who gives a fuck about birdhouses).

Free your mind. Let it work in the pursuit of processing information that enriches your value structure and creative pursuits. And as you go, allow your mind not to arbitrarily hold knowledge, but to closely vet the information you chose to hold close to the surface of your consciousness.

What did Bruce Lee say? “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

And Bruce Lee was kick ass.

This is the way of the polymath.

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The internet, like the printing press, changed the world by giving us access to epic amounts of info. With it, will we see the return of the polymath? Click through to find out more!