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    21st Century Renaissance Man
    Project: Start your own revolution, Polytopia

    Polymath (from Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, "having learned much"); a person whose great knowledge is not restricted to one subject area. Aristotle, Galileo, da Vinci, Jefferson, Goethe, Tesla.

    I've found that a defining trait of learning in the information age is the lack of specialisation. I do not spend my free time drudging through reports and essays relating to a particular selected interest or field. Instead I get lost in wikipedia, following interesting links as I get bored with the articles which contain them. In an hour I can go from ancient mound-building cultures, to hydrology, to environmental engineering, to noise pollution, to noise rock. I don't sit there and take notes, I sit there with dilated pupils, unblinking, my mind bent on devouring this information, because I found it, I sought it out under my own power and for my own internal advancement. It doesn't matter if what I learn is incomplete because I will never be tested on it directly and will never need to use it in the workplace.

    I think this way of learning can genuinely be called 'self-directed' in the sense that it's the method thats in control, not me. I don't really 'choose' what to click on, I just can't help my self. My knowledgebase grows like a Stromatolite in zero gravity; tendrils of interest at play, sprouting outwards in every direction, depositing the solid waste of experienced information. My mental movements follow the lay of the land and the landscape before me is defined by where I've been; theres a kind of feedback going on there.

    I like the Stromatolite analogy I used a few seconds ago. Another good one is the growth of our living spaces. The traditional approaches to education can be compared to traditional approaches to city planning. A grid is laid down and parcels are designated for specific purposes. Math, history, science; Residential, commercial, industrial. The result is a neat, easily navigable structure.

    There is another way to build cities. Want to see some amazing space-filling algorithms in action? Open up google earth and zoom in on Mumbai, India. If you look closely you may see that the orderly gridded sections of planned city are surrounded by this sort of brown/grey mass, it squishes its self into every unclaimed nook and cranny. This mass is made up of corrugated sheet metal, stolen or salvaged construction materials and garbage, placed there by poor but innovative men and women. It is where they live their lives. Slums, or squatter cities, follow the lay of the land. Noone grades the earth flat before the shanties are built, noone imposes a template to follow. And so it is with self-guided education.

    Back to my original statement, the polymath. What really makes a 'Renaissance Man' or 'Renaissance Woman'? If one learns everything to know about chemistry, and everything there is to know about biology, does that make one equal to a single chemist plus a single biologist? I think this is where it gets interesting. The synergy of the cross-disciplinism will take the individual to a greater level than two mere specialists. It's 1+1=3, more than the sum of parts. I think the exponential nature of synergy is where genius really comes from.

    However, no one learns everything there is to know about a field of knowledge by surfing the web, lets not fool our selves. Instead you learn a lot of little tidbits from a vast array of topics. But think... Could there be a threshold at which the synergistic wisdom brought on by the diversity of aquired knowledge surpasses in usefulness the type of tightly focused education reccomended to us by the institutions of the past?

    I'd like to put all this in the context of the world we're moving into. The temporal speed at which we move now already requires constant adaption. We can't think the same way about next month as we did about last month. To make things even more interesting, the speed of advancement is doubling, regularly. No one has seen anything yet. It is my view, or hunch that the type of knowledge that I have described will be immensley useful for an individual living in this new world. If you know a little about everything you have a lot of built-in redundancy, you can take set-backs, survive. Diversity makes a system dynamic, flexible and prosperous.

    So, renaissance people of the new world, prosper!

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    Wildcat     Fri, Nov 7, 2008  Permanent link
    Very interesting and compelling post :

    "I think the exponential nature of synergy is where genius really comes from."

    "Diversity makes a system dynamic, flexible and prosperous."

    I particularly liked these two statements, which to my mind are directly implied by the polytopia, hence in a polytopia, polymaths (people that "have learned much") are the new breed of 'common grid beings' when these polymaths become 'collaborative agents', they are called polytopians?

    Jason J. Gleeson     Wed, Aug 11, 2010  Permanent link
    “Why do you ask the same questions every year?”, asked the student to Einstein: “because the questions stays the same, but the answers keep changing”.

    Most ideas come from outside the institutions that where setup to foster these ideas - as they are inspired by real life situations and the real world. Not some abstract intellectual theorising. Traditional teaching methods teach the importance of principles and pattern recognition. Principles and pattern recognition are not the tools by which discoveries are made, they tend to hold progress back and close the mind to free inquiry and experimentation.

    Analytic science has achieved wonders, now it is time to focus on the revellent parts to understanding the full mosaic of what is relevant. Understanding events, objects, processes and their relationship to one another - rarther than isolated analytic science, is now more important than ever. Science ignorant of conscience or consequences is foolishness.

    Chemistry that shrugs at pollution, biomedical cures that also harm, genetically modified agriculture with unforeseen consequences, nuclear technology for global dominance and control, economics that pay no regard for the caring capacity of the earth resources, technology that does not enhance the lives of everyone. We shall have to re-write science from the ground up, with the parts that are now relevent and have the best interests of the earth and all its inhubitants as its core.

    Today most professionals specialise in very specific technical and analytical fields they often lack the ability understand their relationships together into a meaningful instructive mosaic. Cancer, murder, crime, environmental devastation, war, PTSD are all invariably linked.

    Some of my thoughts_GREAT POST_!!! Thanks - J...
    Olena     Thu, Aug 12, 2010  Permanent link
    Nice post, thanks!

    I linked to a couple of mine; it's good we're all thinking about these things...

    The only point I disagree with is the 1+1=3, even if I'm a fan of the Polymath concept.
    It hasn't been proven that this is possible so far, even in cases like Leonardo or Tesla. They were brilliant but still biased, or more appropriately, they still specialized to an extent.
    In any field there are important intricacies, so when concentrating on two or more at once it's more likely that one will skip over those.
    But at the pace we are moving, maybe this kind of synergy will be possible in the future.
    AsylumSeaker     Sun, Aug 15, 2010  Permanent link
    Hi Olena, thanks for the comment.

    I think the 'synergy' I was talking about comes from two places.

    Firstly it comes from the creation of new talents by combining disperate ones. If you're a biologist and an architect for example then you're both of those, but you can also combine those fields into a new field called bioarchitecture, and you can just see the extra potential in that based on the word alone. You get the skills of both your fields, plus the combinatory skills that emerge.

    Secondly it comes out of evading the diminishing returns of specialisation. A specialist of 10 years experience is perhaps twice as good as one of 5 years, however is a specialist of 20 years really twice as good as one of 10 years? It doesn't really seem so. It's not that as specialists age they get worse at learning, or that they run out of things to learn, it's that the applicability of what you can learn in one field is not infinite. If instead of focusing on one field you spend 10 years each in 2 seperate fields, or 5 years each in 4 seperate fields you could attain all the most applicable skills of those fields and thus have more efficiently used your time. This isn't synergy per se but it's important.

    I do agree that a focused study of one field gains a far more comprehensive understanding and I believe we do need some people specialising like that. It will always be specialists who expand on fields since they will know their fields best. Specialists will always be needed as consultants and as members of teams. Such people are essential, but I think specialisation its self will become a specialised position as the all-rounder / polymath becomes more dominant due to its practicality and flexibility.

    Apollo     Thu, Nov 11, 2010  Permanent link
    Very interesting piece! Appropriately, your writing led me on a wild chase for information which took me everywhere from Stromatolites to Mumbai to the distant surface of Mars! Your comment on the relationship between synergy and genius is particularly thought-provoking. Many thanks.
    Phyllotaxis     Sun, Mar 6, 2011  Permanent link
    I appreciate the logic of this essay.

    In particular, the emphasis on the autodidactic method of learning.

    The broad principle of teaching yourself *to your satisfaction* on a topic is a powerful indicator of an active learner. I relate to the process laid out in your writing. When I think of learning, I visualize myself as a rocketship with infinite fuel and finite time.
    The only limit to what I can learn is the external limit of biology. The important distinction here is that I do not believe that limit is intellectual, it is purely time.
    My body will die, and my infinitely-derived arrangement of experiences, and their logically (and emotionally, if you make a distinction) drawn conclusions, will someday cease to be available to draw upon, and will only then cease to grow. The tiny exceptions are the letters and concepts available in places like this, where our concepts can continue to impact the breathing aware.

    The power of The Renaissance Man becomes much clearer when analogised simply.

    It is one thing to understand ink, and another to understand paper.
    But understanding both allows writing, art, and extended permanence of ideas without which our civilization could never have blossomed.


    The fundamental, axiomatic way of understanding the collective harmony and interaction/expression of similar truths in varied disciplines of study is what makes that knowledge applicable to everything else.

    Applying knowledge to all available problems is the simplest form of experimental proofing, and the best way to cement its applicability. This is how axiomatic application of economic principles can explain human actions in groups. This axiomatic application explains the division of labor, and it also explains people like us- the autodidacts that choose to skim through the primary points of a given set of knowledge before moving on to different sets.

    It is a mark of intelligence to use a butane lighter instead of a flint, tinderbox, and striker because the goal is to start a fire. We use the distilled logic of other peoples specialization to un-shackle ourselves from the time that would have to be spent in retracing the steps that were taken for the specialist to proof them.

    Thus, The Renaissance Man uses the simplest, most immutable truths to verify that something works, and while understanding why, does not confine himself to that reflection. The important function of this perspective is to apply the truths to greater problems, and discover how they all work together.

    The division of labor is a function of reality that is defined as the level of interest in the individual laborers. There is a single, unifying goal that underlays all of it, and that is removing the most scarce commodity of all- time.

    Everything we do to advance our reality involves saving time. Making inventions and solidifying understanding so that attention can be directed towards the things we have not figured out yet.

    Digital tools have exponentially advanced this goal, but the function is the same, and I believe that our "selective attention without depth" in the digital world is, in fact, drawing us together in a mutually-recognized "total reality" that is built on a latticework of fundamental truths that only become apparent to those with the scope of understanding to see the big picture.

    You don't need to understand the details of geology, chemistry or physics to understand that they are different scale-points in the continuum within which we all exist. Understanding time then becomes a simple function of scale, of resolution, which itself comprises the universe/reality that we occupy.

    Keep up this meta-awareness, for it will lead us to understand fundamental truth as it has never been available to us before.