Friday, March 20, 2015

Where are the polymaths of days gone by? Who's going to make sense of it all?

Jonathan Haber dove whole-hog into online courses put up by major universities and worked his way through bachelor's worth of courses in a year, documenting his work online (@ As J. Peder Zane says in the Good Old Gray Lady (aka the NYTimes):
Mr. Haber’s project embodies a modern miracle: the ease with which anyone can learn almost anything. Our ancient ancestors built the towering Library of Alexandria to gather all of the world’s knowledge, but today, smartphones turn every palm into a knowledge palace.

And yet, even as the highbrow holy grail — the acquisition of complete knowledge — seems tantalizingly close, almost nobody speaks about the rebirth of the Renaissance man or woman. The genius label may be applied with reckless abandon, even to chefs, basketball players and hair stylists, but the true polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin seem like mythic figures of a bygone age.
Well, of course not. The Renaissance is, you know, so quattrocento.
But I quibble. The article is about all the information we have and how we're drowning in it and no one can get a grip on it all. Ain't that the truth? And before long Zane zooms us with that old chestnut about knowing more and more about less and less.

But there may be some hope:
If the information age makes knowledge seem like a straitjacket, David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, notes that progress often hinges on those rare individuals who have escaped its bonds. Artists from Picasso to Bob Dylan and entrepreneurs including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs changed the world by finding “radically new ways of looking at old problems,” Mr. Galenson said. “They cut through all the accumulated stuff — forget what’s been done — to see something special, something new.”
Well, yep, Dylan, Gates, and Jobs, are smart all right. But I'm not quite sure they're the models we need, nor is Picasso. 

Are we well and truly f**ked? If so, well, then we've f**ked ourselves.

Carry on.

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