November 19, 2010

The Widening of Frontiers

birthday balloonsWe live in an incredible, wonderful time. I call our time the Age of Wikipedia. Our understanding of the world around us has been exploding, and access to that knowledge exploding even faster. A child with access to the Internet has riches of knowledge that da Vinci and Darwin could have only dreamed of.

We are all beneficiaries of mankind's increased knowledge. Our standard of living is directly impacted by new inventions, new manufacturing processes, and new discoveries. But there has been one casualty of this rapid explosion of information.

The Age of Wikipedia has killed the Renaissance Man. Da Vinci made significant contributions to our understanding of anatomy, astronomy, engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, and made smaller contributions to many other fields.

Today, nearly all of the incredible breakthroughs that da Vinci made are taught in first-year classes in their respective disciplines. Like a balloon that is continually expanding, the frontiers of our knowledge keep growing. The balloon of human knowledge in da Vinci's time was small enough that he could help to expand it in multiple places.

In order to really study something, to make breakthroughs, you have to be at the edges. These days, we have a much larger balloon; it takes a lot more work to get to the edges. It really takes a PhD before you can hope to contribute to a field.

For an aspiring Renaissance Man like me, this can be depressing. When a subject catches my fancy, I often begin by looking it up on Wikipedia. I am quickly immersed by information, and the realization that the waters are much deeper than I realized.

For example, I have recently been enamored with the idea of simple actors (e.g., ants, businesses) working together to build something more complex than any of the individual actors understand (e.g., nests, economies). In my Internet research, I discovered that this is called emergence, and that there are branches of computer science and philosophy and biology and linguistics and sociology that focus on emergence. There is even an Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.

This idea that I had never considered before has an entire industry built around it. There are people who study it for a living. There are websites and magazines about it. This should be enabling and invigorating, but I generally find it depressing. It feels as though I would have to devote a lifetime in order to learn anything "new", anything that humanity doesn't already know.

It's hard to decide what ideas are worth a lifetime.

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