Haven’t had a crappy pun title in awhile now.
Polymathy and Knowledge in the 21st Century (or, “The Crazy Ramblings of a Super-Hyper Person, Feel Free to Disregard This Whole Blog”)
I don’t remember when or where I read this, but somewhere a few years ago I came across the idea that the polymath in its truest form is not really something that’s accomplishable nowadays, as there is so much more things to know today than there where back in the time of the polymath. From either the same source or a different one there was the mention of the fact that “back in the day” much more time was given to pure thinking—that is, people devoted solid blocks of time to working on their ideas and inventions, something that we with our daily time-consuming jobs (and school) rarely do. So I suppose they were trying to say that idea of a polymath exists as an anachronistic ideal; the “all knowing man” is something that today seems unobtainable.
Think about it. Think about the birth of the Age of Enlightenment, when there was this sudden boom of yearning for knowledge (in Europe, at least). There was this ability back then, perhaps due to different lifestyle or some ideal balance between what was known and what was unknown (or perhaps due to both) that allowed for polymathy to develop. There was this beautiful merging of everything creative and scientific (obviously not mutually exclusive categories) that gave rise to this insanely productive, inspired time. It makes you wonder what it was about this specific period in time, in that specific geographic area, that caused such a wonderful explosion of knowledge. It also makes you wonder why that’s not going on right now.
If you look at psychological development books you’ll see in almost every one something called the “critical period” for such developmental milestones as language learning, walking, and some other stuff I don’t remember because hell if I paid attention in Infancy class. Language is probably the best example, as it has the most incidents documented wherein an individual fails to either be exposed to language entirely or fails to be exposed to enough of it within this critical time frame, and thus fails to fully develop language to the extent the majority of people do.
I think analogous critical periods exist for a lot of different human endeavors (I just spelled that with the extra “u” before backspacing, kill me now). There has to be some sort of ideal balance between lifestyle, existing knowledge, and knowledge yet to be discovered for periods like the Age of Enlightenment to happen. The drive that spurs people on to create may not dissipate or change significantly from generation to generation, but other things are apt to (and do) change.
For instance, think about how much busier our lives are now. Think of how we’ve managed to pack our existences with this meaningless dribble just so we can “survive” in modern society. We don’t allow ourselves to stop and just think. We don’t allow significant time for mulling over of ideas (unless we do so at our jobs/on the bus/during class, in which cases I think it’s much less productive than just mulling outright) to bring them into fruition, or to even develop significant ideas. I’m not necessarily talking individually here, but when you look at it from a larger scope, I think that there’s a significantly smaller percentage of pure “thinking” that exists in our society today than there was, for example, back during the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. In short, we’re too busy to delve, but too focused in our specific school work/job/what-have-to-you gain breadth. That’s a problem.
Now think about how the balance between known and unknown has changed since the Age of Enlightenment. We know SO MUCH MORE than we did at the beginning of that shift in information, but we’re also equipped with far more tools to delve deeper into our universe. What’s stopping us today from having the same strides in discoveries, expansion, and overall innovation that were found then? I don’t think we’re running out of things to discover. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to discover. What I do think, though, is that there’s been some sort of fundamental change over the last several centuries in what is left to discover that we’re unable to reach previously set records of leaps and bounds in knowledge due to the way we’ve been approaching what’s left to discover.
We’re all yocto- and yotta- and gamma wave now, we’re past a large amount of those things that can be seen with the naked eye here on this planet and have moved on to the microscopic, macroscopic, and invisible (for a small but good example of this, just look at the SI prefixes and the change in dates from the mid-range prefixes to the very large and very small ones). Time that was before spent on envisioning, creating, and fine-tuning the machines whose purposes were to get to these other worlds is now being spent actually utilizing these machines, searching for what we think is out there because we finally can. And I think one of our problems is that we’re going about things with that old mindset, not with any new way of thinking about things.
It’s hard to explicitly explain what I mean by this…it’s like we haven’t done anything to refine our technique to help us reach past this “eye level” of invention, creation, and discovery, and therefore are having difficulty reaching out into these new and different areas. It’s like if you were a master fisherman—all you’ve ever done is fish—and suddenly there are no more fish in the sea so you have to utilize your technique elsewhere in order to procure food. So you look up at the sky, realize there are birds up there you can catch, and so you start casting your line into the air with the intent to catch these birds. Now you may be a master fisherman, you may cast your line better than anyone else, you may have the technique perfected, but you’re still casting it into the sky. You can be as perfect as you like, you’re not going to hook any birds. So what you have to do is redefine your technique—tweak it to fit the new circumstances. I don’t think we’ve managed to do that yet with how we look at things in terms of discovery.
So why don’t I think there’s another Age of Enlightenment going on now, when we’re fully equipped with all these wonderful scientists and wonderful machines to help us along our journey of discovery? We’re too busy, we’re too set in our ways of methodology, and we seems to be unable to break free of either of these things, at least anytime soon.
There was a whole lot more I was going to say on this, but I’ve discovered my secret stash of Pocky and have found one of the coolest songs ever, so I’m going to try and calm this hyperness down so I can hopefully sleep tonight.
Today’s song: Kärlekens Alla Färjor by Detektivbyrån (it’s FANTASTIC)