renaissance hack

May 16, 2005

Quote and Thought of the Moment
[On being told "Oh, you're a Renaissance hack!"] "It was a genial insult, and I had a good laugh. Actually I like the idea of being a Renaissance hack. If tombstones were still in style, I would want to have the two words chiseled right under my name. In an age of specialization people are proud to be able to do one thing well, but if that is all they know about, they are missing out on much else life has to offer."
--Dennis Flanagan, editor of Scientific American. (From a tribute in that magazine after his recent death.)

An interesting thought. And the tribute is directly across from an article about Richard Feynman's van (covered with Feynman diagrams of quantum electrodynamics...the article praises the diagrams of being exactly what Edward R. Tufte ("the da Vinci of data", according to the New York Times) liked, except I've started to think Tufte is a little over-rated. Anyway.) and if you read some of Feynamn's autobiographical stuff (or just check out the micro-tribute I made in 2001) you see he was truly a Renaissance Hack of the finest degree.

Something I've been becoming aware of lately...I don't know if this is an actual change in the Zeitgeist, the mood of my co-workers, or even just a shift in my own outlook, but it seems like the concept of "geek" is losing the admiration it seem to have during and after the dot-com-boom and regaining some of the stigma it has traditionally had.

For me, a "geek" is someone with an intense interest and expertise in a particular subject...the trouble is that sometimes that interest comes at the expense of other pursuits, especially "normal" social interactions. Geeks (and I know I can be one of 'em) had their cultural moment in the sun when they were making money hand over fist via the crazy tech economy, and I think that pushed to a wider acceptance of other associated memes, Japanese animation, cyberpunk, that kind of thing. But I think maybe now people understand the need to be more well-rounded, and the recognition that we are social beings, and sometimes geeks are just tremendous pains-in-the-ass to be around. (But of course, in a world this complex, sometimes doing interesting things requires just that amount of specialized focus.)

Of course "hack" is another loaded word...there's also the "clever trick or elaborate gag" meaning of that word, where the computer term "hacker" comes from--and famously, that's currently more often refering to people who illegaly break into systems to cause mischief, rather than the friendlier, more exploratory earlier meaning. And of course both of those meanings are differently nuanced than the usage in the original quote, where it's a classic "jack of all trades, master of none" kind of thing.