The Practical Idealist

The Third Age of the Polymath


The Third Age of the Polymath,

by Neil C. Olsen.

“Polymath is just another word for nothing left to program.”

We have returned to the age of the Polymath. Each of us is now empowered and even required to hold multiple careers. The word polymath is from the Greek,  πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”. Often celebrated as typical of the Renaissance age, and age of artist-inventors-scientists, the first age of the polymath promoted the uomo universale, the universal man who could learn everything and act right in every situation.

Being a polymath was perhaps the defining characteristic of successful men in Colonial America as well. It was a place where you had to hold several jobs to survive. Every Colonial American minister, the man of highest rank in a community, was also the village doctor, or teacher, or both, and likely a farmer as well. If the Renaissance is the first age of the polymath, the people of the Colonial American Enlightenment formed the second.

Thanks to software that gives us job skills in minuets once only available to professionals after years of training, we are now entering the third age of the polymath. It might be helpful to look into the second age of the polymath, the inventor of professions, to see how the third age of the polymath will change our lives.

Colonial America  was a place of wide opportunity. The flag shown above was the original American flag, designed by Declaration of Independence contributor, debater, and signer Francis Hopkinson. Though raised and educated to be a lawyer, he was also a merchant, politician, inventor, writer, artist, musician, composer (he wrote the first songbook published in America), poet, and designer of seals, currencies, and flags. His design for the American flag is one of the most successful and recognized icons in the world. One characteristic of polymaths is not only their originality, but their success in multiple areas.

But the greatest Colonial polymath was certainly Benjamin Franklin. He was a candle-maker apprentice to his father, printer, publisher, inventor, philosopher, scientist, engineer, writer, politician, postmaster, Colonial Agent (a combination of diplomat and lobbyist), statesman, artist (designing type fonts and seals): at least thirteen official jobs in all. As founder and leader of Philadelphia institutions he may also be considered a teacher, postman, fireman, medical-philanthropist, and librarian, making at least eighteen. He was a  “duodevigintimath”.

These two men were not unusual for the times. If you look at the 106 men who contributed in some way to the development of the Declaration of Independence before July 4, 1776 (called contributors below), you find that:

• Contributors had on average 4.3 occupations and a mean of 4 occupations before the time the Declaration was signed, even though most of them were only in their forties.

• 92% had 3 or more occupations; 64% had four or more occupations.

•  If having anything over four occupations in your life makes you a polymath, then 37% were polymaths, while 11 contributors had 7 or more occupations, and 7 contributors had 8 or more occupations; Benjamin Franklin, though the most famous, was not alone as a polymath, nor all that unusual in Philadelphia, the City of Polymaths.

I suggest that we are returning to the age of the polymath. I am an accidental polymath. When I was sixteen I decided to become an Engineer. I taught myself calculus and studied math and science, and eventually attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an institution whose name recalls the days when it was unusual to find multiple disciplines taught or they would not have put it in the name. I majored in systems engineering as at the time as software engineering was not taught as a separate disciple. I also minored in musicology, though I was too inept as a musician to do much with it: I’ve written one short work, one song, and the words to one hymn. However, after graduation and working as a software developer in telecommunications for four years, at the age of 27 for some reason I became a dramatist. I have had four full length, and seventeen one act plays produced in New Haven, Connecticut, and will soon publish one of my plays and a book of one acts.

I am a terrible speller. I’m a fast reader, but a bit of an “output dyslectic”, and not good at editing. Perhaps this is because my mind is very good at “improving” text: it helpfully reinterprets “hte” as “the”, for example, and I just don’t see the mistake I nearly failed English one year when the teach announced that more than two spelling errors meant you received an automatic “F”. And my penmanship is bad. However, this latter problem could be addressed even in 1968.  I was one of only two boys who took typing in high school – perhaps the most useful class I ever took – and I type quickly. The typewriter may be the first device of the age of the polymath: it ended the profession of scribe. But with the digital age, the typewriter and the type-setting machine were next in line for extinction. I remember in college in 1974 using a computer terminal with very primitive line editing capability to edit papers – not a common use at the time. When word processors with spell checkers came along, I was an early adopter. However, this did not so much enable me as a writer, as halfway correct a deficiency.

Remember typing pools? Secretaries? Typesetters? People who took dictation? These professions are all gone, absorbed into the computer – into our own eyes, ears, and fingers as it were. We are typists, we are secretaries; we can take dictation (speech to text) and create audible text (text to speech) automatically. In the digital age we once again are polymaths. We are layout artists. We are designers. We are editors. We are postmen. We are order-takers. We are distributors.  We are journalists. We are video artists. Our profession is our latest app, and our latest app becomes our profession.

With the revolution in book publishing, we are now editors and publishers. We publish to the web in what we incorrectly call “pages”, as web documents with a unique URL are undefined in length and width. We publish emails. We publish blogs. We publish autobiographies on social media. We publish opinions on blogs: we are commentators and restaurant reviewers. We alert followers on social media as well, becoming publicists. We design book covers ourselves, layout books ourselves, market it ourselves.

Looking back at my history of 37 years in software engineering, I see a history of 1) eliminating jobs, and 2) empowering job skills for everyone. Spreadsheets make everyone a statistician and mathematician. Presentation software makes everyone a flashy marketing communications expert. Planning software makes everyone a logistician and a manager. In telecommunications, we have eliminated phone operators, large numbers of linemen, and whole phone companies. The entire regulated industry of telecommunications that lasted over 100 years, and was enormous in size and power, now all over the world is much reduced and fading fast. Working for the phone company is no longer a safe or good job. Actually, what phone company?  They too are becoming polymaths, as you bundle video, data, and voice, content and access, into some new type of entity.

With the web we can do our own order entry, handle prescription drug management, be our own IT department, be our own travel agent (another lost job), and on and on. Bookstores are almost gone, magazines are basically gone, as are newspapers, records, magnetic tapes, cable TV, DVD/CD and all physical media. They are rapidly being replaced by internet downloads. Mobile phones have replaced the jewelry known as “watches”: our perception of time itself has changed. So have our manners: taking phone calls anywhere at any time is now accepted behavior.  We gossip like courtiers, and court attention like fawning aristocrats.

What is next? I suggest you follow the money.

Look at the three professions whose cost to us (and their income) has risen the fastest in the last decades: college-professor, medical doctor, and lawyer. You can now get, for free, the best lectures in the world by the best professors off the internet, lectures that students at Ivy League Schools pay $50,000 a year to attend. You can get text books as ebooks; there are instructional videos for everything. To become a professional at anything, you only need (optionally) a tutor, and an electronic based test for certification. The only exception is perhaps physical professions such as dancers, actors, and musicians. I don’t include surgeons as we have already replaced them with robots, which are safer, faster, less invasive and a whole lot less expensive than the human ones.

And really, with virtual or robotic avatars, and a really good scripting language, I can envision doing replacing dancers, actors, and musicians as well. And producers and directors. Dramatist and screenwriting are the worst of all the artistic professions. They labor for a year, and then have nothing to show for it. They all have trouble getting their plays performed or movies made, and if you are lucky to have one in five of your works produced, other people change or mess up your work. I can hardly wait for the next generation of software to craft languages and applications that auto-play in 3D video. You have automated text to speech right now that sounds pretty good. I’m ready for the next step.

But the “low hanging fruit” of software job destruction lies where greatest money is. College professors, Doctors, and Lawyers are on our “hit list”. I know this because I have written business plans. I am a businessman and entrepreneur, as well as engineer, dramatist, marketer, and historian – thanks to software and the internet. I make presentations and spreadsheets.  I craft five year plans with return on investment and compound annual growth rate calculations (ROI and CAGR), along with the arcane counting of things called EBIT, EBITDA, and OPEX. I am an accountant.

As a software engineer, I tell you with from my experience that there is very little way you can stop the inevitable movement of modern professions into a polymath skill of individuals. Personally, I hope acting-avatars are not far behind the internet college, the digital doctor, and the electronic lawyer. Someday I can be an actor, producer, director and ticket taker; I can be  professor, doctor, and lawyer, as well as publisher, editor, writer, and engineer. All by myself. All enabled by software.

The rise of the idea of profession has been traced in the classic work The True Professional Idea in America, by Bruce A. Kimball. I have also documented it in my book Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, from Nonagram Publications. The “professional idea” was started at King’s College in New York and the College of Philadelphia by Dr. Samuel Johnson, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and Provost Dr. William Smith all working together to create a “new-model” style of American college. They created the idea of multiple “track” education, where you could go off the standard Latin oriented curriculum and learn medicine, math, or law in courses taught in English, and become a physician, surveyor, or lawyer.  Ironically, it was the Second Age of the Polymaths in America that created the profession-oriented colleges that ended the Second Age of the Polymath.

But now, with software, we have empowered everyone with new talents and quickly learned capabilities. We have reversed this idea of a “profession” and replaced it was a “do it yourself” process. The software profession is become the destroyer of professions.

You can’t stop us. In fact, we only stop programming when we have entirely eliminated a profession and replaced it with an application everyone can use. Extinction is inevitable. We are approaching the end of professions, and the Third Age of the Polymath.

Polymath is just another word for nothing left to program.


Note: The image  is from in Wikipedia Commons.


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