I have begun to see that we may be entering a new age of polymaths, and I’m happy to be involved in a part of the business world which seems to sustain some of the best brains on the planet.
I remember reading about the beginners of industry—the pioneers of technology and science. I remember reading how Robert Fulton came up against problems in life, and simply invented new ways of doing things, leading eventually to the development of steam-powered paddle-wheel-boats. I remember, vaguely, from my propagandistically pro-industrial schooling that as a child, Fulton had invented or improved on the lead pencil, because the one he was using in school wasn’t up to scratch. The same story is reflected through many of the West’s inventors of what we’ve retrospectively come to call the Industrial Revolution: when opportunity or difficulty forced their hands, they changed the situation.
Now, aside from natural romanticism, I like to look to the past with neither rose-tinted glasses nor “isn’t-everything-better-now” short-sightedness. I’m sure that for every changer, there were crowds of followers in every age, and I’m sure many of you could point easily to both an earth-changer and a follower without too much effort. Besides, history pays scant attention to followers.
No, what I’m talking about is the seeming ease with which many of my colleagues in the web industry switch between impressively diverse tasks. Some I know make impressive presenters, and happen to hold PhD’s in fields more or less unrelated to what they do now… and can code Java and know a bit of CSS on the side. I fear to challenge any to play chess (since I haven’t played in over 5 years, and have the patience of a twelve-year-old), and several are rumoured to be better-than-average musicians. This diversified excellence, alongside the startups, ideas, enthusiastic organisations and programmes i’ve seen recently, remind me of the society-changers of a century and more ago. Not since then, I think, has such an importance been placed on ambition within social responsibilities.
One of the things I’ve seen most recently has been the Google 10^100 (apparently pronounced: ten to the one-hundredth with a typically geeky need to explain the pun) which aims to “help as many people as we can” by contributing $10million to fund earth-changing ideas. Their site is, in classic Google fashion, very straightforward, so I won’t repeat their blurb…just go have a read. But, while you are doing it, I dare you to set aside any cynicism you may harbour either toward a big business, or to any notion of “changing the world”. Think about what has and is being done, and then think how you could change the world.