A Full Speed Life, Cross-Pollinating

About half my Gmail inbox is newsletters. I’ve subscribed to God-knows-how-many by this point. To be honest, there’s probably only five of them that I bother to read on a weekly basis. One of the few that I keep up with religiously is Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis, which is always packed with interesting observations, caustic humor, and enough reading list recommendations to fill up a library.

Catching up on his newsletters the other day, I stumbled across this passage and it really struck a chord with me.

 “My job is just sitting in a room making shit up all day. I’m not complaining. But the best part is that I get to meet people, all kinds of people, in probably dozens of different fields. Because I hate silos. The idea that you find your specialty and stay in it. I mentioned that I never went on to higher education. I’m one of those terrifying random auto-didacts you read about, usually in news stories about sudden unexpected axe attacks or bombing campaigns against vending machines. I’m not even one of those freakish deep-thinking uncontained comprehensivists like Buckminster Fuller, whom some of you will probably have to look up afterwards. He once taught at MIT, where I spoke just a couple of weeks ago, and his course was called Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.

Which is probably another way of saying Arts, Design, and Computer Science.

Fuller also taught at Black Mountain College, a weird experimental school in North Carolina – it’s near a place called Asheville, close to where I visited on book tour last winter, and we should maybe talk about Asheville one day – it used to be tobacco country, but when other pressures caused the government to remove a crucial financial crutch, the area collapsed back from 1400 acres of tobacco ground to a hundred, killing the local economy and emptying lots and lots of buildings that artists and musicians moved into for pennies – but, Black Mountain College – the point of the place from the start was that it was interdisciplinary. All the departments cross-pollinated each other.

And that’s kind of how I work and move around the place. All the time, I talk to directors, musicians of all kinds, artists, designers, coders, security threat modelers, genetic engineers, space doctors, philosophers, actors, writers, actual mad scientists. I met Ev Williams at dinner when he was still building out Blogger and I was just a bloody comics writer – but I was in the Bay Area to speak onstage at a “future of the web” conference next to a musician called Thomas Dolby and a software engineer called Grady Booch. Not because I am brilliant or special but because when the opportunity to step outside my perceived silo comes up, I grab it.

Specialization worked out pretty interestingly for arts, science and the humanities in the 20th Century, sure. I mean, unless you were into philosophy, which was completely subsumed by academia and strangled in the dark. I should apologize to my philosopher friends for that, but they’re aware of it — Peter Sjostedt publishes through Psychedelic Press to get his ideas out of the silo. The 21st Century is going to work a little differently. Nobody was ready for Bucky Fuller and his comprehensivist geodesic dome bullshit in 1950, and Black Mountain College didn’t last twenty-five years, but, this year, if we don’t pay attention to everything and learn from everybody, then we’re probably all screwed.

The best bit of my life is that I get to talk to everybody, about everything, and put people from a bunch of different disciplines in the same room, and I get to listen and learn and apply that to whatever I do next. It’s a full speed life, and it’s riddled with challenges large and small, and I might still go down with arrows in my back, as Bruce Sterling said about me – but it’s entertaining as all hell.

And the point to this is – this is what the future is going to look like. Probably needs to look like. And that’s going to be where you’re living.”

This reminds me a lot of what initially drew me into the Phoenix underground: so many of the people here are willing to step out of their silos. I used to think of them as “hyphens”: all those people I knew who were poets/actors/photographers/puppeteers. In D&D terms, it seemed like everybody was multi-classing.

That spirit of restlessness still thrives in this scene, even as vital figures move away and the Roosevelt area gets gentrified into a shiny, condo-riddled oblivion. Get you a man who can do both, as the memes say. Or, in the words of Robert Heinlein:

Get you a man who can do both, as the memes would say. Or, in the words of Robert Heinlein: “Specialization is for insects.”