Sunday, 19 June 2005

Connecting the dots - Steve Jobs' commencement speech

Cross-disciplinary influences always intrigue me: for instance, I love that Murray Gell-Mann named the Eightfold Way in particle physics after the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. And in that regard I felt Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford this year was very inspiring. Particularly this part, where he talked about the influence of auditing a calligraphy course at Reed College:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
I've always been a big believer in the idea of a liberal arts education, and I've always felt that the greatest advances in learning and technology often draw on expertise completely outside the field. Jobs' speech illustrates those ideas vividly: if all you do when you study is learn what looks immediately "useful", instead of enriching yourself with knowledge from all fields and with different ways of seeing the world, then it becomes near-nigh impossible to make great leaps instead of just incremental improvements.

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Cross-disciplinary influences always intrigue me..

Check out the speech by Charles T. Munger's during the Herb Kay Undergraduate Lecture at University of California, Santa Barbara Economics Department, on 3 October 2003.

Titled Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs. Read the PDF transcript of the speech.


Brian Eno was himself educated in a liberal arts college, but he's always been more gravitated towards the sciences, and as I read somewhere (the Observer?), has lectured on Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity, the teaching of which isn't dependent so much on mathematics (at the very most, square and square roots) but on relaying to the student its sheer intuitiveness.

On a related note, quantum theory has always been largely influenced by Asian mysticism. Not just largely; it has pervaded their scientific thinking and in fact their attitudes as well. This is unique and perhaps unprecedented on a large scale in any other science. This Asian influence, however, sadly seems to be gradually fading, not just in physics, but in other spheres that never even had the slightest Asian influence in the first place.

Do you have any examples of arts-influence in great technology? And isn't "near-nigh" a tautology?


"Near nigh" may indeed stem from the Department of Redundancy Department, but "near nigh impossible" is a turn of phrase of which I am fond, and I treat the words as having a cumulative effect.


Heyo,

Nice article Daryl. I'm not sure if the describing Arts and Sciences as divisive and distinct is helpful - but that's the model we have, so I'll work with that.

Point to note - at the highest levels of Art and Science, things seem to get a bit blurry, especially in research science.


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