Renaissance Weekend speech texts

In books, creativity, culture, education, kids by manifold_admin

As we have in the past, our family participated in Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, South Carolina.  It is a wonderful opportunity to share ideas we’ve been developing and to learn from many, many people whose perspectives are truly global.  This year I was invited to share some remarks as part of the closing plenary, titled “If these were my final remarks”.  It is both a privilege to be giving the opportunity to have the last word, but it is also a challenge: of all the things that I could say, what should I say (and therefore what must I not say)?  To help me with my choice, I wrote down my two favorite themes, read them out, and decided, based on votes from a few trusted friends and my own instincts, which to deliver to the audience and which to share after-the-fact.  Here are the two texts.  Please feel free to comment on which text you prefer, or any other thoughts they elicit from you.

Changing the game with Open Source

When Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers first came out I thought to myself “what a challenge this must have been for his editors–after all, I know there are at least 1200 outliers who regularly attend Renaissance Weekend events every year!”  And, be honest–how many read that book to see how close you were to making the cut?

I do have one quibble with the editors, thought, and it’s not because Gladwell picked Bill Gates instead of me as a subject.  It is because of a logical error that fundamentally misunderstands our current condition, and thereby reenforces the very error the book intends to address.  In that story, Gladwell tells us that Bill Gates was born at the right place (a rich Washington suburb) at the right time (when nobody knew just how important computers–especially software, would be).  His luck was not so much that he was smart (many of us are), nor that he had a good education (many of us do), but that he got to do real-time computer programming as an eighth grader in 1968.  Gladwell takes an aside and muses “We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that is the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”  The answer is obvious when you consider that there can be only one monopoly.

The GNU General Public License was a response to monopoly–not only the Microsoft monopoly, which was still in its infancy in 1984, but to the approach of making one wealthy at the expense of all others.  The general public license granted all who received the software the freedoms to read, modify, and share the source code with only one restriction: that any subsequent distribution could not subsequently deny those freedoms to the next recipient.  By changing the rules, free software and open source changed the game.  In the process, there are now more that a billion lines of open source software code freely available for any and all to use, modify, and distribute–for commercial gain, social benefit, or both.  Microsoft itself now develops and distributes open source software along with its proprietary products.  The World Wide Web, Wikipedia, Google, and Android, are all based on open source software.

If these were my last remarks, I would urge every one of you to look at your games, your winning positions, and ask yourself “what is it worth to be the sole winner today, versus changing the game so that everybody can win?  There are 7 billion players in the world today.  Let’s not only give them all a chance, let’s find a way to make them all winners.  Thank you!

Connecting the dots…

Last night a panelist [who had won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”] responded very humbly and very honestly to the question “what is genius?”  She said “someone who connects the dots.”  Of course in order to connect the dots one must first see them, and I want to tell you about a very important dot that I only recently came to see.

My father was a great scientist, inventor, and a great inspiration to me.  From him I learned that scientific truth was like a fire, and that curiosity was the spark that could ignite whatever understanding I had at the time–about trigonometry, calculus, physics, or later, basic algebra–into a glorious and thrilling flame.  I found satisfaction and security in the invincibility of reproducible results.

When I was called to be a trustee of a local Montessori school, I read up on the Montessori Method and was greatly impressed both by the scientific basis of the method as well as the deep and rich integration of science into the children’s daily work.  Their conversations with nature were often dirty, or wet, or both, but always authentic and engaging and I loved that.  But art and music are very bit as important as science in the Montessori curriculum, and at first I did not understand why.  I knew that science was the process by which the discovering-self gains an understanding of the universe.  What I learned was that art is the process by which the creator-self expresses its self-ness to the universe.  The goal of the Montessori environment is to nurture the development of the authentic and independent and complete self–one who can both understand the world, but can also become an actor in that world.  A global citizen of peace.

There’s a lot of talk about shifting resources from the arts to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Such policies reflect a fundamental blindness to the nature of what it means to be human.  We are renaissance people.  We know how to change our perspectives and see the larger picture.  Let us help others to see all the dots, for as we were told last night “we can all be geniuses.”  We can all connect the dots–as long as we can see them.  Thank you!