Gone are the days of specialisation. As in the pre-modern era, polymathy today is not just a possibility, but a necessity. Don’t let the odd word fool you: polymathy is Greek for both simple and profound. It means, in fact, “learning many things”, from many different fields. Blending digital and material with an eye to future transitions.
Teaching to learn
As a result, interdisciplinary universities have been springing up, conceived in the spirit of contamination. The first, in 2017, was the London Interdisciplinary School, with a single degree course: its Bachelor in Art and Science. A course set up with the aim of ‘teaching to learn’.
The idea of learning (and teaching) to solve the world’s complex problems stems from this concept of continuous hybridisation, involving knowledge, disciplines and cultures.
Becoming contamination not only means joining forces: it means inclusiveness, acceptance, openness and a willingness to listen
Communications and digital technology expert Giulio Xhaet firmly believes this, and in his book #Contaminati (Hoepli, Milan 2020) he explains why only workers who know how to contaminate themselves, dedicating themselves to polymathy, will be able to survive the new challenges.
Why #contaminati (strictly with the hashtag)? Xhaet explains this by starting with the meaning of the word. “Contaminate comes from the Latin verb tangere, ‘to touch’. In the original meaning, ‘contaminated’ is someone who comes into contact with something, who mixes with diverse elements”.
Hybridisation and contamination
A synonym for ‘contaminated’ is ‘interdisciplinary’ whereby, he adds, “we are talking about individuals who move across multiple disciplines. When transposing this word into the world of work, we find individuals with qualities that are strongly in tune with our times”.
Giulio Xhaet, #Contaminati (Hoepli, Milano 2020)[/caption]
Being able to navigate across disciplines, knowledge and cultures is a skill that is gaining ground in contrast to the past. Xhaet believes that the contaminated “are the answer to a longer, more intense yet uncertain professional life”.
They are also the human response “to the artificial intelligence sweeping through companies”. The qualities of these contaminated workers “are increasingly in demand, because only they, with their pool of knowledge, are capable of venturing into places where algorithms simply cannot go”.
“Universities and business schools”, explains Xhaet, “have proved to be largely inadequate to train such people”. However, you can easily spot different educational models, “trying to adapt to the increasing speed, complexity and interconnectedness of the world”.
So where can they be found? In every context where humanistic and scientific skills can be combined. One must know how to move, virtually ‘surf’, between these two fields in order to create a third one. The author observes that it is precisely this ability to move by breaking down walls that constitutes the quality of the contaminated human. For this reason, diversity, inclusion and contamination speak the same language.
Link learning and the challenge of AI
These elements are intertwined with another, even more fundamental one: namely, “artificial intelligence, which is eroding tasks hitherto performed by humans”. Xhaet wonders who will be able to collaborate with machines without being replaced by chatbots and digital assistants?
The artificial intelligence revolution, as Yuval Noah Harari already explained, “will not be a single watershed event following which the job market will settle down, into a new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of everbigger disruptions”.
There is a need for new maps if we are to prepare for and overcome this waterfall. Xhaet calls for a “common thread to hold the pieces of the puzzle together: contamination”.
The ‘contaminated’ blends with diverse elements, thus enhancing diversity
Only qualitatively ‘hybridised’ human knowledge can challenge algorithms outside their own turf. But on turf where the algorithms themselves struggle: the connections, intersections, roads that suddenly open up through a blend of intuition, sensitivity and culture.
The key watchword is link learning: “one must learn to find unsuspected links, thus developing future-proof skills”.
How? Xhaet sums it up as “dancing between cultures, drawing from different worlds”. Without becoming a ‘know-it-all’, yet showing the capacity for dialogue that will be increasingly required in the near future. With all its challenges, opportunities and paths to be discovered.