It doesn’t take a genius to point out that we are experiencing a technology-driven renaissance. We can now share and create knowledge faster than ever before, driving exponential progress that impacts on every aspect of society. Some may lament the fact that we no longer have Concorde, but the web connects people faster than any aircraft could ever hope to.
Inevitably, tech commentators have been drawing comparisons between the current tech revolution and the invention of the printing press, which heralded the Renaissance around the 15th century. It brought learning to the masses and enabled the dissemination of ideas. This was the era of groundbreaking luminaries such as Galileo Galilei or Leonardo da Vinci: the earth was no longer the centre of the universe, and the world saw the first design of a workable flying machine. The progress which we are now experiencing in the 21st century is of a similar magnitude, and so the argument goes that we are witnessing a modern Renaissance. Call it Renaissance 2.0 or whatever.
But this is missing the point entirely.
Just consider this simple example: NASA’s visualisation of ocean currents. They’ve taken scientific measurements from a number of years, bundled them all into a visualisation model, and turned it into a youtube video. No big deal, surely. But look closely:
Yes, it looks beautiful. Science and beauty, together in one picture. (You can read more how it was done in this article.)
This kind of thing hasn’t really happened since Leonardo was both a painter and a scientist. For the first time since the original Renaissance, science and art are finally converging again. Over the course of decades and centuries, people have become increasingly specialised in their jobs, but finally we are being freed again from the tyranny of pigeon-holing. Many of us were still brought up with the notion that your education would determine the entire course of your life. You could either become an artist or a scientist, but not both. You would go to school, get a degree (or not), and stick with that profession for life.
No longer. The latest technological advances now enable anyone to do almost anything. Scientists can tell their stories with artful visualisations, and artists can use scientific tools to express themselves – and not just their Macbooks. What we are witnessing now is not a new and faster printing press, but a reconvergence of science and art as envisaged by the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Art and technology are no longer opposing worlds but complimentary again – as during the Renaissance. Just like it is possible to find emotional fulfilment in the technical pursuit of motorcycle maintenance, the new technology renaissance is liberating us to express ourselves in a more complete way. With the emergence of inexpensive 3D printers, for example, you will be able to create a custom part for your bike or a sculpture for your garden – or something in-between that nobody has ever thought of. And that is just the beginning.
‘Renaissance’ comes from the French language, meaning rebirth and rejuvenation. The current era is a renaissance not because of the increased speed of communication, but because it is enabling us all to become aspiring Leonardos, seamlessly embracing both art and technology.