One Big Thing
"A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing. - Archilochus"
Isaiah Berlin's 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox divides writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single idea, whereas foxes refuse to be pinned down. Their worldview is shaped by a wide array of experiences that aren't monolithic.
I first encountered this classification system about ten years ago through Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise. Silver self-identifies as a fox. His data-based news publication, FiveThirtyEight, has a fox head as its logo. As a Bayesian statistician, he's required to update his prior assumptions anytime that new data is available. When I read about this concept I also identified with the fox-type intellectual personality. I've always had a wide variety of interests and I've sought unique experiences as a way to learn about the world. I couldn't imagine devoting myself to the pursuit of a single truth. How boring would that be when there's a great wide world to explore!
Over the years I've questioned whether this is the right approach to take. While foxes may have the more variety in intellectual stimulation, they have a hard time making progress. Working on a difficult problem requires a singular focus. Foxes flit and flutter while hedgehogs put their heads down and get the job done.
Last year, I decided to be a hedgehog and focus my attention on one area of interest: bitcoin. I started writing a pseudonymous blog devoted to exploring this topic from a layman's perspective. I'm not a cryptographer or computer scientist but I reasoned that I had enough technical understanding to paint a picture of this new technology that the average person could understand.
I made progress. I wrote a few good pieces that I'm proud of. I will post them on this blog in the near future. However, I couldn't help but feel constrained. The mission of my blog was to explain bitcoin and why it matters to the everyday person. This was interesting for a while but I soon found that I craved the freedom to connect these esoteric concepts of computation and money to other aspects of life and society. I didn't feel that this could be done properly behind a pseudonym. I had to get back to blogging under my real name. I had to resume my natural state as a fox. The Bitcoin genesis block was mined by Satoshi Nakamoto on January 3, 2009, exactly thirteen years ago today. Twenty years from now, I think this date will be known by all. It will be taught in public schools and marked on calendars. For now, it's remembered only by a few hedgehogs who believe that this is the most transformative technology of our generation.
Raw hex version of the Bitcoin genesis block. Bitcoin Wiki. "Genesis block". CC BY 3.0.
I can't identify as a "Bitcoin Maximalist" hedgehog. I won't say "Bitcoin fixes this" when confronted with any economic problem (other than perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek way). But I do believe that it is a transformative technology that will shape our world, hopefully for the better.
The focus of Berlin's essay is the famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Berlin argues that Tolstoy went against his fox-like nature to approach topics with a hedgehog-like focus. This caused tension in his work and personal life. If you allow me to compare myself with Tolstoy for one brief moment, I can attest that it's difficult to change mindsets. I think that there are intellectual personality types. Neither is preferable over the other and both are required in order to make progress. But going against ones nature is counter-productive.
Hedgehogs grasp onto a good idea and hang on tight. They burrow in as deep as they can go and never take their eyes off the prize. Foxes build the highways between the hedgehog tunnels, ensuring that deep intellectual exploration is ultimately made relevant to the problems of the world.
Perhaps that's the hope for this young blog; that I can explore a variety of topics and arrange them on a wire structure that somehow resembles my view of the world. Though I'm not ready to commit to one big thing. Not yet.