The Octagon Symbol

The Octagon Symbol

I am often asked the meaning of the octagon symbol, which I use frequently as a personal symbol. It has some recent historical background, as well as an interpretation.

The octagon as shown here began as the symbol of the M.I.T. Technology Hackers Association, or T.H.A. I founded this in 1980, and since then it has engaged in various kinds of activities at M.I.T., usually involving sophisticated pranks, often pointing out some of the odder aspects of life at M.I.T.

Photo of a modified form of the Octagon being used during the "Toolpike" hack at M.I.T. [JPEG, 74K]

T.H.A. has been written up in a number of publications, including Science, Playboy, and various newspapers. There was a relatively recent article in Wired magazine. A number of the events were documented by the M.I.T. Museum, and written up in Brian Leibowitz's book on hacking at MIT.

The octagon was designed to signify the spirit of the generalist, rather than the specialist. Generalists are often undervalued because the world usually places a premium on specific problem-solving skills, rather than the abilities required to consider a problem in a broader context - sometimes the only approach which will work for difficult problems. Generalists are sometimes perceived as people who have never had the fortitude to master a specialized discipline.  But it is possible and indeed likely that you start off as a specialist, with a mastery of one field; then adding wider experience and knowledge you become more resourceful, balanced, and able to handle a much larger spectrum of problems. 

The eight sides of the octagon represent eight aspects of human endeavor; initially these coincided to some extent with the areas mentioned inside the little dome at MIT: arts, agriculture, science, etc.  Whatever specific definition one would like is fine, providing the set covers most of the categories of what people do with their brains.  The center of the octagon represents the activity of the generalist, bordered on the edges by the above realms of the specialists. The solid crossbar in the octagon signifies creativity as the unifying element in all of these areas. The small lines paralleling the crossbar are intended to represent the necessity of intellectual discipline to hold it all together.

Of course if you come up with a better rationale for this nice symbol, please let me know.

Bryan Bentz, Bentz@AI.MIT.EDU

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Last update: 05/20/04.