Umberto Eco died last Friday (Feb 19th 2016). You may know him as the author of great fiction books, such as ‘The Name of the Rose’ or ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. However, Eco described himself as primarily a ‘university professor who has found a nice way to spend his weekends’.
His academic work has been very influential in my own work. As a philosopher and semiotician, Eco studied, and wrote about, how we interpret the world around us. My whole work in customer profiling, algorithmic decision making and so on is based on the premise, espoused by Eco, that data, facts, etc… do not have a meaning in and of themselves, but, rather, they are the result of social conventions. Beauty, credit scores, job performance… even disease symptoms. So, to investigate what x means, we need to first identify the social conventions that make x ‘be taken as something standing for something else’ (Eco, 1976).
In addition to admiring his intellectual work, I also admired his writing productivity and versatility – he published acclaimed academic work, as well as well received fiction work. He also shared advice on writing, with his book ‘How to Write a Thesis’, which The New Yorker described as a ‘A guide to thesis writing that is a guide to life’, and via numerous talks. I particularly like this one (he couldn’t resist some political jibes in the middle). But if you do not have the time (or the inclination) to listen to that long talk, then take heed of this little piece of ‘Advice to the Young Writer’:
Who has influenced your work in a particularly significant way?