The Octagon Symbol

The Octagon Symbol

I am sometimes asked the meaning of the octagon symbol. It has some 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 national 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 Liebowitz'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.

A strong tradition within T.H.A. was that being a successful generalist means starting out being very good in one field, and then moving beyond this as challenges arise. Adding wider experience and knowledge produces a technically formidable, resourceful, balanced, and disciplined individual. Combined with some creative talent, the result is an excellent hacker. The octagon is intended to symbolize this.

The eight sides of the octagon represent eight (somewhat arbitrary) aspects of human endeavor considered important to the generalist. What these are specifically is open to debate: the earliest definition was based on the eight words inscribed inside the octagonal base of the little dome in Lobby 7 at M.I.T. These might be something like Science, Engineering, Literature, Fine Arts, Philosophy, History, Mathematics, etc., although there are other candidates. The point is that the set should span the major categories of intellectual activity.

The inside of the octagon, where all these areas intermix, represents the intellectual life of the generalist. The solid crossbar in the octagon signifies creative intellectual endeavor as the unifying and dominant element in this realm of the generalists. The small lines paralleling the crossbar are intended to represent the necessity of intellectual discipline to hold it all together.

This was an excellent symbol for a group composed of highly creative, technically competent people, and so I've carried it over to represent the spirit of my company and the people I work with.

Bryan Bentz,

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