The Technium

Scenius, or Communal Genius


[Translations: Italian]

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes”  can occasionally generate. His actual definition is:  “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you. 

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors:

•  Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.

•  Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.

• Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.

•  Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

The history of art and science is crammed with episodes of scenius. In modern literature there was the Algonquin Round Table, the Bloomsbury Group, the Inklings in Oxford, UK. In art there was Paris in the 20s, the lofts in Soho, NYC, and Burning Man recently. In science there was the Lunar Society in England, Building 20 at MIT, or the ever-spreading Silicon Valley.

Inklings

The Oxford pub where the Inklings met.

I was reminded of scenius while watching a documentary about rock climbers in Yosemite. The documentary Vertical Frontiers did not make my True Films list of best-ever docs, but it did reveal a new flavor of scenius I had not known before. The particulars of this scene are a fine example of what makes scenius work.

Mountain climbers educated in the Alps discovered the vertical walls of granite in Yosemite in the 1930s and began to scale these monoliths. By 1941 climbers occupied a new permanent camp set up in the north side of Yosemite Valley, Camp 4. They would often camp there illegally for the entire summer. Most were climbing bums — young men with little money, lots of time, heedless of laws, and an overwhelming urge to climb in new ways. They hacked together amazingly innovative equipment, techniques, and ethics. Camp 4 became school, club, and summer home for many climbers, not a few who became well-known.

Yosemite Camp4 Site

Camp 4 in Yosemite

Over the next 60 years this scenius would invent most of the modern techniques of rock climbing, and many innovations that would later spill into outdoor skills and gear in general.

But the geography of this scenius is unremarkable. Camp 4 is a nondescript, bland, dusty campground. Building 20 at MIT, the home of fantastic engineering exploits like the improvement of radar, was likewise architecturally boring, almost dilapidated. Soho was blocks of unwanted industrial space. Like these other places, Camp 4 was a generic space with flexibility. However Camp 4 is also a walk-in camp. You need to haul everything on your back. That immediately filters out a lot of wannabes. The absence of cars also keeps everyone around. From the outside you would never guess there was anything special about the place.  I think that is true of most scenius.

The scenius of Camp 4 was threatened after century level floods in 1997 wiped out other camp sites in Yosemite and the Curry Company wanted to build lodges on the higher ground at Camp 4. Climbers around the world campaigned to have Camp 4 designated on the Register of Historic Places in order to keep it. Ultimately they prevailed, and Camp 4 has remained a haven and incubator for climbing enthusiasts. (There’s a book about Camp 4, which I have not read. The film is available here from Netflix and Amazon.)

Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being. Every start up company, or university would like their offices to be an example of scenius. The number of cities in the world hoping to recreate the scenius of Silicon Valley is endless, but very few have achieved anything close. Innumerable art scenes begin and vanish quickly. The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws.  And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle.  You just can’t order this.

What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL IT. When it pops up, don’t crush it. When it starts rolling, don’t formalize it. When it sparks, fan it. But don’t move the scenius to better quarters. Try to keep accountants and architects and police and do-gooders away from it. Let it remain inefficient, wasteful, edgy, marginal, in the basement, downtown, in the ‘burbs, in the hotel ballroom, on the fringes, out back, in Camp 4.

When it happens, honor and protect it.




Comments
  • andy

    Every start up company, or university would like their offices to be an example of scenius. The number of cities in the world hoping to recreate the server racks scenius of Silicon Valley is endless, but very few have achieved anything close. Innumerable art scenes begin and vanish quickly. The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open.

  • CMC Products

    This is an interesting concept that you’ve brought up. I think that great ideas can be brought through a diffusion of a variety of ideas drawn from different sources. This kind of inspiration can come about in a number of different situations, whether its writing a book, or coming up with creative ideas for a cigarette lighter.

  • http://blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    I think this same notion could be assigned to many different serendipitous gatherings of greatness – from the basement of Big Pink to the locker room of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.

    You’re probably right, it can’t be wished into being, but surely there are things that will kill scenius outright. Trying to increase efficiency and/or eliminate plain good fun would seem to be the worst of those…

  • http://acceleratingfuture.com Michael Anissimov

    Another example of a scenius would be the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Yes, I meant to mention Los Alamos, which certainly qualifies.

  • http://www.diovo.com/ Niyaz PK

    Just let it be.
    No rules.
    Right?

    The question is whether we can produce a scenius consciously.

  • Ken

    as well with The Well as a striking example in my view. And what about the different web 2.0 successes around at this moment in time Leibniz, Spinoza et al on the Continent worked together bedroom furniture and in competition and communicated extensively.

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    Paul Dirac once commented that in the mid-1920s, as quantum mechanics was being invented, even a second rate physicist could do first-rate work.

  • Michael Nielsen

    An example where someone perhaps did conjure scenius into being was T.E. Lawrence’s role in instigating and leading the Arab revolt during WWI. Lawrence’s biographer, John Mack, identified Lawrence’s key quality as a “power of enablement” – the power to expand what people around him thought they could accomplish. A friend of Lawrence’s, the noted author John Buchan, captured some of this sense: “I am not a very tractable person or much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world. I loved him for himself, and also because there seemed to be reborn in him all the lost friends of my youth.”

  • jeremiah

    There’s already a word for this – it’s called Emergence. Stephen Johnson wrote a book about it.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Actually I wrote a book about it (emergence), tens years before Stephen. It’s call Out of Control. Go to my name and click on books for a free online version.

  • Colin Evans

    Malcolm Gladwell had a good article on this phenomena where he talks about t-shirts, fashion, and the birth of American Apparel in LA.

    http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_04_24_a_tshirt.htm

  • http://www.gyford.com/ Phil Gyford

    ‘Cities in Civilization’ by Peter Hall is good on this kind of stuff at a city-wide level. It looks at cities that have proved to be crucibles of different kinds of creativity for specific periods in their history. Each chapter focuses on a different city, from Rome and Athens through to Silicon Valley.

    I was slightly disappointed that it doesn’t analyse more closely exactly why these places were the right place at the right time, or see what they had in common, but it was still a good overview of a wide variety of amazing places and times.

    http://www.amazon.com/Cities-Civilization-Peter-Hall/dp/0394587324/

    • Kevin Kelly

      Thanks, Phil. I’ll check out ‘Cities in Civilization’.

  • Chris

    Bad guys use these techniques too, with spectacular success. See John Robb at: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com

  • http://shorttermmemoryloss.com James

    Radar wasn’t invented at MIT, although it was greatly improved there. Its genesis was in the work of Christian Hülsmeyer and Nikola Tesla, and it’s generally-accepted birth was at Britain’s Radio Research Station, under Robert Watson-Watt, a full five years before Building 20 got a radome.

    As a Brit who used to drink in The Eagle and Child (although, alas, not with Tolkien, Lewis, et al.), I just wanted to point that out.

  • http://delfsblog.blogspot.com Michael Delfs

    Check out the Skunkworks story — Lockheed Martin’s development program during the second half of the 20th century. Basically a small group of engineers who designed the most innovative, advanced and record-breaking aircrafts anywhere in the world… and did it over and over again for almost 50 years.

    • Kevin Kelly

      I meant to mention the Skunkworks story. I fixed the “lose” typo, and mention of radar. Thanks all.

  • http://precisionchange.com Duff

    Sigh…I’ve been part of far too many scenes with scenius that have been killed, often with my help.

    Thank you for the last paragraph of this post especially. I need the reminder often.

  • Joe Harris

    The late 1600s has got to be the ultimate example of “scenius”. Newton, Hooke, Wren et al in London and Huygens, Leibniz, Spinoza et al on the Continent worked together and in competition and communicated extensively.

    They basically created the foundations for all modern science, mathematics and architecture in about 20 years.

    Amazing stuff and a great concept but the name doesn’t seem “sticky”. It’s much better than “emergence” though, so we’ll see.

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    The corresponding question for online collaborative communities is interesting – what produces scenius in such communities? Which communities already have it? One place such communities are emerging is on FriendFeed – see e.g., http://friendfeed.com/rooms/the-life-scientists.

  • http://www.mobilemonday.nl Yuri van Geest

    Kevin,

    Again a great post ! Very useful for the team Mobile Monday Amsterdam which I am part of, especially the ways of nurturing the core values.

    Your post reminded me of the books written by Richard Florida. The Creative Class and Who’s Your City seem to have similar drivers for success for cities. Tolerance, openness and emergence.

    Similarly, your post might be relevant for online communities as well with The Well as a striking example in my view. And what about the different web 2.0 successes around at this moment in time ? How to ‘build’ a successful community ?

    • Kevin Kelly

      Thanks, Yuri. Building a community is a challenge, but it is a different challenge than building a scenius.

  • http://www.EcoReality.org Jan Steinman

    We’re trying to do scenius (http://www.EcoReality.org) but are hurting due to the current recession. We own a small “starter ecovillage” property, and have purchased a larger one on the verbal assurance of the bank covering our butt while the old place sold. (This was after we had made financial disclosure to them.) Now they’re getting cold feet.

    If anyone wanted to invest in a sustainable future in a very personal way — and become a component of our “scenius,” now is the time!

  • Aryaman Stefan

    In biology we know that in each living system a self-destructing power is inhereted. So to live means to damp this power. Recently a german-writing internet forum about the wearing of long stockings heavily hurt itself (may be to death) by not being careful enough with the contributions, not damping exaggerations. May be a question of style.

  • http://www.buzzflash.com/ G

    My nickname for it has been The Pit. A scene where anyone interested in excellence is welcome, despite or even because of unconventionalisms. Making nice-nice and authoritarism are expendable. Merit and discovery is currency although the ability to recognize such can be substituted, given sufficient social skills.

    I too was noticing that theme when watching the climber documentary, probably because it was so similar to the Dogtown version (a skateboard documentary (as a kid I was a huge fan of Stecyk)). Even Anakin’s fictional childhood (pod racing) could be considered sceniusy.

    My favorite example is in Ellington’s autobiography, where I first understood the long range impact of a scenius master at work, an MC of MCs. If you are familiar with jazz then your initial reaction to his account is likely to be “Who DIDN’T Duke know?”. His story about Tatum and New York is classic. But for me the most scenius moment was the tiny musicians club. You had to be hip just to know it existed, if you really wanted to cut then that was where you wanted to play (and learn). They started instrument nights. When they held a tuba night only a few tubas at a time could fit inside the club itself, so there were a bunch of tuba players sitting out on the curb, waiting for their shot. I can’t think of a more comical instance of excessive excellence.

  • Mendel Potok

    I suppose the greatest challenge in protecting such communities and environments is to recognize them as such. What could be seen as a place for communal acceptance and growth could be nothing more than a cult, while a seemingly pretentious gathering of intellectual friends could turn out to be the generations great thinkers. We must be willing to examine the whole to determine if Scenius is present.

  • Mo R

    You wrote:
    “Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being.”
    In my experience over the last 25 years there are indeed new emerging cultural forms which can indeed “command” or better “intend” into being. Check out EnlightenNext as just one example of a few.

  • raedouglass

    Can a Scenius germinate in purely virtual space? Can scenius exist purely on the web without a physical place to promote interaction?  If not, then can virtual learning environments replace physical schools and universities?

    • Max Hodges

      “If not…”
      I think you mean “If so . . .”

  • ashley

    Thank you so much for this new word. I love it!

    We can’t command it, but we can certainly try to invite it out, experimenting with the conditions where it might emerge.This article made me think about these 14 principles for permaculture… and what it looks like to apply those in social systems http://permaculture-media-download.blogspot.com/2011/08/14-principles-of-permaculture-by-toby.html

    Have you had any other scenius sitings since you posted this last year?

  • Jppolistico

    What is the difference of “scenius” to “two heads are better than one”? I think in essence none at all.

    • Max Hodges

      scenius is more pretentious.