The Future Belongs to the Scenius
Why we need to stop perpetuating the myth of the lone genius
Arthur Dent found himself stranded on prehistoric Earth with the earliest protohumans.
That’s the beginning of the confusingly-numbered 4th book of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy and Arthur, the main character, initially comforts himself in isolation with the fact that he is a man from the technologically sophisticated 1980s. Which means he knows about things like VHS cassette recorders and digital watches. Which means he can bring enlightenment to the people and live out his days as a kind of philosopher king.
The story segues away from Arthur, but when we meet him again, we realize — as he quickly did — that knowing about VHS cassette recorders and about digital watches doesn’t mean you can make VHS cassette recorders and make digital watches.
And so Arthur carved out a niche making the one thing that he can make by himself: the sandwich.
There’s a similar idea in Leonard Reed’s essay, i Pencil, in which Reed writes in the voice of a Mongol 482 “fabricated by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company”.
I am simple, the pencil says, and yet “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”
Years later, that very point was reiterated by Matt Ridley at Google Zeitgeist —except Ridley was talking about the computer mouse. The mouse is simple, but no single person has the knowledge to make one. And even if the knowledge of how to make a computer mouse existed in a single person’s head, we would be unable to mine the materials to make the components necessary to make the mouse.
In other words, in this day and age, all the single-mind problems have been solved.
We’ve long perpetuated the myth of the lone genius.
Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, said, “The history of the world is but the biography of a few great men.” For example, we praise Steve Jobs as if he by himself invented all of the Apple products. This idea is perhaps most beautifully enshrined in the ‘American Dream’ construct, where everyone’s successes are ascribed to their own efforts. We have a tendency to overweight individuals’ impact. This obfuscates what’s really going on: teamwork and collaboration.
But there’s an alternative. In the 1970s, Brian Eno posited instead the idea of Scenius. “Scenius,” he said, “stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”
We need to stop perpetuating the myth of the lone genius and attach ourselves instead to the idea of scenius. We should focus on establishing the pillars for scenius, within our organizations and between them.
Conditions required for scenius:
- Mutual respect and appreciation. The first and possibly most important condition of collaboration. When departments even appear to be in opposition, the conditions for scenius collapse quickly.
- Rapid exchange of tools and techniques. At the heart of the open-source software movement is Github, where coders share lines of code that can be reused elsewhere.
- Distributed credit. When success is achieved — no matter the scale — the credit should be distributed back to the larger group. We must be better about not perpetuating the myth of the lone genius.
- Tolerance for weirdness at the edges. As management consultant Tom Peters said, “Hang out with weird and thou shalt become more weird. Hang out with dull and thou shalt become more dull. It’s that simple.” Experiences become building blocks for collaboration.
Scenius manifests in times and places like Ancient Greece and the Renaissance.
It’s at the heart of innovation, in companies like 3M and Ideo and Pixar, with thousands of geniuses at places like CERN smashing open the secrets of the universe.
Scenius, in other words, is the future we’re working towards.