Our Collective Genius
Humanity's greatest advances depended on shared physical location. So what happens when life moves online?
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week, news from Silicon Valley got me thinking about the ongoing battle over the future of work. And about a niche but influential idea that can help us make sense of what that battle means for our shared future.
There’s much ahead that’s familiar ground for NWSH: the nature of creativity and innovation, the role that physical presence plays in those processes, and the future of online communities. But the central idea here is new. And it started, weirdly enough, with Brian Eno.
Intrigued? Read on!
LinkedIn has just announced that its global staff of 16,000 will be allowed to work remotely forever.
At first glance the news is just another minor staging post in the ongoing journey to figure out the future of work. A battle over that future is raging in Silicon Valley, with tech giants lining up on both sides. Twitter and Microsoft – who own LinkedIn – have told employees they’re now free to work from anywhere. Amazon and Apple say they want staff back at the office at least most of the time; both have faced an employee backlash.
All this mirrors the quiet war between labour and capital that is unfolding inside the broader economy. Global market research firm Ipsos just published a new survey of workers across 29 countries: one-third said they’d quit their job if forced to return to the office full time.
It remains unclear where all of this will land. But few doubt that a shift is underway. There will be no return to universal and uncontested expectations of physical presence in the office, and that’s a major change in the way our societies are ordered.
There’s a reason, though, that we pay special attention to the way this war is manifesting in Silicon Valley. And that reason taps into an even broader issue. One I’ve only addressed indirectly in previous NWSH instalments on the future of work, and one that will do much to shape our shared future.
We pay special attention to Silicon Valley because it is a New Rome. And it got that way by playing host, across the last four decades, to a micro-culture that produced one of the most impactful technological advances humankind has ever seen. How did that happen?
In 1996, the British musician Brian Eno coined the word scenius to describe, ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene’. Eno argued that the most important cultural and intellectual advances were often the product of large groups of people who came together and sparked a kind of collective magic. These collectives became more than the sum of their parts, and that enabled them to make previously unthinkable advances that accelerated us into the future. Rather than promoting the ‘lone genius’ model of progress, said Eno, we should get obsessed with the scenius model.
You can see the ancient Greece of Socrates and Plato as a scenius. Early 20th-century New Orleans gave the world jazz; it was a music scenius. And, of course, Silicon Valley can be understood as one of the most important scenia ever.
You’ll notice something about these examples. They’re all built around, indeed I’ve named them all after, a geographical location. When it comes to creating the magic that inspires a great leap forward, history tells us that being physically together matters.
So here’s a question: what happens to scenia in a world where we decouple work and physical presence?
I’ve written before on the evidence that physical presence facilitates organisational innovation and creativity: a phenomenon I called the Chit-Chat Economy. But if you buy into Eno’s theory of scenius, then the conversation around physical presence transcends even those concerns, and becomes a question of our collective advancement as a species. If scenia have given us many of the greatest moments in the history of art, ideas, and technology, shouldn’t we do everything we can to make more of them? And if we’re now to embrace forms of life that see us live and work principally online, and forgo physical proximity, then will we reduce our chance to form scenia, and so impede our collective progress? Are we cancelling our own future?
The journey to address these questions will form an important part of the coming, post-pandemic decade. And, broadly speaking, those answers will fall into one of two camps.
There will be those who seek to make possible new kinds of online scenia. They will argue that supercharged communications tools can decouple collaboration and physical presence, such that entirely remote scenia are possible. And that the internet has a long history of cultivating micro-scenia of its own: you could think of mid-90s blogging culture, for example, as an online micro-scenius, or the current explosion of visual creativity on TikTok.
The emergence of next-generation ‘virtual HQs’ – think Branch and Huddle – marks a first attempt to sketch the outline of new forms of online collaboration that may one day make a true scenius possible. And Mark Zuckerberg’s recent indication that he plans to turn Facebook into ‘a metaverse company’ are an indication of the stakes. They are nothing less than the chance to own the virtual world in which the next great scenius takes shape.
On the other side will be insurgents who seek to create and scale new location-based scenia. Convinced of the primacy of physical proximity when it comes to collective human endeavour, they will work to bring people into shared physical locations in new ways. You see that mindset indirectly in projects such as Launch House, a new incubator that brings the creator hype house model to tech founders. And is the charter city movement, which I covered a while back, best understood as a new play on the power of scenius?
All of this has implications for Silicon Valley and business more broadly. The question of physical scenius vs virtual scenius may emerge as a key tech-culture debate, comparable to the argument on open vs closed.
But I wonder if this polarisation will reach far beyond those boundaries. After all, it encodes a divergent set of beliefs on how we work together, how we order our lives and societies, and, at the most abstract edges of the debate, how we best facilitate our advancement as a species. In other words: if you deeply believe in physical scenia as the way forward, you take a different view on some hugely important issues from those who believe virtual scenia are the way we’ll make progress from now on. So it seems no overstatement to say this debate has the potential to become one of the defining polarities of the age, alongside based vs woke or climate denier vs climate believer.
Of course, most people won’t articulate that debate in terms of scenius, a word which remains niche. It will manifest itself as arguments over how we work together, which centres of culture and innovation we should pay most attention to, and whether we flourish best primarily as members of physical or online communities.
How much of our collective conversation, and even our politics, will be reordered around those issues? So far, we’re too new to all this to know whether ongoing remote collaboration really works. And we certainly don’t know whether remote scenia – in the richest sense of the word – are possible.
But the outlines of this new polarisation are becoming clear. And pretty soon, the data will start to trickle in. As the decade wears on, expect this argument to flourish.
New World Scenius
Thanks for reading this week.
In 2021, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we’re living through a newsletter explosion.
There’s a lot to read out there. And that’s just one of the reasons I so deeply appreciate the time you spend with NWSH.
I’m busy working on a next evolution of our community, which I hope will enable us to become a nano-scenius all of our own. I can’t wait to tell you more about it. In the meantime, there’s one thing you can to to help: share!
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I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday; until then, be well.