The Scenius Edition

On culture, moments, and Eno

Noah here. There’s a recurring story of invention that relies on the hard work and dedication of an individual. It’s your regular hero’s journey and is probably best personified in the 21st century by business magnates like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. We love to paint a picture of a maniacally focused individual trudging ahead on their own when no one believes in them.

Obviously, this is never totally true. Jobs and Musk were surrounded by thousands of brilliant designers and engineers who have helped to make their vision a reality. What’s more, any new idea is always standing on the shoulders of other ideas that came before. This was well-articulated in a post from Esko Kilpi on the role of networks in creativity:

To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a popular, but misleading simplification. These breakthroughs would have been inconceivable without (1) the social and intellectual network that stimulated and advanced their thinking and (2) the people who recognized the value of their contributions and spread them further. A good, new idea is not automatically passed on. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. One cannot be creative alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition.

Why is this interesting?

Beyond the realities of how ideas are built on other ideas, there is an even more interesting phenomenon: when a group of people seems to come together in the perfect moment and in the perfect way. Phil Lesh, who was one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, cited the 1953 sci-fi novel More Than Human as an inspiration for the band. Friend of WITI Nick Paumgarten mentioned the book in his 2012 profile of the band. In More Than Human, “a band of exceptional people ‘blesh’ (that is, blend and mesh) their consciousness to create a kind of super-being.” The piece goes on to quote Lesh who explained, “I turned everyone on to that book in, like, 1965 … ‘This is what we can do; this is what we can be.’”

The idea was picked up and extended by musician and all-around genius Brian Eno. He called it scenius: scene + genius. Here’s what he wrote about the idea in his 1996 book A Year of Swollen Appendices:

A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius - the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large num­bers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this ‘scenius’ - it means ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cul­tural scene’. It is the communal form of the concept of genius.  

Scenius is a wonderful idea and much more representative of the reality of how great art and ideas emerge. I also think the best companies manage to create scenius—attracting the right people around the right idea at the right moment. At the center of scenius, whether in a company or art movement, is what Kevin Kelly calls “the rapid exchange of tools and techniques.” As he wrote in a 2008 post, this creates an environment where “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.” This, I believe, is part of what can make a small company feel magical. When things are flowing and everyone is sitting around a table or Slack channel, everything is immediately shared and absorbed. In my experience, much of what happens as you scale is trying to figure out how to recreate that reality. (NRB)

Book of the Day:

Recently reissued in 2020. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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