Conjuring Scenius

By Packy McCormick

Explore this essay

30-Minute Summary | Podcast | Original Post on Packy’s Website


The Fellowship of the Hype House

Quick: what do viral TikTok videos and The Lord of the Rings have in common? 

More than I could have imagined just a few months ago. 


Packy 1.png

In January, I read Taylor Lorenz’s New York Times piece on The Hype House, the LA mansion in which nineteen of TikTok’s biggest stars live, create, and collaborate. 

To me, an outsider without a TikTok account, it seems like a bunch of attractive kids coming up with an excuse to party together. 

Zooming out though, The Hype House is part of a millennia-old tradition of collaboration among those at the avant-garde of new forms of media, technology, and thought. Outsiders like me have always dismissed the novel as silly, faddish, or worse. When those inside the cutting-edge scenes band together to support, teach, and create with each other, their niche and experimental projects can become the new normal on top of which the next generation builds. 

Hell, if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were alive today, they might join the Hype House, too. 


Packy 2.png

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England doesn’t look magical. It is a three-story pub like thousands in the UK; in fact, it shares its name with 25 others. 

How to explain, then, the magic conjured inside? 

Patrons of The Eagle and Child wrote three of the five best-selling fantasy series of all-time within an eighteen year period – The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is here, on Tuesday mornings, that C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other members of The Inklings of Oxford met to read, discuss, and critique each other’s work. 

Tolkien read drafts of The Lord of the Rings to the group, and they provided both criticism and encouragement in turn. The Inklings were so impactful on Tolkien’s writing that he dedicated the first edition of The Lord of the Rings to them, writing, “What I owe to them all is incalculable,” and singled out Lewis in particular by saying, “only by his support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end.”

The Eagle and Child played host to scenius, the major driving force behind much of the world’s progress. It is possible that future historians will write the same thing about The Hype House. It is difficult to realize in the moment when and where communal genius strikes, but identifying a potential scenius and nurturing it has the potential to change the world. 


Roadmap

The Inklings of Oxford are part of a long tradition of scenia. The various groups and time periods that represented and played host to scenius are well known – Ancient Greece, The Renaissance, and Bell Labs to name a few. The similarities among them, however, remain criminally underexplored. This essay is my attempt to change that. 

I will start by exploring why scenia are the driving force behind much of the world’s progress. Then, I will deconstruct the elements that drove history’s most successful examples and still drive today’s budding scenia. By essay’s end, you will possess a toolkit that you can use to create modern scenia that reshape the world. 

My belief in the power of groups is so strong that I formed a metascenius of people interested in the topic to help write this essay. Their contributions are largely invisible throughout the essay but they have been tremendously impactful in its formation.

Here is a quick overview of the topics I will cover:

  1. The Power of Scenius

  2. Deconstructing Scenius

  3. Time Traveling for Ingredients

  4. Budding Scenius

  5. Lessons to Take into the New World

By the end of the essay, it is my hope that you will view the Coronavirus pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move the world forward. You will leave equipped with inspiration and a toolkit that you can use as an Archimedes lever to move the world. 

Let’s get to it.


The Power of Scenius

Astonishingly Productive Periods

It seems incredible that The Inklings produced three of the best-selling fantasy series of all time within an eighteen-year period from a small bar in a small town in a small country. But interestingly, history is full of such logic-defying combinations of place and time.

In 1997, historian David Banks argued in “The Problem of Excess Genius” that, “The most important question we can ask of historians is ‘Why are some periods and places so astonishingly more productive than the rest?’” 

This is not an uncommon question. More recently, in their call for a New Science of Progress, Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University and author of the popular blog Marginal Revolution, and Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, pointed out that:

Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past…the discoveries that came to elevate standards of living for everyone arose in comparatively tiny geographic pockets of innovative effort.

Banks, Cowen, and Collison are describing historical periods driven not by great individuals, but by scenius

Brian Eno, the inventor of ambient music who has been described as “one of popular music’s most important and influential figures,” coined the term scenius to describe “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” 

Counter to the Great Man Theory of History, which says that history can be explained by the impact of certain heroes and geniuses, Eno argued that:

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent.


Packy 3.jpg

Scenia do not start fully-formed. Instead, they evolve through three stages: communities, micro-scenia, and scenia. 

Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Examples: early personal computer enthusiasts, church groups, affinity groups, Slack groups

Micro-scenius: a generative community that creates its own novel ways of thinking, doing, or creating.

Examples: Homebrew Computer Club, Write of Passage

Scenius: a micro-scenius whose influence extends beyond the group itself and becomes foundational for a new way of thinking, doing, or creating. 

Examples: Silicon Valley, Scottish Enlightenment, The Renaissance, Les Années Folles


Packy 4.png

Community, micro-scenius, and scenius represent three distinct phases that a group passes through. Nurturing scenius means helping a group move through the funnel from community, to micro-scenius, and then scenius. 

Scenia can be large or small, span over centuries or last just a decade. The Inklings consisted of no more than fifteen people who met for a little under two decades, while Silicon Valley, fueled by the contributions of millions of people, has progressed uninterruptedly for nearly seventy years. No two scenia look the same; their similarity lies in the lasting transformational effect they have on the areas in which they contribute.

Throughout history, the communities that advanced through the funnel and became scenia have influenced technology, art, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine in ways that we still benefit from today.

Starting in the mid-500s BC, history’s foundational scenius sprung to life in Greece and lasted over two centuries. The ancient Greeks created the modern philosophy we still turn to in search of answers to life’s biggest questions. In addition to foundational technologies and concepts like geometry (every high schooler learns the Pythagorean Theorem), the Greeks also contributed to medicine (every doctor takes the Hippocratic oath), democracy, math, and science (blame Aristotle, Archimedes, and Pythagoras for the Greek symbols used in math and physics to this day).

Since then, various scenia have continued to shape our experience of the world. The chart below shows thirteen of history’s most productive and influential scenia and their contributions to humanity. The list is not exhaustive, but includes many of history’s most foundational scenia.


Packy 5.png

Today, the conditions are ripe for new scenia to join this list. 


Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste 

The Coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic in myriad ways: loss of life, record unemployment, quarantine at unprecedented scale. Like any major crisis, it also represents an opportunity. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage, author Ryan Holiday wrote:

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. [A] crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.

When it is all said and done, I believe that historians will look back at the Coronavirus pandemic as the greatest catalyst for progress and creativity in human history.

That is a big claim, so let me lay out my rationale clearly.

Historically, the scenia responsible for much of the world’s progress have been geographically constrained. The internet has the potential to break that constraint. With global connectivity comes the possibility of scenius that transcends physical place and unites the world’s greatest minds irrespective of distance or station in life. 

To date, we have failed to harness the potential of the internet to create global scenia for three main reasons:

  1. We have been unable to replicate the magical camaraderie of in-person collaboration online.

  2. There has been no common mission or common enemy strong enough to unite people around the world (I see you, crypto people. We shall see.)

  3. Until now, we have not experienced a global catalyzing event that has necessitated new modes of creating, communicating, and collaborating. 

The Coronavirus pandemic is perfectly suited to break through those barriers in three main ways:

First, it serves as the previously-absent, globally-catalyzing event for the internet generation. Throughout history, the majority of the world’s great scenia were born out of periods of struggle. 

Second, people across the globe have banded together, united by a common mission: to fight the spread of this disease. In a matter of weeks, we are seeing that it is possible for even peacetime rivals to collaborate quickly and effectively against a common enemy. Google and Apple, fierce competitors and the owners of the world’s top two mobile operating systems, are working together to track the virus’ spread.

Finally, having been forced to interact almost exclusively online for an extended period, people are creating new tools, processes, and social norms that make collaborating online more like collaborating in-person. Could these tools, processes, and norms enable us to generate the creative buzz that comes from working together in the same place no matter where we are? Put differently, might Animal Crossing play host to communal genius just as The Eagle and Child did nearly 100 years ago?

Crisis reshuffles the deck and spurs creativity. It serves as the soil in which progress grows. For proof, look no further than the most recent example of scenius: Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is responsible for much of the world’s progress over the last half-century, and it would not exist without World War II. Since Shockley Semiconductor’s use of silicon in semiconductors in Mountain View in 1956, one relatively small corner of the world with a current population of four million people has produced an unprecedented amount of innovation. The Silicon Valley scenius is responsible for commercial radio, radar, videotape, random access memory, lasers, microprocessors, personal computers, satellites, 3-D computing, Google, the iPhone, and myriad other inventions. Without catastrophe, there would be no Silicon Valley. 

Further on, we will trace Silicon Valley’s birth back to World War II, a global catastrophe that caused death, destruction, and, ironically, unity. Similarly, our current crisis will serve as the wellspring of a new wave of modern scenia. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to create even more impactful progress because this is the first major crisis to strike indiscriminately across country, class, and creed since the internet has become a credible replacement for many in-person interactions. 

Imagine what we can create and the progress we can achieve when the world’s best minds are no longer limited by geography, but able to work together in high-fidelity across continents and time zones, united by a newfound appreciation for our collective connection.

We currently sit on the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity to amplify the magic generated by historically place-based scenia with the internet’s ability to connect smart, passionate people across the globe. 

We are connected to more people than ever before – in the zip of a Zoom or the twitter of a tweet, we can communicate with leading experts wherever they might live. 

If we are able to deconstruct scenius into its constituent ingredients, we can provide guidance to the communities springing up today that have the potential to leverage the most rapid change the world has ever experienced.

To act, first we must understand. Let’s start with Kevin Kelly’s attempt to deconstruct scenius.


Deconstructing Scenius

Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired Magazine and one of the leading writers on the intersection of culture and technology, was the first person to attempt to understand the ingredients that make up a scenius. He looked at historical examples and listed four factors that nurture scenius in a piece from 2008:

  • 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.

Kelly’s list is based on an analysis of scenia that have happened in the past, but it is not a recipe for conjuring scenius today and in the future. In fact, Kelly concluded the piece with the claim that:

Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being… 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. 

Kelly bases his argument on two key pillars that make sense, but are too limited: 1) the impossibility of commanding individual instances of scenius into being and 2) a focus on fully-formed scenia.

On the first, I agree that it is impossible to command a particular scenius into being without the right underlying conditions in place. As an example, he points to the many cities that have unsuccessfully poured resources into becoming the next Silicon Valley. 

On the second, I agree that you cannot bring a scenius, fully-formed, into the world. Scenius builds over time, often over decades. That said, if you apply the lessons learned throughout this essay to a promising community, you can nudge it along the path to scenius. 

What bridges the gap between Kelly’s piece and my thinking is that for scenius to form, the right conditions need to be in place: 

  • Change needs to be in the air as a result of a catalyzing event. 

    • Wars and plagues often serve this role. For example, the Renaissance followed the Bubonic Plague. 

  • Smart, talented people need to be motivated by a shared mission audacious enough to keep them interested for a long period. 

    • A sense of patriotic duty galvanized the scientists at Bell Labs.

  • Governments need to be friendly to progress, or distracted enough to not notice the change underfoot. 

    • The Scottish Enlightenment flourished while England governed Scotland at arms-length. 

  • The right mix of people from a variety of backgrounds need to be in the same place at the same time. 

    • Les Années Folles came about because of Paris’ role as a melting pot of Americans and Europeans post-World War I. 

When those conditions are present, as they are today, communities can tap them to mount enough attempts at scenius that a few will stick and change the world. Any one specific attempt may not take, but some will emerge out of the multitude of attempts.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic will necessitate new ways of doing nearly everything – how we gather, work, learn, create, transact, and more – the stakes for understanding how to conjure scenius are high.

Angel investor Chris Sacca has a favorite, germane quote: “It may be lucky, but it’s not an accident.”

Scenius formation will always require luck, on that Kelly and I agree. It is my hope that it is possible to learn from history’s lessons and mount enough attempts that scenius no longer emerges only by accident. 

To do that, we can look at history’s great scenia to find the ingredients that will create the scenia of tomorrow.


Time Traveling for Ingredients

Kevin Kelly provided us with four ingredients for scenius: 

  • Mutual appreciation 

  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques 

  • Network effects of success 

  • Local tolerance for the novelties 

He also maintained that one cannot command scenius into being. With just those four ingredients at our disposal, I agree. 

That being said, I believe that by giving promising communities more ingredients, we give them a better chance of succeeding as scenia. In addition to Kelly’s four ingredients, we will search through the historical examples listed in the introduction to find additional ingredients key to their lasting influence. 

Adding any or all of the ingredients that we uncover does not guarantee that a community will turn into scenius. That takes a special type of magic – the combination of right time, right place, right people, right idea, right underlying conditions. 

My hope is that when those conditions are met, though, adding these ingredients increases the probability of creating scenius. Such a powerful confluence of events and circumstances should never go to waste. 

Let’s now time travel through history in search of those ingredients, starting with one particularly relevant right now. 


Ingredient #1: Emergence from Catastrophe

I began writing this essay two months before the Coronavirus pandemic. Halfway through, I found myself questioning whether my assumption was right, whether it really was possible to conjure scenius. Even after applying the following three ingredients to promising communities and micro-scenia, it felt like something would be missing. 

Until very recently, Americans at large had become complacent and disconnected. We did not share a common enemy or a common goal. 

Sure, things might have continued to change slowly. Awash in capital, investors funded enough projects that some would inevitably incrementally improve some human lives. Despite this, I remained skeptical that today’s society would be able to achieve anything on par with the ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment Scots, or the early Silicon Valley pioneers. 

It turns out I wasn’t alone in sensing a lack of world-changing ambition. 

In investor-turned-essayist Alex Danco’s essay, “Progress, Postmodernism, and the Tech Backlash, he draws a distinction between progress – a mission-driven assertion of power that bends the world to the benefit of all humanity – and innovation – the arbitrage-driven assumption of risk for the financial gain of a few. 

Until recently, it felt like we were heavy on innovation, and light on progress. 

Something was missing, some catalyst that would shake us out of our comfort zone. 

A couple of weeks into the Coronavirus pandemic, it hit me: the world had gone too long without a catastrophe. Without meaningful struggle, creators seemed to be on a slow, inexorable path towards that scene in Wall-E in which humans get fat and lazy while technology attends to all of our hedonic desires.


Packy 6.png

Too much time spent in unbroken abundance allows innovation to compound until it reaches the Wall-E state. Catastrophe breaks that curve, creates new needs, and opens the door to progress.

This has been true throughout history. Either long periods of misery or catastrophic and world-altering events preceded nearly all of the examples of scenius I listed in the introduction:


Packy 7.png

Without catastrophe, there would be less progress. Without World War II, there would be no Silicon Valley. 

In “Common Enemies”, investor and writer Morgan Housel compares the Coronavirus pandemic to World War II. Like World War II, the Coronavirus impacts everyone regardless of race, creed, or station in life, and it too holds the power to unite the nation against a common enemy. He quotes historian Fredrick Lewis Allen, who wrote of the war in 1952:

The war crisis brought together as never before the pure scientist, the applied scientist, the manufacturing executive, the military officer, and the government administrator, and put them into a partnership which mightily affected their future understanding of one another.

This mixing of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and expertise is an important ingredient that we will revisit shortly. To understand Emergence from Catastrophe, it is most important to note catastrophe’s power to unite in the face of a common enemy. On this topic, Housel quotes the journalist and author Sebastian Junger. In his book, Tribe, Junger wrote:

Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group.

There is a more hopeful phrase for this phenomenon than “community of sufferers.”

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt refers to this ability to toggle between viewing ourselves as individuals and viewing ourselves as part of a greater whole as the “Hive Switch.” Even though we compete for status within a group, when confronted with an outside threat, we unite to compete against it.

Think back to September 11, 2001, one of the scariest and most tragic events in United States history. Even before the initial shock wore off, Americans exhibited what President Obama later called “a spirit of unity and togetherness.” We put aside our petty squabbles and came together, united by our common American identity and against a common enemy. Walking down the street, there was a deeply felt sense that although most of us had never met each other, we were the same. That was the Hive Switch in action.

Catastrophe, while awful in so many ways, can be a crucial ingredient for scenius because it orients a collective people towards a common goal around which they can practice working together; all the while building muscles that they can use in the future to tackle further challenges. Catastrophe pushes aside the boundaries that typically divide people and allows them to form communities that might evolve into scenia. 

Because of this, World War II did more than unite us in our pursuit to defeat the Axis Powers. It created the need for the Manhattan Project and laid the foundations for Bell Labs and Building 20, two of history’s great scenia. 

Those two scenia were responsible for advancements whose influence reached far beyond World War II. In Building 20, scientists invented “high-speed photography, modern-theory linguistics, single-antenna radar, and the development of the physics behind microwaves.” At Bell Labs, scientists developed data networking, the transistor, cell phone technology, solar cells, laser, communication satellites, and the Unix operating system. You can draw a straight line from Bell Labs to Silicon Valley, and from there to the technology-enhanced lives we lead today. 

Time and again, change begets progress. When humans go through periods of great tumult, we emerge with new perspectives, fresh motivation, and a fire to push the world forward so that we never have to go through what we just emerged from again. 

While it is difficult to imagine positive outcomes in the midst of so painful a crisis, we are already seeing signs that this pandemic is spurring innovation. 

As an example, Tyler Cowen launched the Fast Grants program in early April to fund scientific projects dedicated to understanding and fighting the spread of the Coronavirus. Fast Grants raised $21 million from backers including Stripe’s Patrick Collison. In just over one month, it has awarded 127 grants. 

That is the type of speed and universal focus that only a crisis can bring about. 

With a little luck and an understanding of how scenius forms, this crisis might also serve as a wellspring of new scenia that drive progress beyond Coronavirus-related issues. 


Ingredient #2: Competition

Scenius is communal, but communal doesn’t necessarily imply Kumbaya. Scenius can get competitive.

Just as our struggle against a common enemy united us in World War II, competition has always spurred people to achieve the seemingly unimaginable, on both global and local scales. 

Would Americans have landed on the moon just seven years after JFK’s exhortation without the competitive threat from the Soviets? Would we have electrified the nation nearly as quickly in the absence of Edison and Tesla’s competition for the supremacy of their respective electric currents? Would Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan if he did not jump on the court each and every night with an indomitable desire to destroy his opponents? 

We expect competition in international affairs, business, and sports. 

We do not expect competition within the liberal arts. However, competition created the “marketplace of ideas” of competing philosophical schools that sharpened Ancient Greek philosophy.

Similarly, competition drove the greatest artistic rivalry of the Florentine Renaissance. It all started with perspective. 

In the early 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti wrote the foundational text on painting, Della Pittura. In it, he laid out the principles of linear perspective and other artistic techniques grounded in math for the first time. 


As Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography, Leonardo Da Vinci, “By applying mathematics to art, Alberti elevated the painter’s status and advanced the argument that the visual arts deserve a standing equal to that of other humanist fields.”

Della Pittura popularized advancements in technique that enabled art to progress from the Maestà, in 1310…


Packy 9.jpg

…to Masaccio’s Tribute to Money in 1425…


Packy 10.jpg

…and finally to its Renaissance peak – Raphael’s The School of Athens in 1510.


Packy 11.png

Interesting side note: The School of Athens was both a product of the Renaissance scenius, and depicts art, philosophy, mathematics, poetry as one entire historical scenius, each building off the other through the long arc of time.

Through mathematics, artists, critics, and patrons could now view art objectively. More importantly, artists could compete. This created a flywheel: Objectivity led to competition. Competition brought new incentives to make better art. Incentives led to innovation and improvement. Innovation and improvement begot competition. 

In many cases, the competition was informal; apprentices wrestled to climb the ladder of their Bottegas, the studios in which they produced. But in other cases, Florence’s art patrons purposely put their greatests artists head-to-head to pull out their best work.

The greatest example of this was the Renaissance heavyweight paint-off of the century: Michelangelo vs. Leonardo. 

In 1503, Florence’s ruling council commissioned two works in the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of Florentine political life at the time, for each of the two largest walls in the space.

For the massive 174-foot wall in the meeting chamber that would come to be known as the Battle of Anghiari, in celebration of Florence’s 1440 victory over Milan, they commissioned Leonardo da Vinci.

For the wall directly opposite, meant to depict the Battle of Cascina, they commissioned Leonardo’s greatest rival: Michelangelo.

As Walter Isaacson wrote in Leonardo da Vinci:

The decision was a conscious effort to play off the rivalry between the era’s two greatest artists. Accounts from the time all use the same word for it: concorrenza, or competition…The showdown did more than any paragone could have to raise the status of artists. Leonardo and Michelangelo had become luminaries, paving the way for other artists – who until then had rarely even signed their work – to do the same.

Applying mathematics to art enabled objectivity, objectivity enabled competition, and competition brought the best out of two of Florence’s greatest artists. 

In turn, just as millions of young aspiring athletes honed their jumpshots to be “Like Mike,” Leonardo and Michaelangelo inspired the next generation of artists to continue to push boundaries. 

That is textbook scenius – competition fuels greatness, and greatness influences future generations.

Competition works on both the local level, as seen in Florence, and on the global level, as seen in World War II. From the very beginning of scenius, competition played a role in the creation of philosophy as we know it. More recently, the fight against a virus has united humans across rival companies and nations. 

In Florence, competition emerged inside of le botteghe. Place has played a similarly important role in all of history’s great scenia. 


Ingredient #3: Place-Based Ritual 

Just as the Renaissance had le botteghe, scenius more broadly requires a home. As it turns out, a surprising amount of innovation happens in bars.

The Scottish Enlightenment kicked off at the same time that six hundred taverns sprang up in Edinburgh. 

In Paris, Les Années Folles saw cultural, artistic, and literary icons from Ernest Hemingway to Monet mix and mingle in cabarets including Le Boeuf sur le Toit and Le Moulin Rouge.

In Philadelphia, Ben Franklin’s Junto gathered every Friday night at the Indian Head Tavern. 

Bars, and informal meeting places generally, seem to be an important ingredient for scenius. Having a place in which people can come together to let ideas flow without the formal structures of a workplace enables all four of Kelly’s ingredients: 

  • Kinship that leads to mutual appreciation and network effects of success

  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques that occurs when passionate people sit around a table and informally trade tips

  • Local appreciation for novelties made possible by informal, non-hierarchical conversation that happens in bars and cafes 

Franklin’s Junto depended on place-based ritual, meeting on a set schedule in a specific, informal place with a consistent agenda. The casual venue and atmosphere created a free-spiritedness in the group, as Franklin wrote to a friend: 

I find I love Company, Chat, a Laugh, a Glass, and even a Song, as well as ever…I therefore hope [the Junto] will not be discontinu’d as long as we are able to crawl together.

Despite the informality of the venue and the members’ fraternal attitudes towards each other, the club was strict about its rituals. Each of its twelve members’ initiations required them to answer “Yes” to four questions modeled after John Locke’s writings, including “Do you love truth for truth’s sake?” Once admitted, the twelve men of diverse trades and diverse interests gathered each Friday night to discuss “morality, politics, natural philosophy, and local gossip,” guided by a consistent list of twenty-four questions compiled by Franklin.

Place-based ritual created a balance of free-flowing ideas and structured action that enabled the Junto to conceive of and build the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Union Fire Company (referred to as Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade), and the University of Pennsylvania, which has a profound impact on society to this day.


Packy 12.png

Across the Atlantic, less than twenty years after the Junto began meeting in Philadelphia, the Scottish Enlightenment rose concurrently with Edinburgh’s taverns. 

Imagine being alive in Edinburgh in 1745. One day, you’re part of a 40,000 person hyper-local community living in what historian James Buchan called a “handsome, cramped and discontented provincial town,” a ten-day ride on a monthly stagecoach away from London, the closest major city. If you wanted a drink, you went to Lucky Wilson’s tavern, which could hold thirty-three people on a good day. 

Then, seemingly overnight, six hundred taverns spring up in the city. Those taverns played host to conversations between Adam Smith, David Hume, and friends, during which they established tenets of economics, philosophy, cognitive science, and more that influence their fields to this day. 

The presence of taverns in the stories of both the Junto and the Scottish Enlightenment could just have been a coincidence. People need a place to meet, and a tavern is as good as any.

But a recent paper by Northwestern economist Michael Andrews,Bar Talk”, highlighted the causal role that taverns play in innovation. Andrews looked at the rate of new patents before, during, and after Prohibition to show that bars play an important role in the creation of new ideas and products. He wrote: 

Prior to the enactment of prohibition laws, saloons were even more important as social institutions, acting as local hubs in which individuals could exchange information in an informal setting. With the passage of prohibition, the state took away these social hubs, disrupting the preexisting informal social network and forcing people to interact in other venues… The imposition of prohibition caused patenting to drop by 8-18% in the counties that wanted to remain wet relative to consistently dry counties in the same state.

Andrews’ study highlights something important: even though Prohibition left workplaces unchanged, the closure of saloons slowed the flow of ideas by shutting down the places where people from a variety of companies and industries could casually mix and exchange ideas. 

Gathering in a neutral, informal space allowed people at different points in their careers to exchange ideas on equal footing. A set of rituals ensured that the men stayed on task despite informal surroundings. The two – place and ritual – combined to contribute to the Junto’s progress. 

The Junto Club’s reliance on place-based ritual is a part of a long tradition of scenia based in specific locations. From the Greek Agora to coffee shops in the Islamic World, London, and Vienna, to the English Pub and the French cabaret, and even into maker spaces, garages, and proto-co-working spaces today, each scenius has had a place that it calls home.

Neutral spaces play another important role. They create a safe space for diverse people, thoughts, and experiences. 


Ingredient #4: Diversity of Thought and Experience

The best new ideas often aren’t new at all. Rather, they come from sampling and remixing pieces of existing ones. 

In his book Creative Quest, Roots drummer Questlove talks about a trick that he uses to spur his own creativity, the Connect Effect:

Think of two artists you know, who you consider to be very different, and imagine what project they would make if they collaborated.

In his best-selling book, Range, author David Epstein arrives at a similar conclusion. Citing research done by Luis A. Nunes Amaral and Brian Uzzi, Epstein points out: 

The commercial fate of Broadway during a particular era, be it unusually prosperous or exceptionally flop-ridden, had less to do with specific famous names and more to do with whether collaborators mixed and matched vibrantly.

This principle of diverse collaborators mixing and matching vibrantly was on full display in Detroit at the turn of the 1960s. 

In April of 1960, Berry Gordy incorporated Motown Record Corporation, the label that launched the careers of artists including Michael Jackson, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Marvin Gaye. Even Neil Young was signed to Motown at one point, as a guitarist in The Mynah Birds.

In fact, eight of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists were Motown artists. That is a stunning amount of talent for a studio that occupied a series of houses in a residential Detroit neighborhood over a thirteen-year period (Motown moved to LA in 1973). 

The 2019 Showtime documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown documented the early days of Motown. It was like an advertisement for scenius. Hitsville highlighted many of the elements that made Motown successful:

  • Place-Based Ritual: Motown began and grew out of a house in a residential neighborhood in Detroit. If a songwriter had an idea for a song in the middle of the day, he could walk into a room and find Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder to play it right then and there. That allowed for rapid creation and innovation.

  • Competition. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, intentionally used competition among his artists to bring out the best in them. He held weekly meetings in which the team voted to release certain artists’ songs while holding others’ back until they got it up to their friendly competitor’s level.

  • Emergence from Catastrophe: Strikingly, Motown also emerged from a crisis. It was born during the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the greatest musicians in American history came together in a small house in Detroit at a time when many of them couldn’t even share bathrooms with audience members at many of the venues in which they performed.

Since his goal was to promote the work of black artists at a time when black people were not accepted as equal in many parts of the country, Gordy intentionally sought out the fourth ingredient for scenius – Diversity – to help his artists’ music spread where it would not have been welcome otherwise.


Motown Founder Berry Gordy with Head of Sales and eventual President, Barney Ales (Photo: Dan Gottesman

Motown Founder Berry Gordy with Head of Sales and eventual President, Barney Ales (Photo: Dan Gottesman

For example, he hired a white man, Barney Ales, to run sales. After Ales’ passing, Gordy said of his hiring a white man as his head of sales, “I wanted to sell music to all people: whites, blacks, Jews, gentiles, the cops and the robbers.”

At a time when he was discriminated against for the color of his skin, Gordy filled his team with white people and black people, men and women. Motown benefited from the diversity of thoughts, experiences, and unique capabilities they each brought, and the doors each could uniquely open.

Diversity of thought and experience has been an important factor in many of history’s scenia. In an interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Tyler Cowen said that, “the bringing together of different ideas and cultures and the new clash of opposing perspectives has been correlated with a lot of these Viennas [scenia] in world history.” Cowen pointed out that even in the Scottish Enlightenment, the immigration of people from the Scottish islands to Edinburgh was a bigger change than moving from “Mexico to Los Angeles today.” 

Even though the Scottish islanders may have looked like their urban countrymen, their thoughts and experiences were different enough to shake things up and provide the raw material for the remixes that shape history. 

Even with a catastrophic catalyzing event, just the right amount of internal and external competition, and a place in which to collaborate, scenius will not take root without a diverse group of people who are willing to offer differing thoughts and experiences. It’s at their intersection that new ideas form. Scenius is a remix, a riff off of what has come before combined with fresh perspectives. 


So is Silicon Valley a Scenius? 

One of the critiques against the concept of scenius maintains that scenia are simply collections of exceptional people. Wherever Michaelangelo was born, the argument goes, great things would have happened. 

Equipped with four new ingredients in addition to the four that Kevin Kelly proposed in 2008, we have a framework through which to examine scenius versus Great Man Theory. Silicon Valley is current and familiar. Let’s apply the framework to show that it is an example of scenius and not just an exceedingly coincidental collection of historically great technologists.

Mutual appreciation: Silicon Valley is textbook mutual appreciation. Failure is celebrated and the bigger and crazier your attempt, the better. It is easier for a founder that has lost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of investor money to raise funding for a new company than it is for someone who previously built something small and profitable. Because venture capitalists succeed or fail based on whether they fund one company that returns 1000x of their investment, the whole culture is geared towards big swings and risk-taking. 

Rapid exchange of tools and techniques: Silicon Valley’s ethos is built on sharing tools and tricks liberally. From the Open Source movement, in which people create software that others can use freely, to hackathons, github repos, and meetups, sharing knowledge (although not trade secrets) is part of the DNA of the Valley.

Network effects of success: Silicon Valley is famous for its “mafias.” As companies sell or IPO for billions of dollars, they make many of their employees very wealthy. Those employees form new companies, support each other, and invest in the next generation of companies. The PayPal Mafia, Silicon Valley’s most famous, includes entrepreneurs who went on to start multi-billion dollar companies like Tesla, LinkedIn, Palantir, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. The combined value of the companies founded by PayPal alumni is multiples higher than PayPal’s market capitalization. 

This map from Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators traces the path of the Fairchildren, the bloodline of companies that shared Fairchild Semiconductor as a common ancestor.


Packy 14.png

Local tolerance for the novelties: Silicon Valley does not just tolerate novelties, it celebrates them. It is the place where the geeks rule, where hacks are lauded, and where anything that is not novel is dismissed out of hand. It is the place that overpopularized and bastardized the term “disruption.” 

Emergence from Catastrophe: As discussed earlier, Silicon Valley sprung out of the work done at Bell Labs to support the US effort in World War II. The need for new technologies and funding available due to the war cemented Bell Labs’ place as the leading technology research center. There, they “invented or improved numerous military systems, such as the two-way radio… semiconductor devices, radar, sonar, computers… and the first encrypted communications systems,” that were foundational for Silicon Valley’s technological advances. William Shockley, who developed the transistor out of Bell Labs a decade later, founded what many consider to be the first Silicon Valley company, Shockley Semiconductor. 

Competition: Silicon Valley is fueled by the rivalries between its biggest companies and their leaders:


Packy 15.jpg

In some cases, the competition is direct, with two companies trying to outcompete each other on product features. Other times, the competition is philosophical, as with Apple’s closed ecosystem approach versus Google’s open approach. Billions of dollars in venture capital have been spent on the race to develop products faster and better than the other guy. 

Diversity of Thought and Experience: Silicon Valley has historically been ahead of the curve by welcoming talent and perspectives from all over the world. It prides itself on being an idea meritocracy in which anyone can rise to the top. While Silicon Valley’s largest companies have faced criticism for a lack of racial and gender diversity on their boards, executive teams, and in their engineering departments, Silicon Valley is more welcoming of diversity than most other industries. In fact, the CEOs of its four largest companies by market capitalization are Indian, Indian, Jeff Bezos, and gay. 

Place-Based Ritual: Silicon Valley is famous for its garages. According to lore, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple each started in one. While most, more recent Silicon Valley successes have been launched from nicer digs, the importance of place-based ritual lives on through hackathons, meetups, and informal meetings at haunts like Buck’s or Coupa. 

Silicon Valley has its share of problems. It is facing criticism for privacy issues, its treatment of contractors, its largest companies’ monopolistic tendencies, and whether, as Alex Danco pointed out, it is currently working towards real progress or just innovation. Early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher famously complained that, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” 

Value judgments aside, the answer to whether Silicon Valley is a scenius is a resounding yes. Silicon Valley is more than a collection of talented people who all happened to build companies in the same industry, in the same place, at the same time. It checks all eight boxes. Silicon Valley is a scenius. 

Silicon Valley is the last example of scenius on a grand scale. Another global catastrophe has given a new generation a chance to create their own scenia. How will they leverage history’s lessons while taking advantage of the modern opportunities created in large part by Silicon Valley? 


Budding Scenius

Looking back is neat. With the exception of Silicon Valley, each of the examples we have discussed have stopped creating and live on only in influence. For this essay to be instructive to modern creators, I need modern examples. To understand how historical ingredients apply to today’s communities and micro-scenia, I sought out potential emergent scenia from the present day.  

I found them in the InterIntellect and Write of Passage. Both Anna Gát’s InterIntellect and David Perell’s Write of Passage are transitioning from communities to micro-scenia, and each has the potential to take the next step from micro-scenius to scenius. 

I spoke with both Anna and David to understand how they approach building community, inspiring generative and novel work, and influencing other smart people to build on top of their communities’ efforts. We also discussed how they are applying the ingredients for scenius to their organizations. 

Both conversations took place shortly before the Coronavirus outbreak, so we did not delve into its implications, but I believe that both Write of Passage and the InterIntellect have even more potential to change the world as a result of the crisis. 

Anna and David are similar in that both felt something special happening on the internet and acted quickly to harness it for the good of their growing communities. As their communities both exist primarily online, they can provide insights into the possibility of building online scenia. 


The InterIntellect

The InterIntellect is a “virtual city of minds.” A community of, and talent agency for, online intellectuals, the InterIntellect gathers some of the best minds from across the globe to discuss and collaborate with each other, and to educate the public. On the agency side, its goal is to elevate the voices that traditional media has traditionally neglected. Imagine major news organizations turning to the epidemiologist whose clearly-written explanation goes viral on Twitter instead of whichever medical expert they happened to have consulted for the past decade. 

Now is the InterIntellect’s time. This crisis has highlighted that certain groups of people no longer trust the government or traditional media to deliver unbiased facts. Instead, people are turning directly to doctors and epidemiologists equipped with unbiased experience and data to understand what is happening. This normalizes a behavior that was well underway at society’s fringes and opens the door for the InterIntellect to amplify the voices of those intellectuals.

When I spoke to Gát, she mentioned her desire “to enable the most open, most brilliant, most productive minds to have the loudest voices because they don’t have them now.”

Gát felt that the internet was full of brilliant outsiders who wanted to find each other and engage in positive, productive, and nuanced discussions. “People want to come out from the shadows again and meet each other and be post-political and post-division,” Gát says, “and not even in an idealistic way, just like we are realistic, we know this can work out.” 

Gát’s Medium post, “We’re a Niche, We Just Didn’t Know,” is a textbook example of a manifesto that creates community and slowly gives rise to scenius. In it, she highlights her intuitive hunch before inviting the community to define itself, with her guidance: 

Around one and a half years ago, at first faintly, I started noticing a new tune under the buzz.

There appeared a positive, encouraging theme that since then has kept growing and mutating, and bringing a lot of us together in conversation — unlikely companions, from all over the world and layers of society.

Curiously, it appeared mid- and off-platform. In emails and messages…So I started asking questions, reading and listening to other people like me. To you. On the internet, at work, at Meetups — during classes and at the pub. Wondering what was going on…

Not alone.

Observing spontaneous self-organization — without any central leadership — is always a humbling experience, as it seems to be not only natural, but of nature. 

Notice that Gát did not force it, did not say, “Here is the thing I want to happen, and I am going to make it happen.” Instead, she noticed something happening around her, became aware of it, began noticing it everywhere, and made it legible so as to bring a community together. 

In addition to the Medium post and the online community forming loosely on Twitter, over emails, and on podcasts, Gát began throwing in-person events – salons, fireside chats, and picnics. These rituals strengthened the community through face-to-face interaction and discussion, but their real purpose was simpler than that. 

“I want to do IRL, I want to talk about books and math and philosophy without fear of the other person,” said Gát. Out of that desire, a Place-Based Ritual for the InterIntellect was born. From its first gatherings, the salons spread to other countries, from the UK to the US to India and beyond. 

Early in 2020 while home sick with the flu, Gát decided to give the community an online home. Within days, she had launched a Slack community that attracted over 500 members in its first 48 hours. Members joined from around the world, polymaths of all ages, interests, and areas of expertise. According to Gát, “We have people from 16-year-old kids from India who just sat down and read off Hegel and then taught themselves machine learning on mom’s computer, and they are in the same pool with CEOs from unicorn companies and well-respected academics.” 

The timing was perfect. Less than a month before the world was forced to stay home, community members began meeting through online salons, teaching each other in online study groups, promoting each other’s work, and sharing tools, knowledge, and skills rapidly across the globe. 

The InterIntellect is just getting started, but it is showing the potential for scenius. Two ingredients jump out from Gát’s description of her community: Place-Based Ritual and Diversity of Thought and Experience. They are the same ingredients we found in our historical examples, amplified by modern technology. 


Place-Based Ritual

The InterIntellect is an ideal case study in modern place-based ritual. It would not exist without the internet, and by volume, the vast majority of the conversations among its members take place online (especially during the quarantine). Despite this, the InterIntellect’s in-person events are what strengthen the online relationships and make them real, and they harken back to earlier eras and scenia. Salons, those cornerstone in-person InterIntellect events, emerged from the Enlightenment in France, and were the setting for conversations that drove the scenia in Elizabethan London and Vienna in the late 18th Century. 

Today, the InterIntellect combines online interaction and offline ritual to build a broad, active community while forming the types of bonds and collaborations that can only be developed in real life. Despite interacting fully online for the time being, Gát has said that the InterIntellect will return to in-person events as soon as is safe.


Diversity of Experience, Background, and Expertise

The InterIntellect consists of diverse, globally-distributed people with all types of experiences and passions. Though in its infancy, a member can find a stimulating conversation in the community’s group chat on anything from philosophy to machine learning to climate change to anthropology. It is already providing ample opportunity for the development of those intersectional ideas upon which so many scenia have been based. 


For now, though, Gát is not focused on turning the InterIntellect into a scenius. She is building the community for the community’s sake, and letting it develop organically: 

The purpose of the II community is the II community. It’s an infinite game. Your goal is that people want to keep wanting to play with you…. I think if you do good work, it’s natural that you will become influential. Like good work is really rare. We want to have a better public discourse and a higher level of intellectual engagement. But it’s not a power game. I think of it as a long-term effect of my work: public life is better and politics is better and people know their choices better and they know about competing ideas in their world, then that will be success.

Whether intentionally or not, the InterIntellect is applying the historical ingredients for scenius in a modern context, and its members are tackling large, interdisciplinary questions that have the potential to reshape tomorrow.


Write of Passage

David Perell launched Write of Passage in 2019 with a simple goal: to teach people to write online. David had built up a 10,000 person mailing list by writing essays that millions of people read, and he wanted to share his secret with the world. He did it by launching an online writing school that combined the global reach of the internet with the personalized attention of a classroom.

Speaking from personal experience, it has worked. I began writing because I enrolled in the first Write of Passage cohort, and I am writing this essay as part of the Write of Passage Fellowship. The course has been hugely influential for me, and, based on my conversations with David and other Write of Passage students, it has had a similar impact on hundreds of others.

The course has evolved since I took it in 2019. Now in its fourth cohort, its focus has shifted from teaching skills to building community and coaching people to become citizens of the internet; a very timely decision given our new abnormal. 

“We are really more focused on helping people make friends through the course than we are on teaching the ideas,” Perell says, “not because the ideas don’t work, but actually because the ideas work best when you’re part of a community.”

The trends towards online education and digital friendship were both underway before the outbreak, but both were moving at a slower, pre-pandemic pace. Since the beginning of global quarantine, however, billions of students have moved to learning online and everyone with an internet connection has moved their entire social life online. Being a great online teacher or learner has never been more important, nor has the ability to build meaningful relationships through shared growth online.

Write of Passage is instructive because Perell is not thinking small; he has plans to make his courses influential enough to become a modern, internet-first scenius. In addition to Write of Passage, Perell recently launched a second course: How to Crush it on Twitter. Because of the scale of the internet and the content of the courses, both Write of Passage and How to Crush it on Twitter are able to impact thousands of people, who in turn impact thousands more. If you’re reading this right now, you have been influenced by Write of Passage. 

Changing the way that people learn, create businesses, and build relationships is the type of progress that gets the attention of future historians.

So is Write of Passage a scenius? When asked where Write of Passage was in its evolution, Perell told me:

I would say we are somewhere between a community and a micro-scenius. The way in which we are a community is that we are working with tools that already exist. There is a whole language around writing online that I can tap into… But at the same time, I think that we are becoming a micro-scenius because we are working on building new things together, and Write of Passage is beginning to get a name for itself.

From my conversations with Perell and my experience as a Write of Passage student, three of the historical ingredients seem most evident to me: Rapid Exchange of Tools and Techniques, Competition, and Place-Based Ritual. 


Rapid Exchange of Tools and Techniques

Write of Passage is built for the rapid exchange of tools and techniques. In the beginning of the course, Perell equips students with the tools that they need to get started – Squarespace for personal website building, Substack for newsletters, and frameworks like the Personal Monopoly. From there, each session is an opportunity for students to exchange tools and techniques with each other – growing newsletter subscriber bases, the right structure for different types of essays, tips on staying focused. In this case, online community is a huge advantage. Whereas tools and techniques would have taken days, weeks, or months to disseminate during the Renaissance, they are now a link away, curated by a knowledgeable instructor and a curious community. 


Competition 

Write of Passage employs competition in a way that’s built for a world of abundance. Instead of directly pitting people against each other, Perell highlights the one or two people who have done the best work each week by lauding it within the cohort and sharing it with his vast online following. While this positive-sum competition lacks the drama of Leonardo vs. Michaelangelo or Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, it succeeds by identifying and encouraging high-potential creators, who in turn inspire others. 


Place-Based Ritual

In our historical examples, place-based ritual meant having a physical place. What does that look like for an online school? According to Perell, “There is a feedback loop where the online engagements enable the offline ones and then better offline engagements enable the online ones. But in the chicken and egg, the online comes first.” 

For Write of Passage, this means that students meet online twice every week and come prepared to give and receive feedback on their previous week’s writing. It also encourages groups of students in each city to meet up in-person to strengthen relationships begun online. Like the InterIntellect, Write of Passage is able to combine the ease and global reach of the internet with the power of in-person connection. 


The fact that both Write of Passage and the InterIntellect, both born of and on the internet, deeply value in-person interaction implies that while technology can enhance traditional Place-Based Ritual, it cannot completely replace it.

Write of Passage seems to have what it takes to conjure scenius. Though Write of Passage is in its early days, if Perell is able to fulfill his mission of helping people build relationships and businesses online, he may not only create a scenius, but also a framework upon which other online-first scenia are built. This shift is already underway; Write of Passage is partially responsible for the explosion in operators becoming writers. I would argue that Substack owes Perell for much of its early growth.

Now more than ever, a school that teaches people a new skill while introducing them to new friends and mutual supporters has the potential to change how people learn. The delivery of education has remained largely unchanged since the Industrial Revolution; the organization that changes it will have the type of influence that is the hallmark of history’s great scenia.


Lessons to Take Into the New World

Write of Passage and the InterIntellect are proof that the recipe for scenius calls for the same ingredients it always has. The tools that each uses and the ways that members of each group connect with each other, however, have evolved to meet the opportunities and realities of the modern world. Tavern meetups have become occasional interludes between Slack chats, Zoom gatherings, and online work. 

These burgeoning efforts offer hope that scenius can indeed be created online, but must also be strengthened and punctuated by real-world interaction; that competition will always drive humans to push themselves further, but that competition need not be zero-sum; that the scale of the internet can mean bolder, more ambitious missions. 

Both also stand to benefit from the global Emergence from Catastrophe that will slowly occur as the Coronavirus recedes. In light of this forthcoming opportunity, the time has come to discuss how those working to build scenia out of catastrophe can apply our ingredients within a modern context. By doing so, we can give the many movements that spring out of the Coronavirus pandemic the best chance of becoming world-changing scenia.


Competition

Throughout the history of scenia, competition within a scene has spurred its participants to achieve great things. The dueling philosophical schools of Ancient Greece competed with each other for students. Michaelangelo and Leonardo competed against each other for commissions and pride. When one won, the other lost, but the whole scene advanced. 

Modern scenius, however, will increasingly take advantage of two forms of competition:

  • Internally, they will leverage non-zero-sum competition, in which one person can succeed without others losing. Contenders will sharpen each other in preparation for battle against common foes. 

  • Externally, they will engage in zero-sum competition against common enemies: incumbents and global challenges, like pandemics and climate change. When they conquer those, the status quo loses and society wins. 

Write of Passage is competing with established ways of learning and making friends. The InterIntellect is competing with established voices that dominate the current narrative. The members of both groups work together, consciously or unconsciously, to usher in a new way of doing things.

The Coronavirus pandemic will impel people to work together to defeat grand, existential enemies. We are seeing, and will continue to see, global groups form to fight global risks, from pandemics to climate change. 

On the internet, non-zero-sum competition can look like zero-sum competition. Pioneer, a “fully remote accelerator” that “funds projects and startups built by ambitious outsiders around the world,” explicitly uses competition to motivate participants. Projects and companies compete in a tournament that forces them to submit progress updates each week for the other participants to rank. Acceptance to the Accelerator is contingent upon a project/company reaching the global Top Fifty on Pioneer’s leaderboard.

In this case, competition serves three main functions: 

  1. Forces Action – required weekly submissions mean that your project needs to demonstrate meaningful progress and momentum to advance. 

  2. Levels the Playing Field – as a global competition, anyone in the world has the chance to compete and selection is based solely on the merits of your project.

  3. Motivates – scores and leaderboards have power over people. By measuring progress and standing among a set of global peers, and rewarding success with global recognition, Pioneer draws better work out of its participants. 

Importantly, though, while some participants win and others lose, competition strengthens all who commit for the real battle in the global marketplace. Like the children in Ender’s Game, Pioneer students think they are fighting each other, when really they are working together to defeat much larger foes. 

The internet creates abundance, and abundance enables non-zero-sum competition. The most successful modern scenia will combine non-zero-sum competition with the perennial, head-to-head competition that has always impelled greatness from those within the scenius. Sharpened by these dueling frameworks, those inside of the scene will then work together to fight the world’s big challenges.


Diversity of Thought and Experience

The potential to take advantage of a diversity of thought and experience has increased through time. In Ancient Greece, it meant different schools led by Athenian men sharpening each other’s ideas. During the Scottish Enlightenment, it meant urban Scots and isle Scots exchanging ideas in Edinburgh. In Motown, it meant leveraging gender and racial diversity to build a team uniquely suited to creating and distributing a new sound. And in Silicon Valley, it means taking the best people from around the world who are willing to move to California. 

Before Coronavirus, the trend towards remote collaboration was already underway, but it was limited to a small, albeit vocal, minority. During the Coronavirus pandemic, however, every knowledge worker has become a remote worker. The difference between being a block away and an ocean away disappears when everybody connects on Zoom and chats on Slack. 

The InterIntellect, which had been based on global correspondence and local salons, now welcomes any member from around the world into any salon. Instead of limiting discussion to a New Yorker’s brazen perspective, conversations can now incorporate the perspectives of New Yorkers, Mumbaikers, Ghanaians, and Swiss. 

While being remote makes certain aspects of collaboration more challenging, it serves as a boon for increasing access to a diversity of thoughts and ideas. Like a blind person developing a better sense of hearing, modern scenius builders must act with intention to take advantage of the opportunity to home in on diverse perspectives and ideas. These builders need to become DJs, remixing all voices and opinions, letting them blend and play off of each other. 

The Coronavirus-induced acceptance of remote work as part of an organization’s playbook could be the genesis of a global melting pot of ideas that creates the novel combinations needed to drive global progress. Anyone building a modern community, company, or movement with global ambitions would be foolish to limit themselves to local perspectives.


Place-Based Ritual

Leveraging the best ideas from diverse and far-flung people will be table-stakes in the post-Coronavirus world. Leaders can and must access brilliance wherever it happens to live. 

That said, even as companies move remote, the internet cannot yet fully replace the importance of in-person interaction. Write of Passage starts online to deliver content, but moves offline to strengthen relationships. The InterIntellect relies on in-person salons around the globe to build bonds and exchange ideas in the same type of intimate settings that fueled the Junto, Les Années Folles, the Scottish Enlightenment, and all of history’s most impactful scenia. 

Even Basecamp, a fully-remote company whose founder and CTO, David Heinemer Hanson is one of the most outspoken advocates of remote work, understands the importance of Place-Based Ritual. Twice a year, the entire Basecamp team holds a Meetup in Chicago, and once a year, everyone gathers in Mini Meetups to work together from various locations across the globe. 

The most influential modern scenia will ultimately be those that get the mix of online and offline right. They will connect the best minds from across the globe online while understanding that no matter the technology at our disposal, humans are humans. In order to build the deep bonds of trust required to do transformational work, we need to meet face-to-face, even if less frequently than Ben Franklin and his friends did. 

The internet is a revolutionary complement to in-person gatherings, but it is not a total replacement. 


Emergence from Catastrophe

Though things seem dark from the inside of a crisis, history reassures us that these are the seminal moments that catalyze our best work. There is a bright side to all of this chaos and suffering 

As it turns out, pandemics are not the only phenomena that spread like viruses. Scenia do, too. 

In a conversation with Tyler Cowen, jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia, said: 

I found a surprising number of situations in history where unhealthy settings and situations had created artistic revolutions. Most people date the start of the Renaissance to the year 1350 in the city of Florence. They don’t realize, 1348 was the Great Plague in Florence. What people don’t realize, the troubadour revolution spread from the South of France into the rest of Europe. It followed the exact same dissemination patterns the Black Death did.

We are living through a global health crisis unlike any the world has seen. Right now, the whole world is plagued. 

The interconnectedness that allowed the Coronavirus to spread from a wet market in Wuhan, China, to every corner of the globe may well be the very same force that allows us to disperse creativity, technology, and progress. 

When that force begins to emerge, creators will stand prepared, and collaborators will fuel the fire. 


The Road Ahead

Modern scenia have the advantage of building on the hard-earned lessons of those scenia that came before them. Who knows how many communities and micro-scenia never reached their potential because their participants were unable to recognize the treasure that lay before them? How many more, even if aware, lacked a blueprint to harness the abundant opportunity? 

They may have discouraged Competition instead of leaning into it. Or met whenever and wherever their schedules allowed instead of establishing Place-Based Ritual. Or built homogenous, like-minded communities instead of welcoming Diverse Thoughts and Experiences. And when they faced Catastrophe, maybe they shrank from it instead of emerging stronger. 

As “Miracle on Ice” Coach Herb Brooks once told his team before they played the Soviet Union, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” Forty years later, we too have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. 

The virus has exposed incumbent institutions’ shortcomings; we will need to reimagine and rebuild education, healthcare, work, supply chains, travel, retail, and so much more. We will build new virtual worlds and reimagine the physical one. Having glimpsed how the world can recover when humans stop emitting, we will work together globally to reverse the effects of climate change. Almost everything we do needs to be rethought, not just to prepare for the next outbreak, but because we have been given the closest thing to a tabula rasa we are likely to come by in our lifetimes. 

Now that you know the secret, that human progress is the history of great scenia, you have no excuse. You cannot claim ignorance. You have a toolkit, and you have thirteen examples of scenius to mine for further lessons. You should also have the ability to recognize scenius, whether in history books or in its infant form in modern communities. 

Heed your call to arms. It is a call that people have responded to for millennia: “Come together to rebuild a new and better world from the ashes.”

People heard that same call after the Dark Ages, the Bubonic Plague, World War II, and nearly every global catastrophe humans have faced. Catastrophe dislodged complacency, and people emerged with a renewed mission and sense of unity. 

We are facing such a catastrophe today, and I fully expect that we will come out of it re-energized. Marc Andreesen said, “IT’S TIME TO BUILD!” And it is. 

To build successfully, let’s go back to history once more for one last lesson, to an old African proverb that still rings true today: 

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

The challenges and opportunities in front of us are too big and important for any one person to tackle alone. It will take a scenius. Now, when you see it emerging, learn from it, nurture it, and let me know.


This essay took a metascenius to write. Huge, huge thanks to Tom White, who edited countless drafts of this essay and wrangled all of the ideas into a cohesive narrative; to Mike Madonna, who wrote the section on Michaelangelo vs. Leonardo; to the metascenius, particularly Maria P, for their vibrant discussion about scenius and their help in uncovering ingredients; to David Perell, Suthen Siva, and the rest of the Write of Passage Fellowship crew for pushing each other to write longer, better, essays than we ever have before; and to the countless people, especially Puja, who have listened to me talk about scenius for the past four months and shared their thoughts and resources with me. 


The Write of Passage Fellowship is designed to help a small group of intellectually curious minds to create world class essays on a topic of their choice.

With the rise of the internet and tools for mass communication, we’re witnessing a new generation of writers and content creators. It has helped me build my own audience, a process that I then systematized to create the Write of Passage course as we know it today.

The news doesn’t dive deep enough. The problems of the modern world are too complex for short articles with clickbait headlines. We plan to nudge the conversation in a more thoughtful direction. Each essay will analyze events with the context required to communicate nuance and help the reader understand them.

Each fellow receives mentorship, professional editing, and feedback from cohort participants.


Explore this essay

30-minute summary | Podcast | Original Post on Packy’s Website