In the ancient world, the word “genius” referred to communities as often as people.
The musician-philosopher Brian Eno has a different name for the same idea: Scenius. It describes the intelligence and intuition of a cultural scene, as if genius is a communal pursuit as much as an individual one. In Eno’s words: “If genius is the creative intelligence of an individual, Scenius is the creative intelligence of a group.”
Scenius is The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien frequented and birthed three of the five best-selling fantasy novels of all time: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings; it’s The Bloomsbury Group, a loose collective of friends who met in England in the early 20th century such as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes; it’s the Scottish Enlightenment which took place in late-18th century Edinburgh and inspired intellectuals like Adam Smith and David Hume; it’s early 20th century Vienna which birthed the artist Gustav Klimt, physicist Ernst Mach, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich Hayek; and it’s the early days of YCombinator which created companies like Reddit, Dropbox, DoorDash, Airbnb, and Stripe.
As Stripe founder Patrick Collison said: “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.”
What did these groups have in common?
Often, leaps in progress are catalyzed by a step-change in how people think about the world. Leon Battista Alberti created the conditions for the Renaissance when he laid out the principles of linear perspective and elevated the cultural status of painters in a text called Della Pittura. Progress exploded when, between the years 1310 and 1510, artists learned how to paint with depth and perspective.
For the first time in human history, scenius is moving beyond physical geography. It’s happening on the Internet now. And it’s alive in obscure Discord forums, private group chats, and online schools.
Write of Passage, for example, is a community of hundreds of ambitious writers who love ideas and bond over the beautiful struggle of creation. Friendships are formed as the loneliness of writing disappears and writing becomes a communal endeavor. In the future, we’ll look back with surprise at how many of the world’s top Internet writers were a part of it.
Like Write of Passage, sceniuses balance the free flow of ideas with strict cultural norms. Members are competitive enough to motivate each other but cooperative enough to find joy in their success. They meet often enough to share ideas but work independently enough to develop their own voice. Though they are willing to adapt to changing circumstances, they root themselves in a core set of principles. Too open, and their strong culture disappears. Too closed, and they lack the dynamism that generates progress. With the right social dynamics in place, the group becomes a scenius.
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