Conjuring Scenius

Or, IT'S TIME TO BUILD TOGETHER

Hi friends 👋🏻,

Happy Monday! Today is a special one for me, for two reasons:

  1. Tomorrow marks the 1 year anniversary of this newsletter 🥳

    Over the past year, I’ve sent 56 editions of Per My Last E-mail / Not Boring for a total of 103,444 words, not including today’s or the 11,879 word essay linked in it.

    We have grown from 36 people to 1,226 📈

    Huge thanks to the people who have been here since #1: Tasshin, Matt, Kristen, Marat, Puja, Dror, Nick, John, Santosh, Jeremy, Andrew, Kyle, Pat, Saneel, Jenny, Mike, Sasha, Ben, Caro, Rinda, Ben, Maggie, Phin, Anja, Brett, Cooper, Aaron, Tripp, Mike, Skyler, Anil, Mom, Dad, and Dan.

    On Thursday, I’ll write a short (I’ll try!) e-mail on what I’ve learned over the past year and where the newsletter is heading over the next one. In the interim, I recorded a conversation with Sid Jha, who writes Sunday Snapshots, about what each of us has learned in our first year writing.

    If you like Not Boring, consider giving it a birthday present by sharing.

    Share Not Boring by Packy McCormick

  2. I’m publishing an essay that I’ve been working on since January as part of the Write of Passage Fellowship: Conjuring Scenius

    We’re all about optimism here at Not Boring, and my essay on scenius is no exception: I believe that the Coronavirus will be the catalyst for world-shaping progress by pushing the smartest people in the world to work together to tackle global scale problems. Crisis will lead to scenius.

    Even if you haven’t heard the term scenius, you know examples of it well: Ancient Greece, Renaissance Florence, Silicon Valley, and many more groups, big and small, that have come together to push the world forward.

    This topic became more important and urgent halfway through my writing it. Most of history’s great scenia have followed periods of tragedy, unrest, and destruction. Crisis is a giant reset button. It stops the inertia that pulls us comfortably along and makes us realize that there is more work to be done. New challenges present new opportunities.

    We are in the midst of the largest global crisis since World War II, and we need to be prepared to rebuild from it together. This essay is my attempt to provide historical perspective on scenius and a toolkit for conjuring it from the raw materials in place today: talented people united by a shared mission in an environment that demands progress.

    I’ll be honest. This essay is the hardest time I’ve ever had writing. It’s a massive, sprawling topic, and it was a challenge to wrangle it all into one essay. I’ve gone through countless drafts, many of which were downright bad. Without the contributions of Tom White, my editor for this essay, and of Mike Madonna, Maria P, the other Write of Passage fellows, and the many others who shared inputs, wrote sections, and provided feedback, I would have either quit or given in and published something that didn’t do the topic justice.

    At 11,879 words, this is the longest essay I’ve ever written by a wide margin, and it certainly doesn’t fit in this e-mail (nor would you want to read it all in your inbox). I’ve included an excerpt in the e-mail, and a link to read the entire essay below it.

    I hope you come away from reading it inspired and prepared to build together, and I look forward to your feedback and conversation.

Let’s get to it.

Conjuring Scenius

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. 

In January, I read Taylor Lorenz’s New York Timespiece 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. 

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.

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

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.

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 WiredMagazine 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…


For the rest of Conjuring Scenius, click on the link below. Feedback and conversation invited!

Read Conjuring Scenius


What’s Next

🕰 Counting Time - May 21st, 6pm

We have over 200 people signed up for our discussion on Counting Time on Thursday! Join us here.

🦠 Giant COVID Survey

We are just 20 responses away from hitting our 1,000 response goal in for the Giant COVID Survey. Once we get there, Anja, Kristen, and I are going to analyze and write up full results; for now, here are three interesting things we’ve found:

  1. Will there be a suburban migration as a result of COVID? Our survey respondents were split in their predictions, but with a narrow lead, 57% believed there will not be a noticeable migration out of cities within the next 5 years

  2. Long hair don’t care! 70% of respondents haven’t cut their hair since the start of COVID

  3. Bye office, hello offices? Only 19% of respondents think that former office workers will go back to working entirely in an office after COVID. Instead, 61% believe that office workers will work in more than one location, either primarily based at home or at an office

Help us help knowledge by sharing the Giant COVID Survey.

🚀 Let’s Grow Not Boring Together 🚀

Not Boring doesn’t want any presents for its birthday. In lieu of gifts, it just asks that you share it with as many people who you think would like it as possible. Wish Not Boring happy birthday by tweeting about it, posting to LinkedIn, forwarding to friends, or dropping a link to your favorite edition in your company and community Slack groups.

Our little smart, curious crew has already grown more in May than we did in April. Let’s keep it going!

Share Not Boring by Packy McCormick

It means a lot to me that so many of you read this, comment, reply, and discuss what I’m writing. A year in with more of us here than I'd expected, open rates are still around 65%. Thanks for being here and engaging. I’m really looking forward to the next year.

Thanks for reading,

Packy