There will never be another Silicon Valley. Like there will never be another Renaissance or Ancient Greece. In retrospect, these locations each had vital elements that came together to form a magical time-place combination. But looking forward, the future place of creative genius isn’t a ‘place’ at all.
The history of how places influenced creative genius (parts I, II, III) revealed that no single environmental factor could explain genius. It’s not genius views on observation, exploration, risk and failure, cognitive flexibility, embracing chaos, teams, or moments in time; it’s all of them. All the parts are connected. Culture is crucial to creativity.
The lone genius never really worked alone. Simple narratives overstate the importance of individual contributors. Edison discovered the lightbulb. Einstein discovered special relativity. But if Edison had been born in Europe, or Einstein in America, would they have made the same contributions? Unlikely. These geniuses needed their cultures.
If it's not a lone genius, what is it? “Scenius” is a concept of collective genius, first envisioned by musician and artist Brian Eno. In a letter to his friend Dave Stewart, Eno wrote:
I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this ‘scenius’ - it means ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene.’ It is the communal form of the concept of genius.
Eno continues, “I would prefer to believe that the world is constantly being remade by all its inhabitants: that it is a cooperative enterprise.” Through this lens, Ancient Greece was a Scenius; the Renaissance was a Scenius.
Geniuses need scenius to thrive. In many cases, geniuses need other geniuses. Whether for competition or cooperation, creativity is contagious. Being around creative people drives creativity. But creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs in a place and time, with the right mix of people and ideas. Like an ecosystem that allows an organism to thrive, a scenius allows creativity to thrive.
Scenius emerges when a group is motivated, either through a culture of cooperation or through competition when incentives align. These cultures embrace education and apprenticeship, testing new forms of teaching and learning. Sceniuses elevate risk-taking and experimentation. Importantly, sceniuses mix and remix content, creating and innovating. A scenius operates in an environment that supports new tools and technologies. And finally, sceniuses require a moment in time that is on the brink of change.
In Eno’s letter on Scenius, he describes cultural examples like Dadaism in France, American experimental music in the late ’50s and ’60s, and punk in the ’70s. But he also suggested it would be “interesting to include scenes that were less specifically artistic - for instance, the history of the evolution of the internet.” Indeed, Silicon Valley was a Scenius.
Eno might not have been able to imagine in the mid-1990s that the internet itself, not just its formation, is a Scenius. In fact, the internet might be the next future place of creativity. Like Verrocchio’s Workshop, European salons, English pubs, and Silicon Valley coffeehouses, what started in physical genius loci have moved: beginning with IRC chatrooms and web forums, and now on to Discord servers and decentralized networks. The ethos of Scenius today is nowhere more evident than online.
The internet is the quintessential place where new ideas thrive. Everyone is an outsider, and anyone has permission to create or innovate. And if “creativity is just connecting things,” then the internet is where exposure to new ideas allows anyone to imagine the future. Creativity requires risk, and risk takes guts. A risk-taking culture is empowered online by pseudonymous profiles and anonymous comments. And for all its chaos, the shallow, lack of attachment, high fluidity online environment makes it easy for people and ideas to come and go. As a result, experimentation and progress are collectively smarter and faster than in other places.
Gone are the days of creative hotbeds in specific locations. Instead, we herald in a new era where all elements historically required for creative genius come together in online communities. Indeed, the conditions for creativity are ripe on the internet today. Something is happening online. There’s a crack in the foundation and a sense of impending change. Plato wrote, “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” But on the internet today, “what is valued in a community will be built there.”