The collective is our future cure

Future of Society

It’s often said that history is told through the eyes of the victor. Just as often, history is told through the eyes of the lone genius–often a man (for another essay)–who appears to make great leaps in human understanding and progress. Thomas Edison. Steve Jobs. Mahatma Gandhi. Vincent Van Gogh. The tortured genius working in isolation to push the boundaries of human knowledge is, of course, a romantic story.

Except it’s not true. It’s no coincidence that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Paul Allen, Vinod Khosla and Steve Balmer were all born within 18 months of each other. Nor is it a coincidence that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel and Pink Floyd were all producing world-class music at the same time. Whether you examine Athens from ~440 BCE to 380 BCE or Silicon Valley from the 1970s onwards, you’ll find that some ecosystems are just “better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude.” All creatives, entrepreneurs, activists and technologists need collectives of other intelligent, creative, curious people to create fertile ground for new ideas to cross-pollinate and flourish.

Brian Eno, who produced artists such as U2 and Coldplay, calls this “scenius”, the creative intelligence of a community. I like to think of it as genius embedded in scenes rather than genes. How to design systems that enable scenius in an intentional way has been one of the central questions of my career so far. Why? Because scenius has the ability to shift the engines of history onto an entirely different track.

So far, no-one has found the answer. But it’s not for lack of trying. Sociologists, network scientists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists and philanthropists have all asked their discipline-specific questions and conducted their niche studies. Yet the sheer complexity of the nature of progress dwarfs the ability of one such discipline to give us a comprehensive answer. In a sense, it’s a rather meta problem. We require interdisciplinary scenius to help us understand whether it’s possible to engineer the conditions needed to create scenius in the first place.

I do feel optimistic that we can create such an interdisciplinary effort, because we’ve seen this type of shift occur before in the formation of other disciplines, such as cognitive science, which emerged from computer science, linguistics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology, and climate science, which was born from environmental science, chemistry, oceanography, mathematics, computer science, ecology, computer science, physics and biology.

Instead, what will be more difficult in kickstarting the shift from studying genius to studying the origins and mechanisms of scenius is to get society to respect futurists as much as we respect historians. In futures and foresight work, lessons learnt from history are applied in a way that enables us to both understand the causes of a phenomenon, as well as to actually do something about them.

At this point, a simple diagnosis of the past is not enough; we must learn to cure the future as well.

February 12, 2024