Mutation is the key to our evolution. Unlike genetic evolution, which is a random process normally taking thousands of years, memes can be deliberately altered by human creativity. Every few decades, we see a sudden leap forward thanks to the astonishing productivity of comparatively tiny geographic pockets of innovation. Ancient Greece. Tang Dynasty China. Renaissance Florence. Elizabethan London. Belle Époque Paris. Northern England during the Industrial Revolution. Silicon Valley today. These memetic clusters contribute massively to human progress and culture over surprisingly short time periods.
Brian Eno called this ‘Scenius’ – the communal form of genius –“the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene”. This counters the ‘Great Man’ theory, that the course of history is altered by extraordinary individuals, without which progress would slow or reverse. Eno was convinced that it takes more than one ‘great’ man. You need a whole cluster of talented men and women working together – artists, academics, scientists, engineers, influencers – to lay the groundwork necessary to make the next leap forward possible. If we understood why this phenomenon happens, we could potentially reproduce these conditions on demand, or at least try to ride the next wave.
The location of the next innovation hub is hard to predict. In part because we’re looking for something we haven’t seen before – and always underestimate potential. By definition when you’re dealing with innovation, what was important to the last scene may be irrelevant to the next one. However there are observable patterns. Large technological shifts. Excess investment in education. Freedom of speech. Free trade. Pro-immigration policies. Cultural tolerance of failure. Open exchange of ideas. Wealthy patrons. Affordable rent.
Is there any one factor that explains what creates these conditions, attracts so many gifted individuals to one location, and extracts from them their best work? What brought Picasso, Fitzgerald, Stein, Matisse, Dali, and Hemingway to the same salon in Paris in the 1920s? World War I had just ended and Les Années Folles (”the crazy years”) had begun: re-establishing Paris as a capital of the arts after the devastation of the War. Emergence from catastrophe is a theme common to most historical ‘Scenia’, and it has the capacity to create the necessary conditions. The English Reformation led to Elizabethan London. The Bubonic Plague paved the way for the Renaissance. The Cold War preceded (and funded) Silicon Valley.
Every crisis is an opportunity. Old ways of working are re-evaluated, class and cultural differences are abandoned, and everyone pulls together to solve societal level problems. “Individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group”, as Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe. When the crisis is over, there’s a glut in the system of talented, experienced people, accustomed to solving hard problems together. Eventually this hardened generation give way to their softer children, for whom hardship is a distance memory. Society steadily declines until the next crisis hits, and the cycle begins again. “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” – G. Michael Hopf
Brian Eno's definition of Scenius (1996)
Clusters of trade, Marshall
Hard Times quote by Hopf
Midnight in Paris
Paris between the Wars (1919–1939)
Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme’
Sc3nius: Not Boring
Scenius, or Communal Genius
THE SECRET HISTORY OF SILICON VALLEY
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging