Empirically, breakthroughs that enable great progress depend on particular, uncommon social constellations and accompanying social practices. Let’s encourage these!
(I copied this section nearly verbatim from “Upgrade your cargo cult for the win.” There’s more there where this came from, if you like it.)
Despite heroic mythology, lone geniuses do not drive most scientific and technological advances. Breakthroughs typically emerge from a scene: an exceptionally productive community of practice that develops novel epistemic norms. Major innovation may indeed take a genius—but the genius is created in part by a scenius.
“Scenius” stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.
Individuals immersed in a scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.1
There is no systematic method for creating a scene, for improving epistemic norms, for conjuring scenius, or for upgrading a community of practice. These are “human-complete” meta-rational tasks. There is no method—but there are methods. There are activities, attitudes, and approaches that encourage scenius. These are available to individuals, institutions, or both.
Communities (including, but not only, institutions) can take a meta-systematic view of themselves. Management theorists describe “learning organizations” that don’t base themselves on fixed goals, structures, principles, and procedures. Rather, they hold themselves accountable to reality by conducting continuous meta-systematic reflection on their own commitments, dynamics, and norms, revising those accordingly.2
Such reflection may afford much greater leverage than incremental process optimization.
Such organizations also foster the learning and development of their members, so they can take on increasingly challenging, interesting, and valuable responsibilities. There are steps an organization can take to transform itself from a cargo cult into a dynamically innovating scene.
Too much of life is wasted going through the motions, playing it by the book, acting according to systems no one really believes in and that fail to reflect a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. This is deadening for individuals, and for society a vast loss of opportunities for prosperity and innovation.
The lesson of cargo cult science for all human activity is that fixed systems are inadequate, because they never fully engage with the nebulosity of reality. We can, and must, upgrade to better ways of thinking, acting, and organizing our communities.
- 1.“Scenius” was coined by Brian Eno, who wrote the first paragraph of the quote. The second paragraph is from an essay about scenius by Kevin Kelly.
- 2.In this interview, Seemay Chou describes Arcadia, a new scientific research institution where every researcher has two jobs, as a metascientist as well as a scientist. It seems that every scientist is mandated to do the sort of meta-systematic reflection I recommended in “Upgrade your cargo cult” and in “A fully meta-rational workplace.”