Honoring the Scenius
I spent most of last week in Orlando for the 2019 Information Architecture Conference. This is a new name for a gathering that has been happening since 2000, The Information Architecture Summit. (The change had to do with a change in stewardship that I won't get into here.) I’ve attended this conference every year since 2005, missing only once, after my first child was born.
The core group of people who come together at this conference every year constitutes my professional “home” community. We've evolved together and have influenced the development of the discipline of information architecture. Over the years, we’ve seen each other become parents, teachers, students, business leaders, and more.
At this year’s event, a friend and I had a conversation that stuck with me. Why, he wondered, must we expend so much energy traveling to these things? Some of us flew clear across the U.S. to be in Orlando; others came from as far away as Japan. From an ecological perspective, we must be doing a great deal of damage. Couldn’t we do this online?
We joked about the fact that we were having this conversation over a couple of beers on a sunny day while sitting by a swimming pool. While we could probably replicate the content of our exchange online, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce this context. And context, as we know, influences content; our discussion would be much less reflective — perhaps more “practical” — if we weren’t lounging poolside.
It’s important to come together every once in a while, to focus on the same problems as a group. While sitting by the pool, my friend's voice wasn’t lost among a half-dozen other browser tabs competing for my attention. We were both there, and we were both focused — for a little while, at least — on thinking about how we move our discipline forward. This sort of thing matters.
Brian Eno has said that much of the creativity that we attribute to individual geniuses is often the result of a group of people coming together socially. He coined a word for this: scenius, which he defines as “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” There are many examples of cultural and social advances that can be attributed to scenius. Scenius can’t be synthesized, but it seems to erupt when certain conditions are present; Kevin Kelly published a blog post that lists several factors that foster scenius.
When I read Mr. Kelly's list, I recognize many of the things that make the IA Conference such a special gathering. Mutual appreciation. Rapid exchange of tools and techniques. Network effects of success. Local tolerance for novelties. This conference provides all of these. (Although it has my name on its cover, I see Living in Information as a product of the IA Conference's scenius; I called this out in the book’s acknowledgements.)
The group at the core of the IA Conference has come together for yearly for two decades, so there’s a sense of continuity. Those of us who participate regularly derive value in being part of this ongoing conversation. Many of us remain in contact throughout the year via digital channels, but our time together in the real world is special. We grow together in ways that can’t be simulated in an information environment, if for no other reason that they require the relaxed ritual of sharing libations.
Mr. Kelly cites Camp 4 at Yosemite — one of the birthplaces of modern mountain climbing — as a prime example of scenius. He concludes his essay thus:
What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL [THE SCENIUS]. 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, in Camp 4.
When it happens, honor and protect it.
A tall order for a community of architects: to nurture a context without over-architecting it; to give scenius the room it needs to flourish on its own terms. A call for mature stewardship focused on the long-term.