In the same way that despite my name I am not a super-sized teutonic man (evidence here). I am also, despite what “Hunter of Genius” may lead you to imagine, not a head-hunter.
Stalking brainiacs to hawk their superhuman eggheads on the job market, doesn’t quicken my heart.
However, tracking down the intelligence that possesses them to dare and to do, does.
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s really an ancient human job, with a weird neo.cool label. Essentially I’m a scout, a tracker through the past and our expansive present, gathering up evidence of human evolution underway. My hunting grounds are the interface spaces between humans and machines, and humans and nature. In following lesser-celebrated but intriguing ideas, I collect the brilliant stragglers, the strange-but-curiously-awesome ideas and artifacts on the fringes, and the forgotten treasures that may have tumbled out of history’s favour or obscured by its cultural otherness that could tilt our species’ trajectory into the future.
The job entails connecting the dots, giving these potential bits of genius, a social life. Unusual ideas in bright minds often produce sparks that illuminate an unseen path forward.
There is no excellent beauty that hath not strangeness in its proportion. - Sir Francis Bacon, Elizabethan luminary, father of the Scientific Method
Whether fashioned by probing pioneers or by fortunate failure, genius is my shorthand for a clear break from the commonplace, a level-up that seemingly comes out of the blue. Sometimes expressed through an exceptional individual, breaking the bonds of what we believed do-able or fresh ways to see the world henceforth. Sometimes revealed in a new order or marked evolution that sweeps through a group or species. In our heady era of the sovereign individual, when genius is pronounced, it tends to sound like prodigy, or grand master. We expect to see a glimmer of the lightning scar or severed ear in these magical, chosen ones. Possessed by a genius, many of those afflicted are prone to short phosphoric blazes of brilliance, followed by years of desperation and rehash as it fizzles, others to the monstrous warping effect of ego, or worse, suffer poverty and scorn until their value is realized, posthumously. Or so the story goes.
What draws my interest isn’t nearly as glamorous or tortured. It’s rarely signalled by epiphanies. Isaac Asimov puts it best:
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not eureka! (I found it!) but rather, hmm… that’s funny…
It’s something of the s l o w hunch variety. Of fortunate accident, tinkering, remixing and appropriating ideas from other spaces into new times and disciplines. Mostly it’s the genius that comes collectively-born of many heads, hands and everyday tinkering/remixing/tweaking/mucking-about trying to make something bloody well work.
Miraculous breakthroughs that pop out fully-formed, conveniently credited to one person or company, almost invariably have a hidden backstory of inelegant mistakes, sordid politics or lengthy laboured steps that preface its mythological aha! moment*.
Like babies, they may be slow in arriving from the first moment of inception, but when their time has arrived, everything must perforce be different. And the outcome isn’t easy to predict.
Profiting from ..or paying the cost of genius
We’ve all witnessed an idea/invention with evolutionary aptitude running amok in a community suddenly compelled to express it. Infectiously. It’s time has come. Its shiny, tantalising newness masking the angst, battered egos and hard graft of those who originally saw it into being. To add insult to this corruption of fairness, pioneers seldom get to draw the massive commercial benefit promised by the fashionable fable of first-mover advantage, and sometimes they’re conveniently written out of history. It’s easy to see why we cling urgently to the patent system to protect baby ideas.
History seems to have taught us that others will steal our good ideas and effort, and lay claim to our potential glory and fortune. So wherever we can, we stake legal proprietary claim, to protect it and allow us to rightly profit. All too often however, effectively isolating the idea from society and conversation. Stunting its growth. Slowly snuffing out its spark.
Do we have a choice? The heartbreaking tale of luckless Tesla and Edison is surely a parable in favor of locking in intellectual property at every turn if you are a conduit of brilliance less enchanted with politics and marketing.
The Marvelous Monster of Capitalism: a 21st Century Remix?
I believe we’re s l o w l y evolving our economic systems and cultural tolerance for generosity as a potent market force, challenging rational selfishness that governs a simplistic understanding of why capitalism has served us well.
A hybrid commercial and legal infrastructure is forming to profitably reward those who share and grow their environment beyond self-interest. Curiously, not all humans seek to exploit resources they can get for free in the manner of the Tragedy of the Commons. Mercifully.
This is an idea whose time has come.
The option to do good and do good business, with hard-nosed strategy not hippie, hokey sensibilities is a growing option. It may not feel rational to begin with, there is a great deal of fear to offload in selectively sharing what we might otherwise commercialise. Fortunately those who’ve been daring to try this idea on for size have been throwing out a treaure trove of data and case studies, to guide others choosing enlightened risk over acclimatised rationality. Economies stagnate when people become too rational, to invoke economic historian John V.C. Nye. We haven’t made progress as a species hemmed by what current reality dictates as a possibility. Economies don’t have to be in this model:
.. being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about – Tim Jackson
Somewhere in the thickening of complexity, globalization, the arcane sophistication of financial markets, understanding more about what it means to be human through awkwardly clear lenses of cognitive science and genetics.. it’s started to dawn on us try all we aren’t in perfect control of even our own daily decision-making. The factors beyond blind randomness/luck are too plentiful to calculate, even for freakish geniuses.
It may have been possible in simpler times, but no one alone is wise enough now.
Growing Genius in the Wild
Solitary bits of genius are beautiful to behold, but ahead of their time, or out of context, they falter without tethering to messy, complicated real-life. To make sense they need to be applied to the real world, mashed-up with more mundane existence helps to find value and relevance in the market (hearts+minds, if money”s not your motivator).
The beauty and purity of ideas/creations set loose on the masses, to be prodded, remixed, nabbed and misunderstood, is too harrowing an experience for many who nurture them to endure.
Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident. -Arthur Schopenhauer
We too often wait and grow them in precious isolation until they are ‘perfect’, by which time the world for which they have been grown has passed. Cursing all along those whose unripened efforts snatch the glory.
Therein the Work:
My bit is to give ideas that matter, a social life:
recognising genius a little earlier, simplifying its value for practical access, experimenting with it in new contexts – in good & varied company – and paying attention to what happens, feeding back results for tweaking or trying something new, until it can make the jump from potential, to light and power. Safely.
Basically: a revival of open-source/collaborative citizen science for an era when none of us, alone, can be wise or smart enough.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known - Carl Sagan
If we can bear the thought that we may not be as autonomous in our thinking as we have presumed, then it might make sense that genius begets genius as much as any other social contagion. No humans seem to escape cognitive bias anyway, so you may as well choose your socially-distorted lens upfront. This is mine.