Meditations on the Incredulity of Silicon Genius
I recently watched The Imitation Game and was deeply affected by its presentation of the conflicting nature of genius. It seems to me that the natural world is full of wonderful ingenuity and that human genius suggests extraordinary power and promise, mostly unrealized, and often lost to the status quo.
Consider the remarkable creativity of Leonardo, Michelangelo or Mozart, or examine the work of Galileo, or the Vedas, or in another vein, the work of Einstein or Hawking. Genius is also associated with the ability to destroy, consider Genghis Khan, Napolean, Hitler or Oppenheimer. The word genius includes those who embark on new explorations of territory. Be it the mind and psyche, (Oliver Saks, Freud, Jung) or places (Prince Henry, or say, the creators of Nasa). Genius, it seems is everywhere, and yet we are beset by simple problems that we cannot overcome.
Today, the word genius is so commonly misapplied and so widely abused, that the sense of rarity that should accompany seems endangered. It is hard to set the notion of genius correctly when just about anyone with an idea and a PR agent can be labeled thus.
I think "genius" requires a bit of reconsideration, don't you?
The acclaimed historian, Darrin M. McMahon. explains in his book Divine Fury that the concept of genius has its proper roots in antiquity. According to McMahon, real genius does not reside solely with one would only seek a unique way, or cobble together the achievements of others. Actually, genius is more commonly associated with madness, and if accurately traced, goes back to a time when "men" (in particular) of exceptional insight were said to be possessed by demonic spirits.
This is most likely not the explanation you were expecting. Nor I. There is more to this, of course. Over the centuries that followed the classical age, the word genius is applied to a wide range of characters, artists, and scientists like, all demonstrating the notion that transcendent human power can be invoked by a mere mortal. In the eighteenth century, genius (as a concept) is truly born and idolized as a "new model of the highest human type". What most of us conveniently ignore is that his oddly coincides with the end of humanity's darkest sin, that of slavery.
The modern mode of genius does not coincidently emerge from tension and belief in human equality; it is a result of it.
Genius both contests and reinforces the notion that all are created equal. Genius serves to be the misnomer for those individuals who are not subject to ordinary laws like the rest of us, but it also serves to elevate individuals by inequality. So again, I invite the reader to consider the contemporary proliferation of "genius," amidst our current struggle with equality in the world which seems to me at least, primed to explode on the streets of Paris, Athens, Detroit and Des Moines any minute.
Despite its many definitions and more recent conflation with technology and technologists—genius remains undefined and exceptionally rare. Consider that there have been only eight hundred and seventy Nobel laureates awarded by the Nobel Foundation. That means that you have a 0.00001242857142857143 % chance of being one of them.
You has better get started if this is your plan.
First, I admit that I loathe being anywhere it is necessary to follow the ideas of another person, in other words, to work for, or follow someone else. However, I recently accepted an interview with a company that purports not only to have the youngest funded-founders in Silicon Valley, but to be "rewriting the code of communication and other digital interaction." In this unusual set of zip codes, it is often an unstated requirement that one must have some of this genius stuff in them to work at an up and coming startup. Having dipped my toe in that water more than once, I know a little bit about this strange phenomena.
When I walk through the door, I think immediately that I am perhaps encountering a brilliant marketing coup and maybe even "genius", in this little company. In hindsight, I encountered neither. When you consider their statement of purpose, which actually says absolutely nothing, and that there exists no actual prototype, one might be considered astute for wondering where these things are. Yet before I could press in with my curiosity as to product and value proposition, I am asked two crucial questions to determine if I have any of the prized, genius mysterious stuff in me and whether nor not I can keep up with a group that purports to revolutionize almost everything we know about anthropoid communication in the present digital age. (I will leave the credulity of this claim to the reader).
These questions are:
What is a Segway?
What is the Internet?
I consider myself a person of passing and very decent intelligence. I cannot do a shred of advanced mathematics were it required to save my life, but I am well-read (as if that counts for much anymore) having pissed away six years of my life studying academic philosophy. I think this qualifies me to have an opinion about the present epoch of human ideas and machinations that landed me in that very room. For the life of me, I could not answer these queries, and so I guess I am not up to the stuff of genius.
My consternation does not stop here. I cannot see the relevance of this line of questioning. Fortunately for me, the interviewer, who apparently is a genius, has invited me to take more time to consider these questions and submit my answers in the coming months. I plan to take another sabbatical to a monastic cell in on a Greek island to do just that this summer. Hopefully, I will make progress, and when I return, I hope to join the team as marketing intern.
Hence, this writing arises partially out of frustration with arrogant people, but mostly out of amusement with them. Word, algorithmic or logic tests like this are the norm in the Silicon Valley, and to be completely blunt, they are insulting irrelevant and asinine. Whether or not folks that use them are prepared to admit it, these tests are actually set up to enforce the separation between individuals, between who is "genius" or "smart" and who is not. Contrary to what my interlocutor believes, they are not designed to determine if one is compatible with others, or if one can solve complex problems. They are masturbatory, at best.
It was Jung who said that a real genius would be that person (or movement) that leads to mutual love in community and sociality. I think Jung is right. With a little prompting and a good deal of patience, we sense that the similarity and commonality between us are what ought to be the stuff of collaboration. Jung believed that the rigidity of social correctness can compel some people to solitude so that they may escape the pressure of fitting in (as was evidenced by my burning desire to run from the room when asked what a Segway is). However, isolation also makes people sometimes strange, (which is also the likely same reason I felt that burning need) In some sense, Jung is telling us that genius can give people dignity so that each of us might only stand apart just enough so that may find the path back to the community.
One need only considers the sufferings and achievements of Alan Turing to test this theory. Turing's genius arose directly from a passionate engagement with a problem-namely the Nazi code system machine known as the Enigma, during WW2. But one must also consider that Turing suffered and allegedly committed suicide because he stood apart so radically. Besides the fact that Turing was legitimately a genius, it could not have been easy to be homosexual at the time when it was considered illegal. He did not make it back to the community because the community did not want him back.
Perhaps we should be leerier of the new geniuses of this world, and most of all we should not overvalue their exceptionalism. Power may very well stand against power, and contempt for contempt, even love against love, as Jung writes. The genius we need most at this time must convey to humanity greater dignity, and amplify more than just an idea; it must seek to evolve humans out of the existential quagmire in which we find ourselves continually, that of inequality.
This egalitarianism should dissipate the venomous notion that some are better than others and that the genius must be either isolated or idolized. By congregating and conjoining in collective intelligence, in humanity's greatest gift; we come together to face what is surely a tenous future.
*Courtesy of the ever useful Wikipedia, I fount out that the Segway is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle for personal transportation. I also discovered that the Internet is a "network of networks" that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government nodes of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies.
Louis D. LoPraeste is a former corporate strategist (2003-2012) and the founder of www.quodfatum.com. If you liked this essay, please take a minute to share it.