Collective Genius and Brains in Vats

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I’ve at times felt some discomfort of the idea of the “genius,” maybe chiefly because I discovered I am not one, much to my delusional childhood chagrin. But the more one knows about one’s brilliant heroes, who despite having powerful creative and intellectual gifts are also rife with human flaws, one begins to see that for “genius” to flower and actually become something meaningful, someone else needs to work alongside the genius. Last year Hélène Mialet wrote at Wired about Stephen Hawking (someone we regard as easily qualifying as a “genius”) and how in many ways Hawking is a “brain in a vat,” and what we think of as “Steven Hawking” is really a larger gestalt of brilliant people:

In another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature. … What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies.

And I think this applies to a lot of people we think of as either geniuses or extremely important or powerful. There’s a reason we can refer to President Obama, the White House, or “the administration,” and mean the same thing each time. The language we use reflects the understanding that the words and deeds of “President Obama” are actually those of a vast array of human beings working extremely hard, all under the banner of “Obama.” Barack Hussein Obama the person may be the hub of that network, the brain in the vat, but he is only one part of it. The successes and failures we ascribe to him are really borne by that network.

Joshua Wolf Shenk in a piece at the New York Times narrows this idea of “group genius” to the pair.

[A]n impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience…contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective. The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

I found this both enlightening and alarming. As readers of my previous blog have been told severally, I am a pretty severe introvert, and the idea that “genius” really requires, or at least best thrives, with people in pairs worries me a bit. (The fewer the people in a group, the more the intimacy is increased, and the more threatening that can be to us introverts.) This is not to say I have never been or am incapable of being collaborative with another human being — I used to be a professional stage actor! — but especially these days it doesn’t come up much. I don’t even work in physical proximity to my coworkers, but alone in my home office.

Perhaps Lennon needed McCartney, Carl Sagan likely needed Ann Druyan, and presumably Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak and later Jony Ive (or Tim Cook?) — not as the person behind them, but as creative partners — and they were fortunate enough to find each other and decide to collaborate. But all these collaborations took place before the Internet dominated so much of our social lives. These people had to interact in meatspace. Even the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came together in person in a garage.

But what Google and others helped enable with the rise of the Internet and the Web was collaboration — deep, meaningful, substantive collaboration — between people who have never been in each other’s physical presence. That gives me hope.

Now, just because it’s been enabled, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily happening much. I genuinely don’t know, and we’re really only on the cusp of this being a viable way to work and create together, via our connected devices, never in the same room. As someone who works from home, I feel pretty confident that good work and collaboration is not only possible, but in many ways improved and augmented with remote interaction, and I can thrive and excel in a vat-brain support network. But is this how the next “White Album” or Cosmos or iPhone will come to be?

I’d bet that probably yes, eventually, when more areas of friction in communication are removed, and there’s no meaningful difference between popping into someone’s office with a sudden whim and doing its equivalent online.

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