Dave Winer’s got a poignant thought over at Scripting News today: “Where is the Bronx Science for adults?” He explains that, as a kid, the best thing about attending the famous high school “was being in daily contact with really smart and creative people my own age.” It’s harder to find this in adulthood, he observes, even as a fellow at the Berkman Center, where Dave and I met four years ago.
I empathize with Dave – the experience of being surrounded by smart people working on the same kinds of problems is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. I remember being terribly sad on discovering that college wasn’t this place for me (though it was for many of my classmates). I had a taste of it in a summer program in high school run by Telluride Association, and I had another strong dose of it early on at Tripod when I was developing software at a frantic pace alongside some of my favorite people in the world.
Being at the Berkman Center has been a hugely rewarding experience for me, but it’s different – everyone there is working on different things at different paces. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me once a week to bounce ideas off people smarter than I am, and to have access to a firehose of new ideas. But the sense of building something together is rare – which makes sense, as some of us are building organizations, others writing papers, others writing books. And I’m only there a couple of times a month, which cuts down on the chance for the sorts of serendipitious collaboration that happens when you’re around people every day.
Dave writes about longing for a sort of collegial creativity which Aaron Copeland found in New York City in the 1930s. I suspect these creative “scenes” form every decade or so in different parts of the world – imagine being in New York as a jazz musician in the early 1950s, for instance, or a “natural philosopher” associated with the Royal Society in the 1660s.
I find myself wondering if these “scenes” will continue to exist in the same way in a world as interconnected and global as ours. The groups of folks I’m inspired by these days tend to include people from all over the world – they converge, occasionally, at conferences. But most of the times, the scene is a virtual one – the mailing lists, the interconnected blogs, the various digital ways people with common interests find ways to stay in touch.
It’s not the same thing, though. As good as we get at meeting virtually, there’s nothing quite like the relationship you get from sharing hundreds of hours in the same place with the same people. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve gone from a week on the road, hanging out with some of my favorite people, and am now remembering the good and bad sides of working at a home office in a beautiful but lonely corner of the world… but I’m a bit lonesome for a grown-up “Bronx Science” as well.