If you were pressed to name some geniuses off the top of your head, you’d likely name scientists: Tesla, Einstein, Curie. Yet science likes clarity, measurement and repeatability. And defining genius can be pretty nebulous and slippery. Especially in tech.

What is genius, exactly? Who has it? Is it innate or achieved? How is it expressed? How do you measure it?

Recently, after perusing yet another bubble bursting (or “the unicorn’s horn fell off”, whatever) article about the latest round of reality invading the tech sphere, I got to thinking about the concept of geniuses in tech.

Are geniuses in tech the conference-keynoting CEOs, or the behind-the-scenes types churning out papers and patents and changing the world by increments and quantum leaps?

A few considerations that seem as good as any when considering genius in tech:

1)   Does it change the world?

2)   What is its reach?

3)   Is its impact enduring?

I originally had a fourth: Does it make things better? However, altruism and benefit to humanity are not requirements for genius or innovation. Destructive things can be the products of genius, too.

And hey, who doesn’t love a good super-villain?

#1 has a lot to unpack. Sometimes the world changes in a blink. Other times it takes decades. I think “world-changing” also tends to equal big and complicated, like world peace or curing cancer.

But one could fairly easily argue that social media – apps, networks, etc. – have significantly changed the world. But are those platforms the product of genius?

Really, social networks are just a software reflection of community-building and ties we’ve developed since the beginning of humanity. So maybe the platforms aren’t genius. But perhaps how they’re designed is.

Most people have no idea to what degree our online experiences are crafted for us. From what we see to how we’re tracked, nothing is unrecorded or left to chance. I would argue that there is genius in having ideas, technologically implemented, about how to make people do what you want without most of them ever knowing.

#2 ties back pretty closely to #1. Can something reflect genius if it only affects a microcosm of humanity? Does genius have to affect some critical mass of lives on the planet? I dunno that I’d call Facebook genius, but when more people have access to that than to clean water? It reflects… something.

While we’re looking at reach, it begs the question of why the reach of acts of genius may be limited. Is it only relevant to a specific group? If so, why? Cost? Distribution? Infrastructure? Can genius and elitism go hand in hand?

Accusations of elitism in tech aren’t rare, and I don’t think they’re restricted to Silicon Valley tech bros.

Elon Musk’s companies are doing cool stuff – is that genius? Tesla is changing the automotive game, and wants to get into powering our homes. SpaceX is helping to reinvigorate space exploration. But are those things affecting the average person? Is someone working a minimum-wage job likely to be in the market for a Model S any time soon?

Sure, like the military and porn, innovations in tech tend to trickle down to the consumer sphere eventually. And it’s a common trope in sci-fi that even the most downtrodden and poverty-stricken will live with and be surrounded by tech that would boggle our minds today.

You could argue that real innovation tends to be slow (at least compared to the speed of much of tech life) and expensive. So logically and realistically it’s initially going to be available to those who bankrolled it or who can afford the sky-high price tag required to recoup costs. On the other hand, a movie like Elysium paints a rather more damning picture.

Finally, #3: endurance. Tech tends to move quickly, and it’s addicted to trends. And trends aren’t true innovation. At speed, changes and improvements tend to be incremental and superficial. Those two words don’t mesh well with genius.

Perhaps, though, the genius is in convincing everyone to jump on this or that bandwagon and part with their dollars. Perhaps the nugget of this entire column is that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was social engineering…?

Anything you’re going to covet, adopt, then abandon in six months, a year, or whenever your mobile contract lets you upgrade… not sure that qualifies as genius.

Then again, why not? We already know tech genius doesn’t have to be altruistic. Is there some required sweat equity component? Does it need to take longer to get to market? Be harder to procure, or harder to get rid of? Must it sink its claws in and influence our lives so deeply that we just keep using it, whether we want to or not?

BlackBerry and iPhone were lauded for launching the smartphone market, but they’re still phones. Sure, they don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the device Alexander Graham Bell first rang up on, but from 1876 to today, we’re still making calls.

The first car went for a spin in 1879, and we’re still driving around 137 years later. Will Square or Apple TV or Uber be making our lives better in 2153? I mean, we still don’t have commercially available jet packs.

Perhaps that is the key. Maybe it’s not possible to determine genius right away for most tech. Sure, the odd world-changer can come along and blow things sky high relatively quickly. But maybe acts of genius, like many geniuses themselves, only rise to their truly deserved status with the passage of enough time.

Tech worships speed, and has a dismal attention span. No wonder defining genius in tech is hard to do.

Photo: Genius by Chris Blakeley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.