Sparkling conversations are like Schelling points for exploration
I’ve been in Bogota all week, attending DevCon, the main developer conference of the Ethereum world. Last night, I was at the sort of dinner I used to go to (and even organize) a lot more a decade ago, where the conversation is of the sort typically described as “scintillating” or “sparkling.”
This weird failed picture I attempted to take of my very good pasta (I think I accidentally flipped to the front camera and there was chaotic lighting) feels like a strangely appropriate motif. That’s what scintillating conversations feel like, an intense period of psychedelic cognitive chaos, with flashes and sparkling going on.
Last night got me reflecting on a question people rarely seem to ask: What purpose do such gatherings serve, besides providing entertainment to the participants?
A typical scintillating conversation is a colorful collision of ideas from a dozen intellectually lively people, all willing and able to vigorously stimulate and be stimulated, and all with that mix of aggressive curiosity and demanding intelligence that sets a punishing collective pace of conversation. Highly rewarding to those who can keep up, intimidating and depressing to those who cannot.
The best of such conversations are not easy to produce, though many try. Intellectual scenes are full of online and offline salon series, regular dinners, meetups and so on. But few actually hit the level of scintillation that can provide a real workout to even the most agile mind. I’d say 90% fail to stimulate even the most ordinary minds. But when they do work, they produce a rare kind of social magic.
I’ve often noticed creative young people really lighting up at such events, especially if they are from small town or backwater milieus where such conversations are somewhere between unavailable and rare. You can see they’ve been bored and intellectually under-nourished by underwhelming company for a long time, and after their first taste of scintillating conversation, they get really hungry for more.
But there’s also the other end. People who’ve had their fill of such movable feasts for a decade or more. I guess I am in this category. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them anymore, but that I don’t enjoy them as often. At 25, I’d happily do one a week. At nearly 48, as I remarked last night, my appetite for this kind of gathering is about once or twice a year. I can do more, but then it starts to feel like work rather than play, which takes some of the sparkle off the scintillation. In the last few years, I’ve started declining invitations to such gatherings by default. It’s rare for me to be in a mood to accept, and last night was one of those exceptional moods (possibly due to the extended Covid-induced recession in scintillating scenes).
I used to think my stamina for this sort of thing has dropped simply due to middle-aging. I prefer much more mellow social interactions these days, and in smaller groups, ideally just 1:1. I especially like study groups now: regular gatherings that may not always sparkle, but make steady grinding progress on some topic of interest to all. Or groups that scintillate but within the boundaries of a clearer purpose, like a project.
But I think there’s more to it than aging. I know several people I’d describe as professional scintillating conversationalists who seem to go to such gatherings as often as once or twice a week, for decades on end (there were at least a couple at dinner last night). Many are significantly older than me. They often end up in scene-maker type roles. I’m honestly amazed by their stamina (and willingness to repeat themselves, since most people only have a limited repertoire of stimulating thoughts to share at any given time). But I am also intrigued by the fact that there are sustainable roles for them to play in the world at all.
How do scene-makers have jobs at all? It’s not like it’s a historically commonplace thing. I suspect, before early urban modernity, scintillating scenes were restricted to royal courts. I’d guess scenes needing scene-makers became a common middle-class thing in 16th century Europe, and have grown steadily more common worldwide since them. Now they are a staple of educated middle-class life. Today we have, if not a global Salon Industrial Complex, at least a global Salon Cottage Industry.
On the way back to the hotel last night, I got to reflecting on the question I opened with: what broader purpose do these gatherings actually serve?
I mean, of course they are pleasurable for a certain kind of person, just as dance parties are pleasurable to another kind of person (and there is certainly some overlap between the two kinds of scenes), but is there some sort of larger adaptive function? Dance parties, for example, besides providing entertainment, play a role in catalyzing hook-ups and relationships, showing off wealth and taste, and so on. This is why nightclub owners have jobs.
Certainly there is some of that going on with scintillating-conversation gatherings, or intellectual dance parties if you like. Partnerships and collaborations often emerge from such events. And dates and marriages among the more intellectual types. But I suspect that’s not the main function. Nor can they be explained by the presence of wealthy people willing to pay for such gatherings for their own entertainment, like kings of old. While some scintillating gatherings do have wealthy sponsors paying (with better food and wine), most do not. In fact the most common sort of scintillating gathering, among students at good universities, is marked by general impoverishment. Cheap fast food and beer, not fancy dinners with wine.
I suspect such gatherings serve as what I’ll call scintillation points, by analogy to Schelling points.
A Schelling point is a well-known piece of common knowledge that can serve as a coordination locus for people who need to coordinate under conditions of insufficient information. For example, if you and I have agreed to meet at the mall, but haven’t specified where, and one of us has forgotten our phone, how do we rendezvous? Chances are, we’ll head to some obvious and visible meeting point like a coffee shop or information booth. In a larger context, like an entire city, we might pick important landmarks. In New York, for example, I’d probably hang out at Penn station hoping you’ll find me.
Schelling points take advantage of common knowledge to solve under-determined, convergent, coordination problems.
I suspect scintillation points take advantage of common unknowns to solve under-determined, divergent, exploration problems. Students in universities for example, are solving the problem of what to do with the rest of their lives. Participants in a startup scene are exploring what technologies to develop. Artists and writers in literary/artistic scenes are trying to figure out what art to make and what novels to write.
When a bunch of people is operating on a broad shared frontier of inquiry and exploration, thinking about various interesting questions, it is useful for them to periodically engage in bouts of intense idea-dancing to get a sense of larger shared unknowns. The small payoff is that you can often trade notes and clues to get each other unstuck. You’ll usually come away from scintillating conversations with one or two little nuggets that can help with something you’re up to. The larger payoff though, is the validation that whatever you’re groping towards is worthwhile because others are groping towards it too. Meaning is created when there is a shared sense of a larger unknown that subsumes the smaller unknowns individuals might be after. Whether or not any cooperation or collaboration emerges is a secondary bonus thing. The main thing is the immediate validation and meaning-making.
I think this is why, in the classic Campbellian Hero’s journey, there is a stage just before the beginning of the adventure where the hero and his buddies end up at something like a tavern, where they have a good time, and often meet people who will join them on their adventure (I think it’s called the “first threshold” or something). In real life, adventures, especially intellectual ones, are not clearly defined stories with beginnings and ends. You’re usually chasing down several ideas, and need periodic visits to scintillation points to refuel psychologically.
Things like conferences try to catalyze scintillation points of various magnitudes. Sometimes entire regions, like the Bay Area, have large persistent scenes that are about creating a steady supply of scintillation points. Parts of Twitter make for good virtual examples of the same sort of thing. If all the explorers find the right scintillation points when they need them, they succeed more often in their adventures, and the scene as a whole is more productive.
But there is also a danger to scintillation points. The social validation and shared meaning-making adds an element of convergence to the essentially divergent activity of discovery and exploration. Do too much of it, and you risk becoming an addicted inhabitant of echo-chambers featuring a sort of shallow glitzy intellectual chatter that grows increasingly stale and repetitive over time.
Of course, there’s a need for a few scene-makers to keep such things going steadily, and keeping them refreshed with new people and ideas. But for the rest of us, how much we partake of scintillating conversations should be a function of what our particular adventures need, not what we might be hungering for at a merely social, human level. Part of the courage called for in exploration is social courage: willingness to go off on your own in some direction, with long periods of zero validation and no company. If you must have fellowship on your adventures, you will have less interesting adventures. For the Lord of the Rings to get interesting, the fellowship had to break up for the second act.
I think we dimly begin to recognize this as we age, and automatically modulating our participation, deliberately drifting towards and away from scintillation points as our journeys take shape.