Twitter as a Viennese Cafe


Scott Alexander has a great article on arguing, a bit tongue in cheek, that the Manhattan Project can be viewed as Hungarian high school science fair project.

“The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.”

Scott Alexander explains this coincidence by arguing that the key was rapid urbanization of highly educated Jews combined with a stopping Jewish persecution. The result is a large number of smart, well educated people coming into close contact with each other and collaborating.

Budapest was hardly the only fountain of intellectual activity at the time. Vienna saw the rise of the Vienna Circle, as well as incubating some of the greatest economists of the first half of the 20th century, including Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and  Eugen Böhm von Bawerk. It is likely that a similar mechanism was at play. The loosening of previous persecution combined with the creation of new groups of smart, capable people.

What I want to suggest is that the internet, and a bit more specifically Twitter, can be thought of as creating the same dynamic. Twitter can be thought of as a matching algorithm. Smart, capable people are able to much more quickly find their peers with similar interests, as well as prove their own value as capable thinkers without going through the typical credentialing process. The result is the creation of friend groups which share interests and empower people to tackle challenges that they would have not attempted on their own.

The testable prediction from this hypothesis is that in 30 years, there will be high impact and identifiable circles of thought, companies, or other forms of social organization which originated in a large part on Twitter. This is one of the key reasons I remain optimistic about the future.

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