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Sep 3 / Michael Wright

Creativity: inspiration, or theft?

Maybe both. Kirby Ferguson, however, might err more on the side of “theft,” though he uses a nicer name his TED talk “Embrace the remix.”

There’s a part of me that bristles when I hear remakes, or remixes, or covers of music. At least when I like the original. I mean, why would anyone remake a Beatles tune, or Springsteen, or any of the great rock bands from the ’60’s and ’70’s? They’re perfect in their original form. Let ’em alone in their purity. But, there’s another part of me — a grudging part, I’ll admit — that recognizes that often creativity comes from changing things that already exist. Certainly from building on what others have done.

I’m not so cool about Bob Dylan ripping off melodies, which seems to have occurred with some frequency. But building on the work of others seems to be at the core of science and medicine. And I guess art and music, in some ways. And I suppose politics, and cooking, and design, and, well, maybe just about everything, if I think long and hard about it.

Ferguson shared a Henry Ford quote that acknowledges this:  “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable.”

Thomas Jefferson admitted he proposed no new ideas when drafting the Declaration. He just assembled  the mother-of-all cases for independence from ideas that already existed. Did a fine job, though, one must admit.

So if these titans can accept this, why do I resist? Because I believe there is a spark of inspiration that is dormant in all of us.  And every now and then, in just the right brain and at just the right time, real inspiration occurs, and the world is never the same.  Isaac Newton? Albert Einstein? Mozart?  Hendrix? Not exactly copycats. Though it is Newton, of all people, who is attributed with the quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on shoulders of giants.”

And I guess I want to believe that maybe that spark is somewhere in my brain, waiting to burst into flame. Problem is, whenever I experience a blinding flash of insight, by day’s end it turns out my brilliant idea has already been invented, or discussed, or discredited. Sometimes long past.

The Wayne State TEDsters were split on the origins of creativity.  At one time, there HAD to be a new idea — at least at the very beginning.  Otherwise, we’d still be hanging out in caves and munching on raw meat.  We tried to come up with originals. Music, instruments, machines, art. Everyone seemed to have a theory about some natural or man-made phenomenon that inspired them. I think everyone agreed that advertising was a continuous remake of one pitch, invented deep in the past by the some wooly mammoth hide salesmen. We asked ourselves the question: “Can you envision something that doesn’t exist, and has no reference to anything in existence.” Well, that stumped us. Made us think about those 3am conversations under the stars. Wow, man, that is heavy.

Ferguson showed video of Steve Jobs as a young entrepreneur quoting Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And then noting — shamelessly — how his company stole “shamelessly” to achieve success. The same Steve Jobs was a bit more prickly about such theft — er, “innovation” — when Android came along and stole from Apple. To quote the older, richer, more protective Jobs, “I’m going to destroy Android because it is a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” It seems, says Ferguson, that we don’t mind stealing, unless it’s from us.

Whether you call it theft or remixing or innovation, the origin of ideas and inventions is becoming more than a philosophical exercise. When it comes to commercial technology, anyway, it’s winding up more and more in court. Are we protecting intellectual property? Or halting the advance of technology? It’s a tough question, and one that needs a creative solution. Perhaps someone will come up with a great idea.


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