I am a thief
13 September 2013
Good artist copy; great artist steal.
Where do good ideas come from? Are they born in a moment of epiphany when someone (a genius) suddenly realizes something out of the blue, whipping up a masterpiece in a matter of seconds?
Not quite so. The history of human innovation shows that all good inventions are remixes of the resources that were already available. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile out of nowhere; he combined things like the combustion engine and the assembly line to produce the first commercially viable car. The smartphone wasn’t invented; it is an accumulation of several technological and design advances, many of which can be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years. A painting that is considered a masterpiece didn’t come about in an intellectual vacuum; artists borrow from those that were before them.
Every piece of human innovation rests on the foundation of everything that was ever created before it. It is a huge body of knowledge, a canon that we can use to push ourselves higher.
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Sampling. Borrowing. Reassembling. Copying. Stealing. Different names for the same thing. Every good idea is based on the resources available at that time. In literature this is called intertextuality, in music remixing or a mash-up, in visual arts a collage. Pick your terms.
Because every new idea borrows from ideas that existed before it, some people claim that there is no originality in any of these new ideas. I disagree; take existing resources, mash them up, and form something new. Keep doing this long enough and well enough and you’ll end up with something that is original. It’s not that originality doesn’t exist; we just need to define it differently.
The funny thing is that we seem to like the idea of stealing from others, but hate it when someone uses the resources that we have created. Steve Jobs had no problem with stealing ideas when he was the one doing the stealing:
We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
But when he felt that others had stolen from him, there was a different tone to his voice:
I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.
In general, this human tendency is known as loss aversion: getting something, say 100 euros, doesn’t feel as good as it feels bad to lose the same thing. We hate losing stuff more than we like getting it. (Any hoarders out there?)
So you want to have more good ideas? Here’s my two cents: The more experiences you have had, the more resources you have to steal from. So go experience something new.
Me? I steal stuff everyday. I steal ideas, design patterns, lines of computer code, conversation starters, rhymes, anything. I steal from texts that were written hundreds of years ago. I steal from texts that were published yesterday. I steal from stuff that I’ve read in a book or an article, heard in a song, seen in a film or on the street, heard somebody talking about. Most of this article is stolen from different places (for example from this great film series). But I don’t use the stuff that I’ve stolen as such. Instead I mess around with it, chop it up, turn it upside down and inside out, and, consciously or unconsciously, try to combine it into something new.
I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I am a thief.
I will steal from you too. So sue me.