Those working in the creative sector of any industry have some of the biggest egos, as well as the biggest anxieties, over their work. A lot of this is because we hold onto the concept of originality. We simultaneously believe that it can be achieved, but question whether or not we can achieve it. Well, the simple answer is that originality doesn’t exist: it’s a fallacy. What’s worse is that it stunts us from being creative. Originality is a loaded concept that permeates everyday thinking, but is inherently empty.
No person, idea, or thing is an island. The stuff we produce exists in the constellation of other people and ideas. When we create, we do it to communicate something to the world. There is no such thing as a private language, so in order to bring something into this world with the intention of communication, it can't be original.
We are not self-made. Life itself is an appropriation, and the best thing we can do for our creativity is to disillusion ourselves from the myth of originality. Some of the greatest artists got to where they are because they managed to liberate themselves from this myth: Picasso, T.S Eliot, Duchamp. Steve Jobs once said that “creativity is just connecting things”, which sounds deceptively simple, and it is to an extent, but requires a broad understanding of the human experience, and how we learn and connect things.
A lot of creative work is to do with memory; it’s about having a conversation with the past. There’s a chapter in the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, where Tony Buzan, the educational consultant who popularised the idea of the mind-map, talks about creativity. Buzan states that:
”Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, a future memory."
In order to invent new ideas, we need existing ones to call into play. Creativity is a drawing of the past and hurling into the future. Founder of Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, also touches on this notion of creativity in her feature for the Smithsonian:
“To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.”
What she calls ‘combinatorial creativity’ is what filmmaker Kirby Ferguson calls a ‘remix’. His popular video encourages us to rethink our modern attitudes towards originality, creativity and copyright, and how terms like 'intellectual property' can stifle rather than nurture growth on both a personal and cultural level.
Yet, despite all of these sound arguments, a lot of us are still tied to this romantic pursuit. We are also constantly pushed in that direction because we live in a society where originality is a badge of honour, and copying is frowned upon.
We have massive anxieties over the meaning of the word copy. But what does it really mean to ‘copy’? According to journalist Marcus Boon, copying is fundamental to existence. His book (free to download), In Praise of Copying, touches on a very existential way of looking at original works, in which he studies its philosophical and cultural implications. Boon's definition of copying is in line with Ferguson's remix.
“Suppose copying is what makes us human - what then? More than that, what if copying, rather than being an aberration or a mistake or a crime, is a fundamental condition or requirement for anything, human or not, to exist at all?”
When we think about how we learn as children, we imitate. My baby sister has learned to drink tea with a satisfied “aaaah” at the end because our dad does it. She is learning, by imitating him, that tea should be enjoyed and expressed in that way. Copying is in essence to connect, and it’s human after all to want to connect to others through commonalities.
In order to understand even a semblance of something, we must already have the framework of it set into place. Copying is part of the process of how we learn and build frameworks as we navigate through life. But we forget that this is how the foundation of learning works. When it’s our time to put something into the world, we become fiercely protective, and a lot of that is how our culture shapes us.
Alongside originality, the other problem we have with copying is also a legal one. Copyright laws such as patents and trademarks create restrictions both in the mind and the society in which they exist. The original purpose of copyright laws were to protect artist’s creations, while allowing them to build on previous work; but now it’s turned into some culture war where everyone’s suing and criminalising each other. Mark Zuckerberg was sued for $65m for apparently stealing the idea for Facebook, yet for the suers, this wasn’t enough money. Clearly, the protection of ideas isn't the main concern here. It's apparent that these gatekeepers - originality and copyright laws - are breaching our minds too.
Not only do we feel restricted when it comes to our work, we also have a radicalised sense of justice: that something is rightfully ours because it's our intellectual property. The most humbling thing we can do is to admit that what is rightfully ours is also rightfully everyone else’s. These laws and restrictions exist for economical reasons, not human, creative ones. But even then, the economy will actually thrive if those laws were more lax, because there will be more innovation.
Copying is not the same as exactitude, which is stealing pixel-for-pixel, code-for-code, word-for-word, without transforming them. Then that's just stealing, full stop. Other than that, it's a waste of time to be territorial over an idea, because the truth is no one actually cares since everyone else is too concerned with being territorial over theirs.
Execution, not exactitude, is what matters. No one can claim for a second that Apple is the first of its kind. The company’s designer, Jony Ives, is highly influenced by Dieter Rams of Braun and he even admits this. The similarities can be seen from the iPod to the iMac monitor. Or without the sampling of music, hip-hop would've never existed, and my childhood would've never experienced its Golden Age. And if we consider the fashion industry, its prosperity is due to the fact that people are copying and creating all the time, and they're open about it.
If we look back to the history of knowledge and culture, information exploded with the Gutenberg printing press. All of a sudden, people were able to think beyond what was within their proximity, to transcend their ordinary lives. Information was accessible and shared. The Renaissance was born, followed by the Industrial Revolution, to the current digital age. Civilisation grew exponentially and all because printing led to thinking. This wealth of knowledge is growing at an even higher speed because of the internet. Just look at the open-source software movement, which has one of the strongest and flourishing communities online, where others are encouraged to make and share - all made possible by something as simple as the availability of code.
The fact is whoever spends time on the web is implicated in the act of copying. The boutique business does not exist online. It’s no coincidence that everyone seems to have similar ideas at the same time in the online space: photosharing apps, dating apps, crowdfunding platforms, 'the Uber for this, the Airbnb for that,' apps for events, for socialising- apps everywhere. There has never been so much going on than today and the internet proliferates that.
We are facing the wrong battle when we set out with the intention of creating something original. The actual concern should be whether there is any value to the things we create. Is it authentic? Will it help, inspire or motivate people?
Originality isn’t just overrated, it’s a shackling belief that needs to be re-examined. As someone who creates content online, I’m often plagued by these issues. I question whether what I’m doing is futile, and also if I am somehow a criminal for it. Yet, if I hold onto this belief system, this article will never get done. We are better off thinking of our work as new additions to the pool of knowledge. We all exist on borrowed ideas. Embrace, not avoidance, is the key. Creativity works best in freedom, not fear and control.