The Content Debate: There is no Such Thing as an Original Idea

May 20, 2011 4:48 pm

We argue that originality is both real and essential – online and off

To deny originality is to deny humanity. Every step of human evolution – even, thanks to Charles Darwin, the concept of human evolution – has been marked by an original idea. The use of tools, of weapons, the invention of the wheel; these weren’t merely useful fiddlings that happened to catch on in the prehistoric, pre-marketing era, these were species-defining, epoch-making ideas of unparalleled originality.

It is man’s ability to think, to conceptualise, to come up with ideas over and above and in spite of our natural instincts that sets us apart from the other animals. If it weren’t for original ideas, we’d still believe the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. If it weren’t for original ideas, we wouldn’t have electricity, computers, cars, an 80-year life expectancy…

My colleague Bek has argued persuasively that ‘we are informed, inspired and influenced by the world around us’. And certainly many inventions and developments – including electricity, computers, cars and an 80-year life expectancy – owe much to what has gone before. Isaac Newton himself, a man often held up as the epitome of an original thinker, said: ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

Original content challenges the status quo

But, and here’s the rub, those giants (both before and after Newton’s time) were and are the people who can imagine what others cannot. They were the Platos, the Archimedeses, the Copernicuses, the Gallileos, the da Vincis, the Mozarts, the Shakespeares, the Darwins, the Marxes, the Einsteins, the Lennons, the Berners-Lees, the Jobses… They are people who push boundaries, who challenge the status quo, who are not afraid to fail. Remarkable people, all of them, but people none the less.

Originality and inspiration comes from within, not without. The notion that the cure for cancer is floating around some cosmic ideas pool just waiting to be accessed is both comforting and cruel. Because if that is the case, presumably that ideas pool can be accessed by anything with a consciousness. And it would be both unfair and pointless if an amoeba plucked it out of the ether.

Original thought is a human trait, but not everyone is capable of it. Or, at least, not everyone is willing to stand out from the crowd, risking ridicule or abuse or even death, for espousing original ideas. Which is what makes original thinkers so remarkable and so important.

Online content has become unoriginal

Genuine originality – as opposed to Lady Gaga contrived originality – can shock, scare, attract and repel, but it always fascinates. For all its strengths, the Internet’s global accessibility and interactivity has homogenised the ideas process, which is perhaps why Bek doubts the existence of original thought.

But let’s not forget that the Internet itself sprang from an original idea, which surely means, then, that the issue is not the perceived absence of online originality, but the fact that the Net is not utilising and promoting originality to maximum effect, so that everything from ideas to companies can stand out from the crowd.

Global warming, peak oil, international inequality… these are all the by-products of original ideas thought up and worked on by humans. It will take more original ideas to find the solutions to them. Both online and off, originality is not only real, it’s essential.

To read the other side of the debate, click here.


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