Against Originality

Draft of 2012.03.19 ☛ 2015.03.16

May include: philosophyadvice&c.

Surely I can’t be the first person to say it: Our culture’s demand that every great mind be original has become a stifling horror.

First, because the supposed traits of “originality” are a sham, except among the insane. You’re riding the yellow line next to “schizophrenic” if you’ve written an unintelligible contextless ramble in a private language. You may already be a sociopath if you consistently disavow the conversations and training and cultural embeddedness of your work’s greater context. You’re probably delusional—even though we’re all out to undermine you—if you keep ignoring the frequent simultaneous appearance of similar works in diverse settings around the world.

And as any decent crazy person should, you will get upset when you see “your” idea popping up all over the world as if other people had stolen it.

Second, because originality is an artificial limitation on a contextual but intrinsically unlimited resource. Creative problem-solving. Could you build me a house for this landscape unlike other people’s? Could you make me think about the monolithic raw fact of the world, at least one facet which concerns me today, in a way nobody else ever has? Could you design me a drug for my disease, or a valve for my plumbing, or a rocket for my war, or a chair which inspires my aesthete crowd in a way others in my salient cultural network will not have experienced? Could you please write a book for me, referring to the touchstones of my cultural identity, but which at the same time takes an eye-opening new stance?

But don’t use any weird materials or techniques or too much other funny stuff, of course. Make it just different enough.

Third, because the illusion that contingent creativity is limited fosters rent-seeking behavior where no reasonable claim exists. Of course I will cite you when I explain to my students about your evocative imagery of raindrops on certain varieties of flower petals, and also your view on the whiskers on kittens. I agree to pay that license fee whenever I drink from a cup with the opening cunningly placed at the top, rather than the bottom. I will happily relinquish this thing my people have known since before the missionaries came, having heard of your recent patent of the active compounds therein. All I have are these cites, whuffie, money, jail time and public apologies: please take whichever you feel best ameliorates my mistake.

Not because yours is substantially better than this other one, but because it has been duly recorded in the Big Book of One Law that you used up the entire fucking idea when you staked your claim.

Fourth, because the rent-seeking infrastructure supports leeches. Not much more to say on this, right? We will pursue your claim. We will root out the interlopers. We will create and maintain a central catalog that includes your work. We will monitor the medium itself so that your privilege is not undermined. We will strive ceaselessly to extend your privilege, indeed until well after you are dead.

For a nominal fraction of the fees you are owed.

These cannot be new stories. And I can’t be bothered to look up who’s been writing about them.

Except everybody since forever.

I’m not ranting because I’m tired of the easily-ridiculed but onerous legal restrictions, the growing tissue of lies centered around “creativity” and “exclusivity” in our legal framework, or any of that old crap. Those are easy. Everybody is mad about them.

Hell, we were mad about all that crap before the rest of you started jumping on the bandwagon.

No, I’m upset because I got mad the other day when an asshole German engineer I know from a conference published a preprint where he posed an “original” theory essentially identical to stuff we talked about years ago—and he didn’t cite anybody I think he should have, implying that he is mapping out some New Frontier of Thought.

And because Stephen Wolfram, the man personally, pisses me off—because his doorstop relegates the life’s work of smart people I know to occasional mentions in the tiny appendix, implying to most people that he invented Science Itself.

I’m upset because when I look at something in some random book or website, or hear something, or somebody mentions it to me, and it’s a thing I once felt pride in doing or even knowing, but now everybody does or knows it—I am driven to feel that they’re doing it wrong.

I know because it was something I invested actual thinking time in back when. And here it is now, much later, being popularized! And if you look, none of the “original” creative people who made it a thing to me are mentioned. It’s all these new mainstream immigrants.

What right have they to it, without giving credit where it’s due? Worse, what right have they to use our words to mislead their naive followers now?

This has happened through the years with “Chaos theory”, “complexity” research, “biocomputing” research, “agile” software development and management, “coworking”, the “social Web”, “social networks”, “Pragmatism”… that’s just a quick off-the-cuff list for me. I did early work with a thing, and nobody much cared, and then much later somebody else did slightly overlapping work, and now it’s all the fucking rage.

And I think Dammit, in my day we were trying to save the world, not just sell widgets like this asshole. Why are they all listening to him? Doesn’t anybody ever read what we said back then when this was really new?

Your mileage may vary, but I will make you eat your hat if you haven’t experienced this same emotion when faced with interlopers and other latecomers announcing their discovery of certain styles and genres of “science fiction”, “painting”, “photography”, “local food”, “book arts”, “user experience”, “functional programming”, “punk”, “conservatism”, “progressivism”, “minimalism”, “sustainability”, “blogging”, “anarchism”, “free verse”, “that crap they call ‘roleplaying’ these days”, “that crap they call ‘news’ and ‘journalism’ these days”, “economic development”, “genetics”, “perennial gardening”, “aeronautics”, “compassion”, “Christian faith”, “Buddhism” and so on.

Some folks might think I’m describing envy; that one has a sense of violation because these newfangled popularizers are getting all the rents one feels are owed to the “real” inventors. But it’s not.

I admit it might be a bit like pride. But a strange sort of pride, where you didn’t realize you had any until a plug was pulled and it all drained out.

No. I think not.

I think it’s a lot more like the feeling you get—as my wife Barbara pointed out a couple of days back (see what I did there?)—when you first realize your child is her own person, and that she’s made her own decision, and that despite all your early work to bring her up right, she’s going to hare off in her own direction.

Because you know what’s over in that direction. You know the hassle and danger, the illusions and pain, the inefficiencies and unsatisfying experiences she’s heading for, because you experienced them all years ago. You tried to keep her from doing that stupid stuff, and tried to get her to see the cool stuff, the life-saving and simple stuff, the right stuff, but she’s thoughtlessly skeptical about anything she actually heard. And worse, someday she will come back and announce as “new” something you knew all along.

I think I’m upset because “originality culture” makes me feel that all the time now. Not content to be a mere hipster claiming to have prior knowledge of every cultural and intellectual phenomenon, I am reduced to some horrific recursive hipster, who feels that sadness whenever I am shown somebody is exploring a known thing with their own perspective.

Because of course it’s “originality culture” that makes me imagine that my experience of that thing, long ago, which I failed to communicate to these newcomers, is in any way salient to what they have going on in their lives. When I did it, it was new, and we expended valuable resources and took personal risks to do all that, and coined all these new terms to describe the amazingly insightful stuff nobody had ever talked about before.

I like to call this the Tozier Effect.

Of course the asshole German can talk about stuff we both have done, for the same reason I can: it’s cool and it will help the world to know more about it. And because I am also an asshole German to somebody.

Of course Wolfram can be the Edison of the Symbolic World, for the same reason Edison could: it’s cool and it will help the world to know more about it. And because I have also played Edison in my time.

And the nouveau “agilists” and “complexologists” and “Web 3.0 gurus” and the latest Business Revolutionaries and TED-talking Inspirational Crowd are welcome to carry on.

There’s enough reason for me to question the very notion of originality just in the fact that we so rarely question the vocabulary we use to discuss it.

I don’t care if you keep using those terms and notions… mostly. Why should I waste time striving to undermine your claims about how “originality” works? Especially by framing my arguments in that same questionable language of universality, exclusivity and rights? That’s a sucker’s bet.

I have evidence that I’m going to turn out being right when I stop thinking and talking about “originality” in your terms. But I also have evidence that you do real good by using those terms. And I have evidence that we’re both wrong and should use some other words and ideas instead.

’Tis but the nature of the world.

That said, I’m just deciding to stop using those words, even around you. Even when you talk about “your” “culture” “needing” to “promote” “innovation”, even when you talk about “economic” “growth” and your cultural “obligation” to be “cited”, or how “artists” will “starve” without your “support”.

We’re not going to have those conversations with those ideas any more, you and me, is all I’m saying.

And I will be a bit happier, and you will be sad and confused.

And that’s an improvement, in my book.

Well, OK. Except for one thing.

When it becomes clear that your vocabulary about ownership and rights and priority and value is clearly hurting people? That’s when we will intervene. Your wounded ego, your claims that imagination is a zero-sum game, your rent-seeking, your leech squad—they will become our targets when you cross that line.

Not you. We’re not going to target you. But when you sharpen your final vocabulary into a harmful tool, or a cage, or a wall—that’s when we are supposed to come along with the breaker bars.

It’s OK. There are other ideas and words in the world. There are always other ones. And you’d be surprised how helpful and good it can be, sometimes, to just start with a new batch.

Well, not new as such. You know what I mean.