Monday, November 28, 2011

Derivative creativity

Creativity is not a flash of genius. It's not often original. It is the product of inspiration that comes by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. Essentially, it is a derivate process in which copying is an important ingredient.

We've always learned from others - either through being taught, through repeating, or simply copying. It's a part of human nature. We don't usually come up with something new until we're somewhat fluent in the language of our field. For instance, all artists spend time producing derivative work when they're young: Bob Dylan’s first album had eleven cover songs; Hunter Thompson literally retyped The Great Gatsby just to get the feel of writing a great novel. Nobody truly starts out original. Through copying, we build a basic level of knowledge and understanding. It is from hereon that things can get interesting.

After understanding the basics through copying, it’s possible to create something new. The process is called transformation. Here’s where we create something new as a variation of existing ideas. For instance, James Watt created a major improvement to the steam engine because he was assigned to repair Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, he then spent twelve years developing his version; Christopher Latham Shaw modelled his typewriter keyboard on a piano, this design slowly evolved over years into the QWERTY layout we still use today; Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, his first pattern was improvement in electric lamps, however he produced the first commercially viable bulb only after trying six thousand different materials for the filament; Apple didn’t invent the computer mouse, it simply dropped two buttons from the Xerox mouse to create the first commercial mouse. These are all major variations from existing ideas, none were original.

However, the most dramatic results come from combining elements. Great creative leaps have been made by connecting ideas together. For instance, although most the components for printing press had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1440 when Johannes Guttenberg combined those components to invent the printing press; Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company didn’t invent the assembly line, interchangeable parts or even the automobile itself, but they combined all these elements in 1908 to produce the first mass market car, Model T; although the Internet slowly grew over several decades as networks and protocols merged, it didn’t reach critical mass until 1991 when Tim Burners Lee combined them to add the World Wide Web.

Creation is therefore a derivate process that comes from the right application of elements such as copying, transformation and combination. These elements make up the creative stories of the devices we're using right now.

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