On Originality

This is a short essay I wrote up a while ago. There are a number of topics like this going around in the back of my mind that I’ve thought about writing out. I’m not sure if the tone of all of those are quite right for this blog or any site where I post regularly, so I don’t know if the rest will make it onto the web, but we’ll see.

Our generation, I think, has a funny way of looking at originality. And what’s really funny is, this is especially prevalent in circles that are considered “geeky.” Originality is the holy grail of this generation’s geeks.

If something is similar, it’s a rip-off. I think the best recent example is Avatar. The plot was, admittedly, somewhat derivative of other works with the same theme–FernGully and Pocahontas seemed to be the two I saw referenced most. And, honestly, I was a bit let down because of its derivative nature.

But it’s funny that, in some way, this defined it for many people. I saw a photoshop on Digg where someone marked up a summary of Pocahontas, replacing names and places from the Disney movie with those from James Cameron’s sci-fi epic. The similarity was uncanny, but it’s surprising that a comparison like that became such a meme that it hit Digg’s front page.

If critiques of movies and TV are ripe with accusations of plagiarism, it’s gadgets and games where the accusation often has the biggest impact. Here, it’s innovation–not originality–that’s the keyword; whether that’s really what sells units or not, it’s what the most vocal critics want. To be called a rip-off is a scathing review, and it’s not uncommon–everyone wants to be World of Warcraft, or the iPod, or Halo, or God of War, at least to some extent. And it is scathing–if you’re a rip-off, you’ve got a long way to go to prove yourself.

The most obvious example, though, has to be the OS wars–Windows versus Mac versus Linux. When one OS launches a new feature, it’s not uncommon for the reaction to be “Windows/Mac/Linux had it first.” The point here is not who did it best, or even that now a feature has become standard. The question is who’s been ahead and who’s been missing out.

But, of course, it leaves out a major factor: new functionality evolves and becomes more refined over several iterations. There’s value in doing something first, but there’s also a value in doing something well–especially doing a complementary combination of things well. Sure, Apple stole the GUI from Xerox, and Microsoft stole it from Apple, but would we be where we are today if any one of those companies wasn’t involved?

To be fair, this attitude does serve a purpose, especially as our culture becomes more and more corporate. Giving originality extra weight allows us to preserve all of these forms of design and media as art forms. That is, those who create can reap the rewards, while those who follow (even if they’re refining or putting a different spin on an existing idea) have less to gain.

And that’s a good thing, to a certain extent. We live in a day where a company, if they’re agile and aware enough, can pick up on popular trends and capitalize on them. The fear seems to be that media and design can end up as a soulless commodity to be pumped out rather than an art form. The obsession with originality preserves artistic integrity.

Of course, the geeky elements of our culture–who might be most likely to make this argument–are often the ones who are most hypocritical.

Think about the value we as a culture, and we as geeks especially, put on originality and innovation.

Then think about the memes that get repeated ad nauseum on the internet, like cat pictures or Chuck Norris jokes. Think about the prevalence of Family Guy references. And before Family Guy, it was The Simpsons (a point that Family Guy makes sly reference to itself–“oh, you know the Mr. Plow song? So does everybody else!”) Think about the t-shirts we wear and the bands we listen to and the TV shows we watch and the jokes we tell.

If anyone is guilty of being unoriginal, it’s us. All of us. The same one complaining about how many designers and writers don’t live up to that high standard are the same ones flagrantly sidestepping it.

But maybe it’s always been this way. Consider the success of Monty Python in the early 1970’s; here was a show written around silliness, unpredictability, and absurdity. And yet, look how ubiqituous references to some of their most famous sketches are: dead parrots and cheese shops and spam spam spam. Everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

However, if you look back earlier than that, a different picture emerges. There have been times when art wasn’t about originality–even times when the value of art was how well you could emulate a certain creative tradition.

Sure, at its heart, art is always about creating, but the raw material we use to create it–the styles, the processes, the concepts, the starting points–don’t always have to be something new and original. Sometimes the point of art is to put our own spin on things. Sometimes it’s to do it with such a high level of quality and such attention to detail that we finally do the subject justice. Sometimes it’s an homage.

And sometimes–and this is I think perhaps an awareness we’re missing in our highly individualized culture–we’re taking common pieces of a shared culture and building upon them.

There seems to be a fairly strong tradition of this in folk music. There are a couple of interviews in No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan, that illustrate this point. One of Bob Dylan’s early albums includes a version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” a traditional folk ballad. Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Dylan’s, had been performing the song as part of his set at the time. After Dylan’s recording, he says in one of the film’s interviews, people thought he’d ripped it off.

But later, it wouldn’t matter. When Eric Burdon and The Animals recorded what became the most well-known version of the song a few years later, both Dylan and Van Ronk’s versions disappeared into obscurity.

The irony here is that none of these people really ripped off the song from anyone else. They may have ripped off someone’s distinctive arrangement of the song, but the song itself doesn’t have clear origins. You’ll get different stories depending on who you ask. But it’s a song that has been passed down and changed. Over time it’s evolved into something the original authors probably wouldn’t recognize.

And, from the interviews in No Direction Home, this is something fairly common to folk music. It’s why, earlier in the documentary, one of the musicians that inspired Dylan sings a song that begins with the line, “go away from my window”–and it isn’t “It Ain’t Me Babe.” It’s why Bob Dylan could write “Girl from the North Country” and Paul Simon could write “Scarborough Fair”–both taken from the same set of traditional lyrics–and yet end with two different songs. It’s why, when singing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” it’s traditional to insert your home state before the line, “the place where I was born and raised”–in a small way, taking a communal work and personalizing it

I’m not trying to say that folk music (or any other art form) had this originality thing all figured out, but it’s a perspective so completely different from our competitive, individualized culture that it deserves attention. Clearly, there’s a lot of art and crafts that wouldn’t get made if we were so free with our ideas. Despite being often abused, patents and copyrights have a place–not least of which is to make the creative process lucrative enough to be pursued as a career. But it’s important that we be aware of just what we’re asking for when we demand perfect originality, that we don’t always meet those demands, and that quality has indeed flourished under less stringent expectations.