The Cusp

After a certain point, everything become obvious. That, in essence, is the Cusp. Good ideas, once possible, occur to multiple people at the same time in almost every field of human endeavor. Once the ground is ripe for an idea, it will happen over and over again until eventually it will seem obvious to school children. Allow me to illustrate this hypothesis with some personal anecdotes

I read A Study in Scarlet a few years back, which I thought was amazing and wonderful. It’s probably the best Sherlock Holmes adventure because—as it is the first adventure—it takes the time to paint both Sherlock and Watson as full characters. What struck me upon reading was the fact that Watson was a veteran of the British incursion into Afghanistan. I thought to myself, ‘Well that’s rather an interesting parallel to the current situation. What if you set Sherlock Holmes in the present day and had Watson return from the current conflict?’ I didn’t really give much more thought to it, but a year later Stephen Moffat came out with Sherlock, which has the great detective scurrying about modern day London followed by a wounded Watson expressing incredulity that Holmes doesn’t know the Earth goes around the Sun.

A little later, I had an idea for a touchpad for the blind. It would be a responsive pin board similar to the ones kids use for making impressions of their hands. The current system of text-readers seemed to me to be a slow and ponderous way to navigate the web.  It seemed more logical to have a way to turn the visual input from a site into a tactile one. I decided to start looking into it, just out of curiosity, only to find that a German company had already put out a prototype only about half a year before I’d had the idea.

Now, everyone has those stories where they say they ‘had that idea first, before X,’ but what struck me about these incidents was the close proximity between when I had the idea, and when the other person or group did. When you actually look into it this phenomenon of simultaneous ideas you find that it happens all the time. Take the invention of the lightbulb. We credit Thomas Edison with it, but Tesla came up with the fluorescent version before Edison’s incandescent, and numerous other people were working on the design at the same time. The only special thing Edison really did was make the first practical cheap bulb (soon replaced by our lovely modern tungsten versions) and marketed the hell out of himself. Similarly, the inventions of the cotton gin, telegraph, and steam engines were really the products of multiple people having similar ideas or building on their predecessors with the person getting the credit usually being either the first or the best. The myth of the lone inventor, struggling by himself, is a prevalent but not an accurate one. All technology is built from older technology, so once it becomes physically possibly for someone to make it, the person who invents it really is just the first who has the ideas and the technical skill to sit down and actually make it happen. 

In science, this is something we more or less accept, despite the public perception of lone geniuses like Einstein slaving away in Swiss patent offices. As Issac Newton is reported to have remarked, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Everything in science is built on the work of previous generations, and because there is less of a desire to beat the opposition and more an emphasis on arriving at the truth, I think scientists are better able to recognize the collaborative nature of their work, that what they discover does not spring fully formed out of their heads like Athena from Zeus.

In the past, simultaneous inspiration happened relatively infrequently and the time between different people having the same idea was more spread out. A number of people, such as Aristarchus of Samos and Alhazen, proposed Heliocentric models of the solar system before Copernicus, but their works were separated by centuries. After Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, he spent more than two decades working out details of his theory of Evolution, only to one day have Alfred Wallace mail him an essay containing all the broad strokes of the theory. Darwin had thought out everything in much greater detail and more logical rigor and did end up getting the credit, but this was largely due to intervention by his friends. In science today, however, multiple discoveries of the same idea are relatively commonplace. Noble prizes, to use physics as an example, are rarely awarded to one person anymore. 

This is not a surprising occurrence when you think about it. As the world becomes more connected and more people pursue science and technological advancement, the common foundation of all human knowledge is being shared by an ever greater number of people. You have more people addressing a common set of problems with the same tools. It is not very surprising then that many find the same solution at the same time (or creative ideas when it comes to the arts). Once enough people are aware of the power of electric current eventually someone is going to try and make wires glow in order to cut down on candle usage. If you picked up ‘A Study in Scarlet’ anytime after 2001, you thought, well obviously someone should make an updated version. And if you’ve got a touch screen for your Ipad, you might as well extend that to something that works for blind people. Essentially this:

If you’re doing something interesting in art, science, or technology you’re working in the cusp, in that area where things are up for grabs. Everything inside it consists of all the discoveries and creations that have happened before. As civilization marches on, the cusp expands outward, and those things that were once cutting edge become ordinary, their solutions obvious and trivial to those people who didn’t have to make them. University students will rediscover the ideas of ancient philosophers on their own and write bad versions of old science fiction stories and think they’re pretty damn clever. Eventually we teach beautiful creations like calculus to high school students and reduce the work of Newton to homework. We’re all linked together creatively, each of us building on the work of everyone else, begging and borrowing. There are no Randian supermen pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and dollar signs. We don’t create, invent or discover in vacuum, but in the context of the society of which we are a part.

There is an additional moral here. If you have a really good idea, then start working on it at once! Hell, don’t even bother finishing this article, because there are probably five other people who have had the same idea right at at the same moment. You have to do at least one of two things:

A) Be the first
B) Be the best

Whenever possible, try to be like Charles Darwin and do both. Spend years slowly perfecting your ideas, and then, at the last possible minute—publish. However if you can only do one, do B. Remember that you are making the foundation for the next group of people to build upon, the inner world of the obvious that is the planetary core of creativity. Be a good giant, and make that foundation firm.

Cryptoamnesia

Cryptoamnesia is a phenomenon that I find fascinating. Crypto comes from the Greek for hidden or secret and amnesia from…well forgetting. It’s a secretly forgotten memory, or rather a thought you think is your own but that you’ve really received from elsewhere. The phenomenon reveals that much of our creative process is subconscious, and that we often don’t know how our ideas rose up into the beam of our mind’s eye.

There have been a number of documented cases of the phenomenon in the literary world. Helen Keller was sued for plagiarism after writing The Frost King, which bore a striking resemblance to a book she’d read called The Frost Fairies, and Umberto Eco claimed of rediscovering the plot for The Name of the Rose from a book he had read as a young man. Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his own experience is particularly honest and detailed.  After he wrote Treasure Island, which had been composed in nightly serials read it to his family, he went back and browsed through a book by Washington Irving he felt had influenced him. What he discovered was that, instead of merely being influenced by the work, he had unconsciously ripped out much of the plot verbatim, all the while imagining it was a product of his own imagination.

It’s not really surprising that such instances occur. Memory is extremely malleable and our recollections are shuffled around and rearranged constantly; we revise them with each revisiting. If our subconscious brings to the surface some scrap of an idea or a plot, is it so surprising that sometimes our minds forget to add the footnote that tells us where it came from? Since our creative processes are generally hidden to us—unless we’re crazy buddhist monks who can watch their own thoughts unfolding like flowers—a lost attribution comes forward like a product of our own creative processes instead of the memory that is. But perhaps that is all the creative process is, the loss of the location of the creative inspirations which are then blended together. Everything is a remix after all. However it’s when our minds regurgitate instead of blend that that we stray into something more like unconscious plagiarism.

If you do any sort of writing or creative work this is terrifying. Unless someone else points it out, or you go back and reread the source from which your subconscious swiped it, you’ll never really know if what you’ve written is a product of your own mind or a mere literary recollection. You end up going back and looking at what you’ve written and seeing the influences in every little line, worrying that maybe all of it is something you’ve copied, that really you’ve just some hack who steals the ideas of other people.

I have a novella that’s morphed into a novel-in-progress, and I can trace the various sources that inform it, the streams that feed into its river. From Dostoevsky, I took the technique of abbreviating the names of people and places for poetical license, from Scott Pilgrim the placement in a Canadian city and geography, from Twelve Monkeys and Doctor Who fixed time loops,  from Kill Bill and Neuromancer and a thousand others the trope of a woman with a blade, and from Terminator a generous dose of future war, and messiah-hood (although I like to think I take the last more from the original source).

However, it was only when I started to reread Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, probably at least five years since the first time, that I realized how much of that book had been internalized and spilled out onto the pages that I was writing. I knew from the moment I put fingers to keyboard that Stephenson (with a ‘ph’ not a ‘v’) was a major influence, even if it was only the use of present tense. On reread I found it went much further than that.

In both the book and my work, scientific ideas and philosophical ideas are expounded by dialogues between the knowing and the unknowing, characters are described long after they are introduced, and gold and mercury pervade Stephenson’s mythos, while gold and silver pervade mine. His characters fight through a historical war with all the suffering involved, while mine reckon forward to one, with memories brought back through the slipstream of time. In both, a great emphasis is put on the importance of information: for him in codes and ciphers, for me in scientific theories and the limits of human understanding.

It alarmed me a little, when I saw how deep the roots went unconsciously. Now I won’t say I ripped off the book or anything, but the essence of many things was the same. I saw the same patterns produced in my mind by my own scribblings as by Stephenson’s, only lodged so deep that I forgot how they had been placed there.

However, there is nothing new under the sun, as someone wrote over two thousand years ago. Galileo laid out his scientific theories through dialogue, gold and silver permeate almost every culture’s mental baggage, and even the Greeks had their warrior women. Everything worth doing is built on other people’s work. We don’t create in a vacuum and ideas are not copyrighted. We take other people’s inventions, repackage them, modify them, and recombine them, hopefully in new and interesting ways. Hopefully you can add some interesting details along the sides that no one else has thought up, but you’ll still be trapped within the archetypes that drive all the stories we write, all those heros with a thousand faces.
In the end, I suppose, I can only try to write something good. Originality will have to be for other people to judge.