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.

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