The Key to Creativity


Everything is a Remix – Documentary Notes

Reading time: ~6 min.

Part 1 — The Song Remains the Same

The theory is that everything is a remix. In music, there’s plenty of examples of famous songs that have copied parts of lyrics, beats and sounds from other songs. One good example is Led Zeppling, who made unaccredited covers, copied parts and put them into their songs.

Part 2 — Remix Inc.

Most movie hits depend on existing material. If we take the 10 movies that made the most money of each year, 74 out of 100 are sequels or remixes of other films, adaptations of books or comic books, of video games, etc.

There are many, many examples. Star Wars, even though apparently original, has many of its individual elements inspired on many existing things. The story itself seems to be based on a general story framework called “monomyth” in “The Hero with a thousand faces” by Joseph Campbell. There are several scenes from Star Wars that resemble scenes from older movies. Without those movies, maybe George Lucas couldn’t have created Star Wars [is it really? if we look hard enough, since there are so many movies, we could always find parts from older movies that could resemble a newer movie and conclude it served as inspiration even though it did not…]. Creation requires influence.

Newton’s saying “I see further because I stand in the shoulders of giants” was adapted from an older very similar saying.

Quill Bill, from Quentin Tarantino is basically a mashup from several older movies. We see several scenes and parts of the plot clearly inspired on those older movies.

Part 3 — The Elements of Creativity

The act of creating is very misunderstood. That it comes from something called “inspiration” and that it is something new, the byproduct of genius thinking, that comes to them like a strike of lightning. It’s not. Creation is the end product of a process that started long before it. It starts with copying. Copying and imitating is how we first learn. We can’t add anything new to a topic until we are fluent in it, until we build the knowledge and understanding foundation. No one starts original. E.g. all artists spend their first years doing derivative work.

After we’ve laid the fundamentals, it becomes possible to create something new through transformation, by taking an existing idea and creating variations. This is time-consuming tinkering but it can ultimately produce a breakthrough. Several new inventions resulted from people that worked on or got deeply acquainted with other people’s projects, and got to transform them (e.g. steam engine, typewriter, light-bulb) “These were not original ideas, but tipping points in the continuous line of invention by many people.” But the most sensational results happen when combining ideas, where creative leaps can be made resulting in great breakthroughs — e.g. printing press, where all its components had existed for a centuries before the inventor combined them, Henry Ford combined the existing technology of the assembly line, interchangeable parts, and automobile to create the first mass produced automobile. “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work… progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it’s inevitable” Henry Ford

The basic elements of creativity are copying, transforming and combining (fig. 1). An example is the personal computer. Apple copied a lot of elements from earlier operative systems. However, the improvements they did on them (transforming and combining) was what catapulted them to success.

“The interdependence of creativity has been obscured by powerful cultural ideas but tech is now exposing this connectedness. We’re struggling legally, and artistically to deal with these implications.”

What would have happened if along the path some of those inspirations that allowed other to achieve breakthroughs didn’t take place? Would we be further back in technology? Maybe not. It seems that every time there’s a breakthrough, there are usually others on the same path, somewhat close behind or not even behind. E.g. Isaac Newton and Gottfried both invented calculus ~same time and Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace who had the same idea of evolution by natural selection about the same time. Multiple discovery = same innovation emerging from different places.


Part 4 — System Failure

Memes (ideas, behaviors, skills) that are passed among people are just like genes for the biological organisms. Just like genes, the most dominant memes, spread the most (social evolution). However legal systems doesn’t recognize the derivative nature of creativity. For legal systems ideas are a very delineated property, distinguishable from everything else. But ideas aren’t like that. They are interwoven, layered and tangled.

For the most part of our history, ideas were free. We could openly copy, modify and build upon ideas and works of others. But as the products of our intellectual labor started to be bought and sold an undesirable issue arised. Because copycats don’t need to invest in R&D to develop something, their copied final product can be cheaper which results in the original creations not being able to compete with their copies. Copyrights (for media) and patents (for inventions) were originally introduced to address this problem, in 1790. The main goal was to proliferate new ideas by providing an initial period of exclusivity where no one can copy the creator’s work, giving them a window of opportunity to pay back for their investment and get some profit, before it was released to public domain.  But then things started getting messy. There’s a psychological effect called “loss aversion”. Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losing something to acquiring something of equal value. For example, that we feel better to not lose $100 than to get $100. In fact, some studies go as far as saying that for the strength of the feeling to be equal the earnings need to be double the losses (so losing $100 feels as bad as winning $200 feels good). Now when we copy something and get gains, it’s fine, but if someone else does it, we see that as a loss for us and get territorial. In the end it means that “when we copy we justify it, when others copy, we vilify it.” There are several companies that put a lot of things into them by copying, but then criticize harshly when others do the same with them. “Most of us don’t have problems with copying as long as we’re the ones doing it.” This lead to the concept of intellectual property with broader law interpretations. This in turn lead to an absurd increase in IP lawsuits. With this also came people that do nothing but make money out of these lawsuits (the so-called patent and sample trolls).

Apple patented unlocking a phone by sliding an icon with one’s finger. Back in the day when the first mac computers were being made there were no software patents, and it was xerox who pioneered the graphic interface. What if they had patented the popup menus or scroll bars?

The common good needs to win vs intellectual property.

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Are there other elements that contribute to creativity missing here? Do you think the AI capable of creativity or that it is just exclusive to humans?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.