The Light Bulb Goes Off

The great Ronald Reagan said that you could accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets credit. Of course Reagan was not the first person to say that. It is almost impossible to trace an idea to its “source” because there really is no one source. Ideas don’t pass unchanged through the people who hold them and none of us ever has a truly original thought, which is why we might not fight so hard to take or give credit. 

 I proudly proclaim that I have never in my life had a truly original thought. I am well educated. The chief benefit of education is that you tap into the accumulated wisdom of other people, places and other generations. I spend a lot of time reading with the specific goal of appropriating the ideas of others. I cannot keep them straight. I often cannot remember where I picked them up and I mix them together in ways that complicate provenance. It doesn’t bother me, although I suppose that some people of deceive themselves about their own originality might be upset that I “stole” their ideas. Footnotes have always been a challenge for me. 

The image of the lone genius coming up with a great breakthrough was always mostly mythical. Innovative ideas are created when they bounce off and recombine with each other. (Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist characterizes it as ideas having sex and producing synergistic offspring. His book, BTW, is among those I have assimilated in the Borg-like fashion I mentioned above.) They do not do well when they are contained in a single mind, the more people involved in an idea, the better.

I have little patience with the careful parsing of credit. That is a reason I had to flee academia, where the first ¾ of any research consists of summarizing and discussing the lineage of all the ideas you will be considering in the second-last paragraph of your thesis. It is just an awful long run for a very short slide and beyond that it does not reflect how people think or ideas are born outside the ivory tower.

Let me break my credit rule again by referring to another book I recently read called Where Good Ideas Come From. If you follow the link, you will find a good illustrated summary of the main ideas of the book, which saves me the need to write it all down here. The summary does not include, however, the point that in an academic sense I would give him credit for. That is that many people have similar ideas when faced with similar challenges and similar opportunities. Of course, this is not a new idea. I wrote a post with some of the same thoughts before I read the book and I think before the book was published. It kind of proves the point about ideas flowing around.

You can also look at the TED Lecture. If you are unfamiliar with TED lectures, you might want to take a look; they are usually interesting. On an unrelated note, one of my favorites was on the intelligence of crows.

Johnson gives some good examples. The most famous is probably Darwin and Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution completely independently about the same time. The idea was gestating around in general at the time. Thinking up the theory was made possible by scientific advances that made analysis of species possible, by floods of communications that spread that knowledge and, not inconsequentially, by the society that had developed in the West that would not stone or burn anybody who published such ideas as infidels or heretics. In short, a person living in the 15th Century anywhere in the world or even living in the 19th Century anyplace else probably could not have thought of the details of the theory of evolution at all or, if he had managed the thought, would have died in a nasty way shortly after revealing it to anybody else.

When I studied anthropology and ancient history, we used to refer to diffusion. This was the concept that ideas and technologies were created in some place, in ancient history usually the Mesopotamia or Anatolia, and then they were carried – diffused – to other parts of the world. This led to a linear type of history, where your attention is first drawn to Sumer in southern Mesopotamia and then you move the “center” of civilization to northern Mesopotamia, expand it to include the Eastern Mediterranean, then to Greece, then Rome. After that you move to the Empire of the Franks, then to England and finally you end up in America.

Of course, I am conflating diffusion with an ethnocentric historical perspective, but diffusion is essentially an ethnocentric historical perspective and it is based on that bogus concept that ideas are invented and then spread, rather than the more correct one that ideas spread and then they are invented. (This diffusion thing gets even worse, BTW. Some people believe that space aliens came around and “seeded” ideas)

It is not exclusive. It is likely that people in different places, faced with similar challenges and opportunities came up with similar adaptations. It is also likely that when they came in contact with other ideas the mixed, matched and innovated. So did the use of particular tools, pottery or agricultural techniques spread through diffusion from originating centers or did they develop in many places at once? The answer is yes.

So the academic exercise of trying to find the “origins” can be fun, but it is isn’t much use.

Next year we will essentially outlaw the traditional incandescent light bulb, and with it the long-time symbol of innovation and new ideas. We all learned that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but there are always wise guys who point out that he didn’t. They are right. The Greeks invented light bulbs almost 3000 years ago. The problem is that they didn’t work. Who had the basic idea first doesn’t really count for much. It matters who can make it work and make it useful. The greatest innovators are not those who have the best new ideas, but rather those who can figure out how to make ideas work for themselves and others and those who can reformulate ideas into new mixes.

All ideas are old in their basic form. I am convinced that the Greeks, Chinese or Native Americans (if you want to be PC) pretty much thought of everything on a basic level. If you want to say that the concept of a chariot of the gods is essentially the same as the space shuttle, you are being silly and impractical but you have a nerdly rhetorical point. Just don’t take that kind of thing to seriously and don’t get annoyed when you don’t get credit for having useful ideas.