There Are No New Ideas

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I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather recently *pause for well wishes*, so I decided to wrap up warm, drink admittedly way too much Lemsip and watch one of my favourite films, The Social Network, to relax and distract myself from that eerie feeling that the entire social and economic system our entire lives is built on is falling apart like a candy floss umbrella.

If you haven’t seen it, The Social Network is a fantastic film about the creation of Facebook, and one of the core themes of the film is whether dweeby and acerbic Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the twins who look like if you accidentally hit print twice on a 3D printer that makes Harvard gigachads. Personally, I don’t think he did, but it did get me thinking about the concept of originality, ownership and creation. 

The idea for Facebook, a centralised network of profiles that people can connect with, isn’t massively complicated and there probably is a kernel of truth to the idea that Mark strung the Winklevii along long enough that he could beat them to the punch. But, as I have written about before, the idea of social media had been around and alive long before Mark started typing out the code that would eventually somehow lead to a genocide in Myanmar. So who can we really credit with the idea of creating social media?

As I was mulling this over, I came across the mostly failed Cryptoland project. Cryptoland was basically an NFT project where when you bought an NFT, you got a real slice of physical land on an island that the creators were planning to buy. They were of course unable to buy an island because no one wanted to sell it to them, which is objectively hilarious. 

However, the whole “revolutionary” scheme may seem familiar to you, and that’s because it is genuinely just real estate, which has been around pretty much as long as human civilization has. If you want another example of the kind of thing I mean, look at Uber's new idea for intracity travel described as “riders would need to walk a couple of blocks to be picked up at a common location. They also would be dropped off at a site that would be a short walk from their final destinations.” 

In other words, that’s a bus. Most innovation is not the creation of the new, but the reformation (and usually digitisation) of the old, which I think can be best summed up by a Mark Twain quote : 

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

As someone who enjoys treading new ground and looking for ways to constantly innovate, this stung. The idea that nothing I or anyone I looked up to ever created would be truly “new” can be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, especially as I consider myself the inventor of the “blog” and am still waiting for my royalties. But I realised that actually, it’s a massive positive. I really enjoyed Tim O’Reilly’s post on the metaverse, and he described the metaverse as a “vector” where multiple different trend lines converge, and this is how you can look at innovation. Whilst you are unlikely to create a whole new trend line, you can help identify the convergences, and play your part in furthering human development. Maybe that Lemsip was too strong.

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