Is There Such Thing As ‘Originality’?

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. An original piece of art?

When does something — a piece of art, song, an idea, a joke — become original? Where exactly is the line between originality and plagiarism, pastiche, and parody? How has the information revolution altered our perception of originality?

If, as the master introspectors, physicists and Sam Hariss’ of the world tell us, the idea of free will is ludicrous—if we’re entirely at the whim of forces beyond our control, from the information we consume all the way down to the atomic level—then all thoughts, which may or may not produce some physical creation (say, an article or script) are hardly something for which we can rightfully claim our own (i.e., original). If the play script I write is somehow inspired by my love of plays, then most likely I have been exposed to many of them, and if so, what justifies any possible claim I may make about originality? Is it because nobody has ever written the play before? Even if my play is the first in its exactitude, it has still been inspired by my love of Shakespeare. Hence it doesn’t seem to qualify as original. Was Shakespeare original? Even he was inspired by the poets, books, and ideaspace of his time.

And what Darwin? His revolutionary and shocking theory of evolution was formulated over many, many years of painstaking study of the natural world, and even once ready it was held back due to Darwin’s fear of backlash. The theory of evolution seems like the very definition of an original piece of work until you consider the fact that Darwin himself was not completely autonomous: consider the many conversations he held with other prominent naturalists; his co-author Alfred Russel Wallace, with whom he published a paper introducing a theory he termed natural selection; and ideas picked up in books, such as William Paley’s divine design and John Herschel’s idea that the highest aim in natural philosophy is to understand laws through inductive reasoning based on observation (sound familiar?); and Charles Leyll and Thomas Malthus, two important influences on Darwin’s thought. The degree to which we should credit the influence these many factors had on the theory of evolution is unclear. They each had an important role, sure, but does any particular one of them, or all combined, impede on Darwin’s originality?

The same could be said for Einstein, who couldn’t have come to his theory of relativity if not for Newton’s gravity, and if legend is to believed, apples. What about the artists, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso; the scientists, Von Neumann, John Nash; the musicians, The Beatles, David Bowie, and Michael Jackson? In business, what of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Andy Grove, Edison, Tesla, and Bell? And the philosophers, film directors, actors, novelists? What about companies?

The iconoclastic Einstein.

Such questioning has brought me to a couple of interesting observations. First of all, viewing originality through such a reductionist lens that demands identifying and measuring each individual influence is surely absurd. It would also suggest there can be no such thing as originality. This is incorrect. There is originality in the world, in spite of the apparent non-existence of free will (again, which implies by default that no idea is totally self-generated, or even self-generated at all). In fact it has nothing to do with these things. It has to do the newness of a creation, and the importance of the creation insofar as it gains enough recognition that the original creator is identified. This does not mean, however, that the original creator can’t be dethroned and replaced. If one day we learn that Shakespeare was a fraudster who copied word-for-word the works of several prominent playwrights before throwing them off bridges, then the only originality our criminal has claim to is the wicked crime; his status as an original playwright immediately becomes unjustified, or wrong. But as far as we know Shakespeare did not throw playwrights of bridges, and he did write those plays. Hence is Shakespeare original?

Even if, as some suggest, Shakespeare was not a single person but many, the works are undeniably remarkable; beautifully written, mysterious and confusing and enlightening, a level of profundity that demands many re-reads, and centuries worth of cultural significance: they’re rightfully regarded as being in a league of their own. Or better put, they’re original.

If Shakespeare is a good example of originality, it implies something rather startling about originality as we know it today, namely that it is far more rare than we think. If I listen to every song in the UK Top 40 (a list of the current most listened to/downloaded tracks), mostly I hear different interpretations of the same lyrics, sounds and melodies. In other words I hear very little originality, if any. And even if I come across something unique, I must question who wrote the song, and if I were to be petty, who produced it, and if the sounds are primarily computer-generated, and so on. If Jimbob Jones is placed on the podium of originality by the media, but all of his songs are written by songwriter Jonebob Jim, and the sounds in his tracks are all digital, and all editing is done by his producer Jimbob Jack, where exactly is the originality? The originality questions are very much the same for articles I like to read about science and politics: what portion is the editor and publisher responsible for? is it co-authored? what are the sources? is this idea new? Ditto for all significant aspects of culture — film, TV, art, food, comedy, games, blogs, fashion, and such like.

Perhaps it is precisely these lack of distinctions that gave rise to the idea of originality in the first place. Even if we could answer the above questions about Jimbob’s originality, we’d still have a debate about what inspired his songwriter, and who’s responsible for the software used to produce the sound, and so on. And then there’s the debate about who has been the most original. Deep analysis is not just long and complicated but insufficiently accurate; it tells only half the story and leads to more questions than answers. If we treated every claim for originality this way, there could be no true originality; the more refined the questioning the weaker the idea becomes. Of course we don’t, which is why we have it.

However in an increasingly complicated world, it could be that determining whether a creation is original demands more refined questions. Has originality has not become rarer but simply harder to identify? No. I think it is both rarer and harder to identify. We could call the information age the ‘age of noise’, in that, the overwhelming abundance of information, most of which is free, has created the problem of filtering the good from the bad, the useful and useless—and the original from the non-original. This increasing difficulty in identifying originality is fuelling the wide-spread illusion that originality is not on the decline.

What about noisy creations themselves? Like movies, a lot of music compensates for originality with volume and extremity.

Perhaps I am wrong and originality isn’t on the decline but simply harder to find? It’s certainly not an extinct phenomena, but globally speaking and compared to bygone eras, I think it’s embarrassing. Believing the only problem is noise is hopelessly optimistic, deeply complacent and dangerous. For one, what can we do about the noise? It’s only going to get worse. What incentive do creatives have if most people settle for the presumption that ‘it exists’? It’s not zero, but it’s certainly a whole lot less than they otherwise would. And two, what if it’s untrue? If we’re witnessing less originality, which we are, I would rather believe it is on the decrease and do something about it, than believe it exists in plentitude but is just being crowded out.1 Ignorance isn’t the answer.

  1. In practice, they are of course the same thing.

Leave a Reply

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