"Remixing is not scary, or depressing. It is empowering"
The Firestarters events that I curate for Google are all about inspiration, challenging thinking and provocation and for our latest event on Remix Culture we had that in spades in the form of an excellent talk by writer and film producer Kirby Ferguson. Kirby is the creator of the brilliant Everything Is A Remix series of short films that explore in some depth the theory that nothing is original, and that even our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform in order to create the new.
The Firestarters talk built on this premis, with Kirby giving a whistle stop tour through culture with examples of referencing and recombination from music, art, writing, and product innovation. If you weren't at the event, you can get a flavour of what he talked about from his 'Embrace The Remix' TED talk (which has been described by fellow Firestarters speaker Cory Doctorow as "an amazing, must-see talk about the way that creativity comes about as the result of creative re-use of others' work").
Kirby talked about how the fundamental tenets of copy, transform and combine are not simply the ingredients of remixing, but the basic elements of all creativity. To illustrate this he started with music and some fascinating cases in point ranging from folk (Woody Guthrie said "the words are the important thing. Don't worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you've got a new tune") to Led Zeppelin and beyond to the more obvious hip hop sampling and the amazing Danger Mouse whose Grey album mashed up the Beatles White album with Jay-Z's Black album and prompted loads of cease-and-desist letters from lawyers. We also touched on the art of Picasso, and the many derivative influences and references of Star Wars.
The talk moved into product innovation, and how the typewriter (which was originally called the 'literary piano') and QWERTY keyboard came about, the story of Apple, and how Thomas Edison didn't actually invent the light bulb but improved the idea to the point where it was commercially viable after testing thousands of different materials for filaments. Kirby's point was that rather than being individual leaps of invention by lone innovators, these were all tipping points in a long history of innovations by a stream of different people.
Kirby also touched on how the current copyright and patent system runs counter to the idea of recombinations as a powerful source of innovation and the fact that we so often build on the work of others. He quoted Henry Ford, who said: "I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other menbehind whom were centuries of work...progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable". And he gave examples of multiple discovery, of where innovations (including the telephone) were arrived at at the same time by more than one person because all the fundamentals were in place to enable that to happen. His point was that we all put stuff together with the same materials ("creative works may indeed be like property, but it's property we're all building on") but the patent system fundamentally acts against this, particularly now when patents of smaller details within larger innovations (Apple, and the wider technology market being an obvious case in point here) prevent other companies from using them as building blocks and forcing them to invent workarounds.
In the Q & A afterwards, Kirby said something really interesting, which was that "talent is interest". As Mark Carroll says in his excellent write up of the event, enthusiasm can get you so far, but it is being interested enough that creates the real point of difference and lasting value ("one will get you ideas with a shelf life and hopefully somewhat future proof while the other will most likely get you something that’s not even a remix, but just a straight copy"). This, I think, has real resonance for our industry. Remixing has been a fundmental part of human creativity and digital culture. The internet has writ large the possibilities to recombine ideas and content to create the new. APIs and the ever-increasing interconnectivity of tools and services make this more and more seamless. Being interested is perhaps one of the best tools we have for opening up the possibilities to originate better ideas, and plan and build stories. As Kirby says, our creativity comes from without, not from within, and admitting our dependence on one another is not about embracing mediocrity, its a liberation from our misconceptions.
I think it's fair to say, evidenced by the conversation afterwards and the debate on Twitter, that the talk actually started more questions than it answered, which is no bad thing. You can see the commentary and some pictures of the event from those that attended on this Storify (worth a look). And Mark Carroll has even put together an 'everything is a remix' playlist which is pretty cool.
As always, thanks go to our brilliant speaker, and to Google of-course for hosting. Here's to the next one.
Phil Adams has written a thoughtful follow up around the 'Talent is interest' idea over here.
And you can now see the Scriberia visual from the event in all it's glory here.