What is an idea worth?

Picture me up at five; laced up, earbuds in; up and down hills and around the city; back home, cooling down; showered; packed lunch; to the office; meetings, meetings, phone calls, meetings; hit the gym; NPR fix while driving home; tend to animals — dog, cat, and chickens; make dinner; miscellaneous bustle around the house; bedtime; repeat. It’s been a busy time, which is why you haven’t heard from me for two weeks. You probably needed that long to read the epic tome I wrote you last time, anyway. So, I’m back. And this week, lighter fare for a change. Enjoy!

CB, May 28, 2015

Have you ever stopped to consider the value of an idea? Maybe you haven’t — at least not specifically — but I bet you have a sense for that value, and I bet that sense is inflated.

You see, your ideas are probably not as valuable as you think they are. They’re certainly not as unique.

In fact, many of the most important ideas that have shaped history were just as unoriginal as your ideas are. I’m serious. Most of them were thought of by multiple people at the same time. You can’t get much more unoriginal than that!

But, unoriginal doesn’t mean unimportant.

This is the basic premise of the Theory of Multiples — that ideas are ultimately the product of people + environment; that they’re inevitable.

Think of all the ideas in the world as one, big, unfinished tower. New ideas are continually being stacked on top of old ones, which are strong enough to keep the whole thing from toppling over. Every now and then, an old block gets yanked out and replaced, but for the most part, ideas pile upward. What you end up with is a tower that, at its base, is bigger and simpler and becomes more delicate and complex toward the top. Cool image, right?

So, now think about us, adding blocks to that tower. Is it any wonder that we’d add blocks to it, or that some of us might do that in the same way, at the same time? Of course not. It’s not like the inventors of radio (Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla, simultaneously, by the way), also came up with electricity, electrical fields, and antennae in one, all-encompassing mega-idea. No, the invention of radio was a response to an existing field of knowledge that was pretty close to tuning in itself… so to speak. Or, back to the tower, a smaller block added to a bunch of bigger, stronger ones.

Ok, ok. So ideas aren’t that special. But what about genius? Well, aside from being somewhat subjective, genius — whatever that means — is certainly in short supply. That’s what makes it something we feel we must name. But, many big, important ideas have been attributed to people who simply weren’t geniuses, whether on the basis of speculating an IQ score of higher than 125 or simply recognizing them as uber-exceptional. Sometimes ideas come from reasonably intelligent people who just happen to be paying attention at the right time and place. Like you and me. Hopefully.

So why does this matter?

It matters because when we overestimate the value of an idea, we start acting in unproductive ways. We start hoarding them because we’re afraid they might be stolen and someone else might reap the reward that we feel we deserve. But hoarding doesn’t preserve value, it hides it. Maybe you’ve seen Hoarders, the TV show? Great. Ok, not really. But at least it offers us the right image. Hoarders think they’re keeping stuff but really they’re burying it under piles of other worthless junk for so long that it rots. And eventually the whole pile rots. But in that pile were plenty of things that could have been used. That should have been used. But they weren’t. They were kept.

Being precious with your ideas will do nothing for you other than to stifle your output. It won’t make you the most brilliant writer of all time. It will make you the writer who wrote that one time. Writing is meant to exercise ideas, not just to deliver them. In fact, thinking of writing as simply an idea-delivery-tool is almost as absurd as saying that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player because of that one three-pointer he made mid-season in 1991. Ridiculous! Michael Jordan was a great basketball player because of the way he played, which included far more than those isolated demonstrations of prowess (and good luck). Michael Jordan was a basketball player, not a guy who played brilliant basketball once or twice.

(People who know me well, take note. I just used a SPORTSBALL reference. Look out the window. Pigs are flying.)

You are in far greater danger of squandering your own ideas by not putting them into practice and/or sharing them than you are of having them plundered by some idea-thief! Sharing your ideas — in any form — isn’t about turning the idea into a deliverable. It’s about demonstrating the form of your thinking.

That idea you write down surely won’t be your last idea, and it surely will occur to someone else (if it hasn’t already) and be written down by them (if it hasn’t already). So why not put it out there?

Like, now.


On Screen: This is a bit of a cheat but technically, I did see it on screen so I’m going to say it counts. And anyway this is my letter so I get to make the rules and then wantonly break them. But yesterday I watched most of the Google I/O keynote. Most of it — it was pretty long. But just a few minutes in, something struck me. Not that the tech was cool (some of it was), or that the presenters were slick and polished (few of them were). It was the world of difference between the Google I/O event and your typical Apple event. Both, of course, are covered down to the last moment by just about every tech and design media outlet on the planet. You can practically attend them via Twitter at this point. But, looking simply at the events themselves, they couldn’t be more different. I/O, at its core, was about technology. Apple events are about products. One is PBS and the other is QVC. Ok, I know there’s a    w i d e    spectrum between the two, but I think it’s fair to say that I/O was much more about ideas than it was about showcasing things you can buy. After all, at I/O, you had a non-white Google exec — not even Sergey or Larry — talking extensively about machine learning and natural language processing, while at an Apple event, you have the CEO — a white man — talking about the “magic” of something you can wear and coordinate with your wardrobe. On that note, it was also pretty hard to miss how much more broad Google’s view of the world is. At I/O, you had an entire segment on their Translate app, while Apple threw an entire event around a watch that can cost as much as $10,000. When luxury is spun as innovation, then the company doing the spinning has left cultural diversity behind. To that point, the gap between Google and Apple has never been wider, in my opinion. In fact, I noticed that an hour in to I/O, every single presenter had talked about performance — about how to move information across the network faster while using less bandwidth. That’s pretty mind-blowing. But forget the gadgets and the apps and the toys. Forget that stuff completely. What ultimately stood out the most was that at I/O, we heard from multiple WOMEN of different ETHNICITY talking about TECHNOLOGY and how it is used GLOBALLY. Over and over again, the theme was technological engagement outside of America. It was powerful. And just in case you feel like I’m gushing — and maybe I am, I dunno — I still think Google Glass is awful. I still think that the abstraction of the cloud allows Google and its competitors to build enormous datacenters that suck more energy — drawn largely from coal — than your average town without much scrutiny at all. I still think the tracking that our big tech companies do and their complicity with NSA’s intrusion into our lives is downright scary. But what I saw yesterday was powerful evidence — sometime subtle, other times, not-so — of just how much more forward-thinking and ambitious Google is right now than Apple.

Heavy Rotation: I’ve been kind of obsessed with Dante over the past couple of weeks. The CBC Ideas podcast has been running a three-part series on Dante to mark his 750th birthday this month. It’s called Dante: Poet of the Impossible, and you can listen to all three parts online: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. If you ever got sucked in by The Divine Comedy like I did, then this series is for you. And if you haven’t ever read it, I recommend the series just as highly. It might be just the gateway you need.

Recent Tabs: The next Googleplex is a human terrarium. The world’s cheapest computer. The past, present, and future of coffee. How much do you actually care about that decision you need to make? We have a long, long, long way to go before we have anything like a Data walking around, as this latest puppet — I mean “robot” — makes very clear. So, Medium is evolving into a CMS. I was hoping they’d do that. Also, Seinfeld will debut on Hulu+ on June 24. Google is working on tech that counts calories in food photos. How will Google know the difference between whipped cream and butter cream? No idea. How to name your computers. A case study of the design of the flag of Planet Earth. “What is my purpose?” “You pass the butter.” One writer’s process for writing about graphic design. Is there a market for making 6-min documentaries that Mister Rogers would have shown on Picture Picture? If so, I’d like to get in on that. Moby Dick read aloud, chapter by chapter. Tilda Swinton reads chapter 1! Finally, this Martian sunset is gorgeous and wonderful and you should open it and just look at it for a while.

Written by Christopher Butler on May 28, 2015,   In Essays

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