My ego is very possessive and fiercely private. When I come up with an idea, create something or introduce an innovative element into a system, I want to be recognized for it. When I take photos while I am traveling, I don’t want those photos to be lost amongst the millions of others without a watermark recognizing my efforts in composing them. When I simplify a complex curricular document into a user-friendly version, I don’t want that synthesizing task to be forgotten. When I introduce a forward-thinking learning engagement or propose a system-wide review of learning at my place of employment, I don’t want those ideas to simply be pushed off as intellectual property of the school. My ego craves the recognition and wants to steadfastly possess and hold onto that which is mine: my thoughts, my ideas, my creation, my self. My self-serving ego yearns for there to be a thoughtprint left in this world that shows I that I existed and had a unique and special set of skills that no other human possessed. My ego wants to be seen as separate from and different than the rest, but most of all, it just wants to be recognized for its efforts.
When I started reflecting more about why I have such a deep-seated inability to let go of my intellectual property and artistic creations, I began to think about how unconscious I am. I began to think about Eckhart Tolle and The Dalai Lama and how all of the above-mentioned patterns are based on such limited and shortsighted thinking. I started wondering about the origins of my thoughts, ideas and creative inspirations that I so dearly clung onto. This lead to a series of questions I began to ponder:
Where does creativity start? Where does it come from?
Where does a thought start? What is the source of an idea?
Where does originality stem from? Is anything original anymore?
How many thoughts does a person have each day? How much media is a person exposed to on a daily basis?
What does the brain process on both a conscious and subconscious level in today’s world? How has this changed over the last millennia and what does that mean for humanity?
How does the Buddhist principle of interconnectedness affect creativity, idea-generation and originality?
Can original, creative works or ideas even exist anymore? Have they ever been able to?
Is the issue of copyrighting, ownership and rights a social issue or a personal one?
While examining some of these questions, I looked at opinions on the difference between creativity and innovation, how great minds such as Aristotle, Dali and Einstein accessed their creativity through a power nap, the science behind creativity, and how to boost creative potential. From looking at those perspectives, it appears that creative or original ideas are accessed through a combination of the subconscious mind, a relaxed mental and physical state that allows the mind to wander (and dormant seeds to be awakened) and highly engaged cognitive tasks interspersed between them.
I also found out that humans produce some 50,000 thoughts a day, are exposed to hundreds of advertisements daily and consume almost 15 hours of media a day. Creative seeds are also encouraged to flourish in highly social environments where there is exposure to a variety of areas of expertise that allows our ideas to have sex. From these perspectives, creative and original thoughts come from interaction with other ideas and can rarely been seen to exist in an isolated field. Humans are bombarded with an overwhelming number of cognitive interactions on a daily basis, both personal and media-driven, that give eventual rise and inspiration to what we often think of as my idea.
This the leads back to the original question, “Can original, creative works or ideas even exist anymore? Have they ever been able to?” To answer these questions, one needs to look at the issues of copyrighting, ownership and fair use through a more global and Buddhist perspective, one temporarily devoid of ego.
Through this lens, we might see how the ownership of a thought or an original idea is an illusion based on seeing ourselves as a separate cognitive entity than the collective mind Matt Ridley refers to. This is in no way denying that there could and should be some sort of individual acknowledgement of personal capacities and insights. If there were not an economic or social system rewarding one’s work, humanity would have a difficult time flourishing in such a personally deprived state. Humans are assuredly unique and different, carrying varying degrees of creative skills that contribute their individual nodes to the collective mind. All one has to do is listen to some TED talks to quickly realize that not all Minds are created equal. This needs to be recognized and individualism should be respected for the intellectual mark each contributor is leaving on the world. However, the concept of thought ownership is probably as foreign to enlightened Buddhists as the notion of land ownership was to Native Americans upon colonization. Original works and ideas are relative in their temporary scope and have a limited context through which their process is viewed.
In absolute terms, through a Buddhist lens of interconnectedness, nothing can occur independent of another; this includes the self and the original ideas that come from them. Any thought or idea that spawns a creative or innovative action (which may result in a product being copyrighted or considered intellectual property) is only a result of some other action preceding it. This cognitive creation might have been subconscious and dormant for some time, only reawakening during those states fringing on the conscious zones or those when unoccupied by other mental chatter. Or, it may be a more conscious process in which a creative work comes out of direct stealing, borrowing or inspiration from another source. Either way, the egotistical notion of my thought, my idea, my creation, my innovation is a misguided one (which I am personally coming to terms with) when viewed through an interconnected spectrum. To illustrate a more concrete example of interconnectedness than those found in intellectual property abstractions, let’s take look at Diego, who comes up with an original idea for an invention.
Diego has just had a stroke of genius insight and sees what the world is lacking: a kiwi peeler. When he envisioned this kiwi peeler, he thought about it being about the size of one of those electric pencil sharpeners he used in his high school classroom. The kiwi peeler would have a top that flipped opened, like those juicers he saw from the time out west he spent during his college years with those neo-hippies. Upon putting the kiwi inside, one would find a sort of malleable material, like those stress balls he was taught about at teacher’s college. You know, the ones his professor let him play with and could help boys who need physical stimulation aid their thinking. But, the inside of the kiwi peeler would not be as hard as a stress ball. Instead, it would be more like one of those balloons he filled with flour as a child in Sunday School. It would be a softer version, that would hug the kiwi to ascertain its contours, the way he used to feel the shape his neighbor’s dog’s neck rolls when he was eight. When the kiwi would be placed into this soft inside that would conform to its shape, he thought there could be some sort of sensor that would read and memorize the exact shape of this particular kiwi. He saw some sensory capabilities like this in a random, futuristic low-budget movie one rainy day last May while he was channel surfing. Once the dimensions of the kiwi had been measured, some razor blades, not dissimilar to those found in the old-time push mower he used to use on his granddad’s farm, would emerge from within the structure’s walls. But these blades would be more like the sharp razors he saw in those Gillette commercials that came on during four consecutive commercial breaks during the game last week. This idea could have only happened thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people who have worked in the television manufacturing, entertainment and marketing industries over the past fifty years, not to mention all those people involved in the behind-the-scenes primary source material extraction of those interchangeable parts in countries he still can’t locate on a map.
The kiwi peeler, he decided, would be rechargeable, which meant that he had thousands of copper miners in Peru to thank for the battery and the thousands more throughout time who have refined electric potential. Not only that, but if it wasn’t for the burgeoning lithium investments from that country he decried at a local bar last weekend, batteries and their nearly indentured labor force wouldn’t have allowed for such a spatial convenience. When he would push the button, the blades would carefully and quickly take back the kiwi’s skin without wasting the fruity flesh. It would be as efficient as the potato peeler he used as a prep cook in his first job at his neighbor’s restaurant.
The night this original idea came to Diego, he was at a highland lake in a country he had recently migrated to, drinking tea picked by an ethnic minority hill tribe in Myanmar that made its way to the Americas by virtue of thousands of workers involved in land and sea transportation. The tea strainer he used to dilute his tea was made from the resourcefulness of certain east Asian entrepreneurs who found a way to further exploit their local population in the mining of coal and iron ore. The mug with which he drank from was a gift from his beloved aunt who died of cancer the previous fall. The only mug he decided not to donate to his local thrift store before his recent move was decorated with an abstract representation of an indigenous woman, with what looked like some sort of rectangular prism in her hand, which helped him formulate the design in the first place.
But, before the design of this product could manifest, it was the fruit bat that he was following as it flew around at dusk and dipped down towards that banana tree, as it skillfully avoided that motorcyclist when its muffler backfired, which initiated it all. As his eyes and thoughts now turned towards the banana tree and its bland-flavored fruits, he wondered why the best fruits in life were those that were hardest to get to. He was, of course, speaking literally and metaphorically, as he left his former country looking for a fresh start after a breakup by his teenage crush brought him to this foreign land looking for a fresh start. His sullen mood brought him to memories of his comfort food: kiwis, yogurt and maple syrup, which he began to favor at a summer camp he worked at three years ago. And as he raised the mug he received from his aunt to take a sip of the hill-tribe tea held in that stainless steel coffin, his eyes moved from the fruit bat to the banana bunch and he thought to himself, “I really wish kiwis were easier to eat.”
In relative terms, this was Diego’s idea, his creation, and should be intellectually protected and dutifully recognized as owned and originated by him. However, in absolute terms, we might see the folly in assigning personal ownership to this sequence of events and the thousands of humans involved in fabrication of the objects around him that allowed him to be in that particular place and time in order to have that thought.
Diego is not really the original source of the creative idea he believes is rightfully his. Instead, Diego is the medium through with the collective creativity expressed itself. Diego can be grateful for the subconscious element emerging into his conscious mind and should humbly acknowledge that he is only the most recent medium in a lineage of causal events and influences; and he most certainly will not be the last.
Humans are born, live and eventually die. All but a minuscule number of enlightened ones on this planet see themselves as an I, as having a self that is distinct and separate from everyone and everything else.
The same can be said for thoughts, ideas and original works we so strongly attach and cling to. Our creations are born, sometimes live as innovations, eventually die and are no longer relevant. Instead of holding on to these expressions as if they were an extension of ourselves, perhaps we can loosen our grips on not only what has been manifested through us, but also the I and the my which was privy to this inexplicable creative birthing.
Maybe Creative Commons, copyrighting, digital attribution rights and fair use are not purely social and libertarian advancements? Maybe they can also be seen as evolutionary openings into an individual diminishing the ego in one’s self?
(The author makes no claim to know anything about anything written in this post and can attest to all thoughts being those not of his own. He also has a much easier time writing about what should be practiced than actually implementing it in real life.)