James Borda Writer, Game and Interaction Designer

On Originality

If my house were to catch on fire, one of the items I’d try to save is the thin, yellow, xerox-copied comic book in which this appears:

Macbeth

This was the crowning episode of a series authored by two friends of mine which appeared in our high school newspaper. It was later staple-bound into a ‘zine which they sold for $1.25.

In my pre-Internet high school days, this kind of thing happened all the time — xerox-copied ‘zines were the first stab at publishing for lots of kids who went on to do the real thing. And cassette mix-tapes were traded around by every would-be lover and music producer.

It was all illegal. We knew this in a vague way, like we understood that some old laws were on the books regarding the wearing of hats in church. And we knew that the enforcement of these laws was ridiculous and impossible in practice, and mean-spirited and thuggish in theory. We shared things we loved, what could possibly be wrong with that?

Like so many other things that have been amplified by the Internet, this natural impulse to share continues on in a new and magnified form. Had it been available to them, my friends would certainly have put their creation on the web. Instead of a print run of 100, their ‘print run’ would be the same as every other object on the ‘net – indeterminate and potentially vast.

It’s the vastness that matters. Whoever commands the estate of Charles Schultz probably has thousands of dollars caught between the soda cushions, so the potential loss from a tiny print run of fan magazines wasn’t worth the effort to chase. But now, every copyright ‘intrusion’ has at least the potential to be a source of real revenue. And to be fair to some creators, it also has the potential to change the essence of a cultural object in a way the creator never intended. (The iconic case of this is the tasteless truck stickers which depict Calvin of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ urinating on various things. Bill Watterson has never licensed his characters for any commercial purpose, so there is someone out there who has made real money by subverting Watterson’s work. That Watterson didn’t sue may be for the same reason he never licensed his IP in the first place – because he didn’t want the whiff of commercialism to impugn the integrity of his artistic creation).

The communicative leverage of the Internet makes it possible for this cultural hijacking to occur with incredible swiftness. But it also reveals the artificial cultural dynamic that the old media technology made possible. The old media giants enjoyed, for a time, a massive, one-way hosepipe of culture…. so large that it became easy to forget that there was any other means of cultural transmission. But of course there was – alongside the Nightly News and Daily Paper was the quiet patter of conversation: people sharing jokes, stories, gossip, political opinions, philosophies, and aesthetic criticism, just as they had been doing since the dawn of time. They were not just regurgitating the information they heard. They were recombining it with other pieces of their personal cultural storehouse, and passing it on. This is what conversation is.

Our first semester I was asked to do an assignment regarding branding and logos. And at the very last minute, I was struck with a revelation. I didn’t have time to write it up, but I put together a pdf of images to which I gave an extemporaneous talk in class…

Logos

Here is the idea… if you look at the evolution of logo design, it works the same way as  Medieval coats of arms, flags, desktop icons, and the written characters in ideographic alphabets. A basic glyph is chosen to represent an idea. Often this is figurative. Then, over time, two things happen concurrently which put pressure on the glyph:

  1. Similar ideas arise which are related to the original but need glyphs of their own – the Queen has a daughter, Batman has a sidekick, there is a character for tree but not for forest.
  2. The idea the original glyph is supposed to represent changes. The company restructures, the Queen marries, Batman is relaunched in a new edition, people are now using the ‘tree’ character for ‘wood’ and a character is needed to represent the distinct idea of ‘tree.’

So there are three ways to alter a glyph to track the change in its intended concept: by adding graphic elements (England + Scotland = Union Jack), by altering the elements in such a way that it is similar but recognizably different (new Apple logo = old Apple logo without the stripes), or to chuck the whole thing out and start from scratch (old Apple logo != even older Apple logo with some hippy Isaac Newton sitting under a tree).

There is a lot more to say on this topic, but the key point for me is that I believe this mimics the process of human learning. There is a theory in psychology called ‘chunking’. Essentially, it’s a building-block theory. First we have to memorize the letters by name, then understand the sounds they represent, then learn to put them together into words, then sentences of increasing complexity, until we are flying over the page and even reading things like this…

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

…because we’ve completely chunked all the intermediate data.

This is creativity, on both the personal and societal scale. We continually take conceptual chunks that are already available to us and put them together into something new, which embodies but transcends its constituent parts. Nothing comes unbidden from nowhere; we are always just working with the pieces we already have. This is the life of science too, and of genetic material recombining into new chunks expressed as organisms. It’s the way of the world.

Charlie Brown + Macbeth + pen and ink + quality of line + four-panel cartoon + sword + crown + word balloon + English language + all of the constituent elements = more than the sum of its parts. It’s Original.

 

 

 

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Posted: September 16, 2012

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