Is originality merely the rehashing of old ideas?

This is my second practice attempt at the Analytical Writing Issue task. I finished this one in 45 minutes even (or is that “odd”? 😉 ), but I had to stop halfway through proofreading. Hope all my subjects agree with their verbs, and everything. The first two topics were ones I had decent examples for off the top of my head; I worry I won’t be so lucky on the real thing.

Originality does not mean thinking something that was never thought before; it means putting old ideas together in new ways.

An old dictum states that everything a person thinks has been thought before, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” And in many cases, this is true.

Witness the countless love poems that have been written: we express the same concept with myriad images and metaphors, always seeking new ways to depict a feeling that is common to all people in all times. Surely, in the context of love poems, originality must mean putting an old idea in a new light.

Even the modern personal computer was not a new idea when it was developed as a practical product; the idea of a programmable computing machine goes back at least to Charles Babbage in the nineteenth century. And his idea was arguably a ‘mere’ modification of adding machines that have been used for thousands of years. A long history of computing machines has led up to our current Macbook Pros, iPods, and touchscreen tablet PCs; the originality and innovation in the computer industry involves a great deal of modification to existing technology. We create new technologies by borrowing and improving upon existing ones.

But is all originality merely modification or recombination?

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. And he was a fit judge: a genius physicist, his Theory of Relativity caused a paradigm shift in the physical sciences, rewriting our model of the universe. He showed that Newtonian physics was deeply flawed (albeit useful on the scale of the everyday world), a feat that required no small amount of knowledge. But it required no less of him in originality: at the heart of Einstein’s theory is a redefinition of time itself. No one before him had imagined that time and space might be related, that they might be anything but constant.

It requires originality to express old ideas in novel ways, or to transform the idea of an adding machine into that of a Macbook Pro. But sometimes, someone does think a new thought; that kind of originality can change our world radically, well deserving the name we give it: “genius.”

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