From Edison To Apple, Innovation Is Always About Copies And Remixes [Video]

In a smart video series, Kirby Ferguson asserts that cultural breakthroughs are remixes.

How do breakthroughs happen? Despite what you may have been led to believe, they generally don't result from pure genius, divine inspiration, or apple-falling-on-your-head events. According to a wonderful video by Kirby Ferguson, they are the culminations of a process that begins with something we usually treat with scorn: the act of copying. No one starts out an original genius, Ferguson says. Take Bob Dylan, for instance: One wouldn't label him a derivative artist now, and yet his first album contained 11 cover songs.

But in order to create something new, one also has to transform existing inventions. An example: Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb but produced the first commercially viable one — after experimenting with 6,000 different materials for the filament. Rather than isolated events, breakthroughs are part of a continuum of invention by many people.

And things start to get really interesting when inventions are combined to create something greater than the sum of their parts. Here, Ferguson uses the evolution of the personal computer to illustrate how Xerox laid the foundation for Apple's groundbreaking Mac, which merged the idea of a graphic interface, first seen in Xerox's Alta and Star 8010, with the idea of the computer as household appliance. (If pressed for time, toggle to the three-minute mark to skip the intro and go directly to the case study.)

This is the third installment in a four-part series titled "Everything Is a Remix," which explores appropriation throughout culture. Part 4 will be released in the fall. To support the project, go here.

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  • Michael Shamiyeh

    Great video
    on how new things come into being. There is even a scientific explanation on
    why we tend to copy in the first instance and then start to transform or
    combine ideas: Information Good Theory, e.g., by Henrich & White (2001), suggests
    that for the purpose of great cost savings humans are “infocopiers” by default;
    that is to say, humans usually trying first to learn directly from others
    instead of “reinventing the wheel” and only then seeking improvements through individual
    learning.  In assessing and selecting successful
    models of others one reduces variance of failure. Later, after they have
    accumulated their own long-term samples of successful models, they start to
    refine (transform/combine) borrowed models.

  • Matthew Peterson

    Very nice project. Thanks for bringing this to light. It's important to deconstruct big, and pop, creative events so new creatives can see the building process of others. Shame on Led Zeppelin for not respecting copyrights and IP.

  • Bill Ganus

    Thanks for the clips and discussion, but it appears that the donation link at the end of the piece is only linked to the period.  Perhaps linking it to the word "here" would be more accessible?