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.BL