I often catch myself having discussions about whether we will run out of novel ideas, stutter on never before heard music, or fail to riff intriguingly on words. Have we reached the limits of originality?
I don’t feel so or more truthfully cannot bear the thought we have. One of the triumphs of the human race is our incredible tenacity across multiple avenues to change, produce, create. Every century we take this world and mould it into a seething hotbed of unrecognisable. To many this constant re-invention has negative consequences but let’s focus for now on whether my initial premise has any basis. Has the shelf life date of originality come and gone?
Given thousands of years of sentience, it feels a tough ask if we define originality as being novel or unusual; producing or thinking something that hasn’t been done or thought of before. Let’s put aside how you determine whether a thought is pioneering. On the one hand giant leaps in technological advancement has given us more insightful, iterative, speedier tools to investigate and evidence our theories of the world; delivering practical form to the span of our imagination and allowing us to substantiate prognoses, conclusions…guesses. But an opposing argument is on what basis are we suggesting our minds are any more creative, smarter, or lucid than generations before us? That somehow out of the same source material and the same mental make-up we can birth something never heard, seen, spoken or thought before. Just because we have tools — does not automatically maketh for originality.
Except I feel there is a nuance missing from what I have expressed. Evolved tools found in computer hardware, software, artist paraphernalia, kitchen gadgets…I could go on, having advanced in their delivery have and continue to allow us to penetrate within us the realms of mental, physical and creative we could never access before. And the freedom to explore which although is not equal across the world, is surely more prevalent now with each passing generation? This meandering expanding the human mind, aggravating parts of it we could speculate have not been unleashed previously? Could these whirling changes be the unexplained determinants of originality?
It’s curious. We have plenty of awards for creativity and originality so there are clearly respected people who are of the opinion we can be original across many fields of endeavour. But I think most of us would probably say defining something as original can be fraught with nuance due to our own spheres of operation and knowledge. Perhaps our understanding of originality varies by our own experience or what we are told is original by an expert or perhaps in certain sectors we perceive there is greater opportunity to be original due to the aspects mentioned above. My sense is most of us would maintain that in science there is much latitude to be original but not in the creative states…for example in music making.
And here they’d be wrong.
If you were to attempt to play all the songs that exist, it would take thousands of years to listen to. And it surprised me to learn it would take hundreds of years (at a minimum) before we reached the limits of original music composition. This link explains it much better than I can but it’s essentially about maths and probability. It’s always about maths. (As an aside I have learnt with the ‘birthday problem’ in a group of 23 randomly chosen people, there is a 50% probability at least two will have the same birthday which seems incredibly high….)
I’m not sure I’ve reached a clear conclusion for you. Decrying originality feels morose and suggests we are kidding ourselves if we think we are advancing as a species and then what’s all the striving for? So it’s not a clever or evidenced answer, but I don’t think we have reached the limits of originality in any field. I’m an optimist who believes in our brilliance and our capacity to out think. It doesn’t mean I don’t accept the potency of copying, plagiarism, modifying. In fact those features we could argue are more powerful aspects of our nature than originality — but more on that next time. For now let me be impressed and wallow in the idea of individuality and perhaps in my word smithing, I can live in hope I will eventually deliver a little originality to you.