Simultaneous inventions and ideas (and headlines)


In Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, he talks about the phenomenon of simultaneous invention. What tends to happen throughout the history of technological innovation is that several inventors, rather than one, get the same idea or breakthrough at the same time.

The telephone, the television, even the theory of evolution are examples of simultaneous invention we can easily recall.

The myth is that a lone genius comes up with an idea. The truth often seems to more like ideas emerge from human social networks – they come at the moment they are ready. It’s weird.

If ideas are your living – and that’s kind of the case for me – then simultaneous invention is really good reason for blogging. Even though most of my “inventions” amount to little more than a useful insight, a model for planning, a good way of describing something new, it is good to record them, if only for your own sanity so that you can either say “I was thinking of that at the same time” or “I really did think of that first”.

There’s little to gain from this – these ideas are all flow and rarely are important enough to become stock, but it helps if only to be able to defend yourself when someone tells you you are copying.

I was once furious when I saw an analyst at a conference using the exact diagram of a planning model I’d briefed them on a couple of months before – it was blatant plagiarism and just rude because they hadn’t credited me or my firm for the insight. Most of the time, though, it’s just nice to see the ideas that were with you for a while out there and running about being useful. It doesn’t matter that much…

I don’t mind copying, then – most of the time people don’t recall they are doing it and if the provenance of every idea was appended as a link or a footnote to every paper and presentation they would end up looking like a patchwork of references, a palimpsest of thoughts. Which is what, I suppose, they actually are.

It feels like ideas emerge, they aren’t invented. They don’t belong to an individual most of the time. There’s an effect in brainstorms where several people honestly believe the big ida that comes out in the end is theirs (I’m sure Johnnie Moore wrote about this but I can’t find the post). They can’t all be right. Better to relax about ownership and accept that we are always thinking in groups and mostly the ideas belong to those groups.

When we live parts of our lives online, reading others thinking in public, being inside their heads a little every day, then the connections, the history of ideas, their route into the world becomes even more fuzzy.

I don’t know if an idea is mine. Maybe most ideas aren’t. They come like the muse, like Greek idea of the genius, a spirit that lived in the walls of the artist’s studio and visited them occasionally (loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on this idea).

What got me thinking of this were two magazine covers. One was the cover of the Economist with the headline Data Deluge. I’d used that exact phrase in a presentation the week before. I can’t prove it because I didn’t put it online, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or not. It sort of really doesn’t matter…


The other is this month’s Harvard Business Review. I’ve been talking about the need to embrace complexity as part of a strategic point of view I call Networks Thinking, for a while now. And as my blog post called “Embrace Complexity” ranks first in Google for that phrase, I know I’m not going mad…

But then I dig back in Google and there was a CRM magazine that used the headline in 2006. And the phrase has been around since… since forever. What feels like an original insight is an old one just new to me, right for me at that moment.